My new life

I spoke with my mom last night for the first time since arriving on the island (minus the imperative ‘yes Mom, I made it and I’m alive’ calls) and her first question was, “So how’s your new life?” After just about a week here on San Juan Island as part of the Beam Reach program, I’m ready to answer that question.

I arrived last Sunday quite exhausted after a whirlwind of a summer and hit the ground running. Monday we spent the day at Lime Kiln Park, one of the best onshore areas in which to view the killer whales that forage along the west coast of San Juan Islands-no whales though, just a few harbor seals, porpoises, and an introduction to the hydrophone system set up at the lighthouse. The rest of Monday and Tuesday were filled with numerous orientations to the Friday Harbor Laboratories and Beam Reach. Wednesday the introductions continued with Dr. Val Veirs, some of his research, his equipment, and his lovely home. While devouring scrumptious homemade muffins by Leslie Veirs, we listened to Fred Felleman, an island local, past killer whale researcher, and adamant whale activist. As the week progressed we focused a bit more on academics, covering concepts of acoustics, resident foraging strategies and prey types, the SoundWatch program, Donna’s research on spatial patterns in southern residents and Jason’s research on African Elephants. From this new information and our own independent research, we’ve all finally decided on a direction for our own research projects.

My priorities for the project were to develop a feasible proposal, incorporate some form of behavior related to the southern residents’ complex and stable social structure, and learn a new technical skill in marine mammal research. After throwing around an number of viable ideas, I’ve decided to compare the unique and stereotyped pulsed calls and tonal whistles to the surface behavior and group spread of the southern residents. In dolphins, whistles are predominantly used in long-range communication to facilitate group cohesion whereas in the northern residents whistles are used in close-range social contact. I’m hoping to be able to detect a difference in call type with respect to behavior.

This weekend we are responsible for developing a rough draft for our proposed projects. Last night we took a break and watched The Merchant of Venice production by the local Shakespearean troupe, and I’ve worked on it a bit today, but also took the opportunity to enjoy the glorious weather and walk into the town of Friday Harbor to pay a visit to the Whale Museum, the local ice cream parlor, and a few little shops along the water. Maybe this evening I’ll take a run along the fire trail and settle down to watch a movie with my classmates.

So this is my new life, living in Friday Harbor, learning the ins and outs of the southern resident killer whales, acoustics, and the Beam Reach program. The next two weeks will be similar-a few classes on research methods and statistics, more introductions to other researchers and organizations on the island, and further development of our research proposals…wish me luck!


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