Archive for September, 2007

Week 3 on the boat and evaluations: official, off the record, of the program and personal

I’m writing this blog entry on my laptop at 6:45 PM, planning to post it when I get back to land tomorrow, which I have to admit is an event I have been looking forward to almost ever since getting onto the boat last Sunday. This was a pretty terrible week for me. The weather has become much colder and the seas have been a lot rougher. We did a good deal of sailing, which got me feeling pretty sick a couple of times. Today was the wildest day but I was not as bad as I was yesterday, maybe because it wasn’t necessary to be outside as much. Yesterday I felt so terrible, both physically sick as well as emotionally shattered that I took Ash up on her advice and went to lie down for half an hour, something that I am usually very nervous and reluctant about doing. Today I took my turn at the helm for a while, during which time I peaked at about 8.4 knots and Todd announced that I had broken the record for electricity generation, at 10.1 amps, which made me feel somewhat better about my general ineptitude this week. I think I regressed in pretty much every way that I had started to improve during my second week, and the fourth week is looming in a very threatening way; Val, Scott and Todd keep warning us that these sorts of conditions will be typical, which scares me because I just cannot function well when the weather is like this, and as much as I try I feel so powerless and inadequate.
And we (especially I) really NEED the fourth boat week because in terms of data collection we’ve not done very well this week at all. I’d say that yesterday was really our one data-day of any real substance, when we were chasing whales literally from morning till night, with some great vocalization recordings and photographs to show for it. But for me personally this was almost a lost week; I got no boat noise recordings at all. I had been hoping to switch my focus from individual boats to cumulative vessel noise at this point but there were so few boats on the days that we deployed that it was pointless to do so. There were a couple of instances at which we had really loud tankers thousands of meters away, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to use those, but that wasn’t even what I was looking for. From another angle, let’s face it, as far as policy, it’s a pretty long shot that we could try to get tankers to install quieter engine technologies; I think they’re even exempt from some regulations. Of course the huge shipping industry and the industries that use them (like petroleum) gets off easy, money talks! But anyway, venting about environmental injustice aside, as I was saying, this was a lost data week for me. We did some sound propagation tests on Tuesday, but when I tried to use the files from the orange box, and then from the blue box, to come up with a transmission loss rate, the numbers were a mess. Val helped me see that if I looked at the second number and the last number, the rate was almost perfect, -19.2 (with the theoretical ideal of -20). But I quickly pointed out, those are just two points! That’s not reliable! And Val jokingly called me a pill and said I should be excited about it, but then later admitted that I was right, that if the points between caused problems the test would have to be redone. I mean, that’s something that CAN theoretically be left to the last week because it’s just one number and I can calculate the source level with a stand-in for now, but I’d just really like to know what the REAL source levels are! (Also, what if my retest still stinks? Then what?) My lack of patience and non-stop worrying clearly make me better-suited for policy rather than scientific research. On the bright side (a very small one) Sam has been able to localize some calls, and the calls from yesterday really seem like they’ll be localizable (not a word, I know), so I can at least start working on orca source power density levels this week. Val teased me with the glass half-empty, glass half-full cliché. I’m not usually such a pessimist, but in science I definitely am, and have been every other time that I’ve worked in science research. Another reason science is not the right field for me.
In other interesting news, we had Scott on the boat with us starting Wednesday, we skipped the whale museum talk on Wednesday in favor of dinner at FHL (which was really nice because we got 6 full hours on land and showers to boot), and this was our week of program/peer evaluations as well as our preliminary sailing assessments. Val had to leave yesterday for a personal engagement and Scott has been filling in for him. He brought the program evaluations aboard, and it was supposed to be anonymous but I handed mine in first, so my identity was hardly a secret. I just hope that my comments will be considered helpful and that nothing was taken offensively. My peer evaluations, as it turned out, I had to redo when I learned that my actual comments would be read by the people they were written for. I didn’t write anything awful, but there are different ways of conveying opinions, and my initial form of expression was not what I would have wanted read. I think that you just instinctively try to use more tact when you speak directly to a person, and let’s face it, anonymous? We all have unique ways of speaking so I’ll be able to guess pretty well who says what about me, as others could guess which comments were mine. I really don’t like the fact that we’re seeing what we wrote about each other, I feel like the self-censorship for tact is not the most effective way of getting honest assessments across.
Earlier this week we had Dr. Marla Holt with us. She was very helpful to some of us, including me, she gave me some good feedback on the Erbe paper I’ve been reading a lot and she helped point me in the direction of key concepts. More generally she was also very good to talk to about graduate school admissions, taking time off beforehand, etc. I also talked to Shannon a lot this week about related questions, and particularly about her evaluation of the Beam Reach program itself and how it’s been run. The truth is that after 6 weeks here, I can honestly say that I probably wouldn’t have applied if I knew beforehand everything how everything would actually turn out. Now that I’m here I’m focused on doing as well as I can, but I’m not sure if this was an appropriate decision for me because I’m not planning to go into marine science, or even specifically marine policy, and I never had any interest in sailing, and for everyone else at least one if not both of these elements was a major point. There are other strong positives about this program that I can appreciate. I just wonder if I might not have been able to better use my time these 10 weeks otherwise. Then again, I’ve done a lot of thinking and living and the experiences I’ve had already have really helped me focus my future plans. At the end of the day, I came here planning to make the best of the opportunity that I could, and that is something that I am still able to do and am striving towards. Whether positive or negative, the program has really highlighted a lot of my weaknesses, my strengths don’t seem to help me much here. On the one hand this can help to focus me further, on the other…some of my limitations make me feel kind of helpless and almost dysfunctional. They are certainly hurting my overall performance in Beam Reach.
This has been a long and rather chaotic entry (more reflective of my thought process than of any attempt at organization). I apologize if this has caused any frustration or confusion for anyone who may have read it.

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Rainy Roche changeover

Sunday, September 30, 2007


We woke up at Garrison Bay to a drizzly, windy, grey morning.  After breakfast, we lifted anchor and headed over to Roche for the changeover, while we completed our chores.  At Roche, we cleaned the boat, finalized data entry onto the boat’s hard drive, and packed up.  We had a quick, early lunch before the other group arrived.  While the instructors met, the students discussed data collection and potential overlap in projects.  Then, Scott and Jason led a discussion on transportation and sustainability.  Afterwards, Val’s group headed back to the labs while Jason’s group got dinner ready.  We pulled away from the docks at Roche before 1800 and anchored out in the harbor.  Shannon and Jason read proposals, while Kenna, Elise and Liz read the chosen article for this weeks journal club.  Wes continued to localize calls and analyze data, and Heather caught up on some rest.

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Oil and swell don't go well

Saturday, September 29, 2007

We woke up at Snug Harbor to oatmeal for breakfast and a full holding tank to pump out.  After chores and cooling the fridge, we headed to Roche where we emptied the holding tank, topped off the water tank, stocked up on a few essential items (i.e. cocoa), got our espresso fixes, and posted postcards to lucky, lucky recipients.  We had our voyage planning in the cockpit as we left Roche.  Anne informed us that we were under a gale warning for the weekend, with winds predicted up to 30 knots.  A superpod was reported southwest of Victoria heading west, so the group decided to motor sail south for a few hours and see what the weather and whales were doing after lunch.  Alex and Anne prepared quesadillas for lunch and heated up leftover stew from last night.  Before 1400, the wind had picked up and the pager informed us that they weren’t going to be sending out anymore messages.  After a few unsuccessful phone calls to try to find out more about whale whereabouts, the group decided that whales weren’t happening today and the seas weren’t suited for studying.  We turned around and headed back to Garrison Bay to take shelter from the storm.  Anne and Tim did some dinghy driving training, Alex plotted a graph of VATO’s water usage, and Ash caught up with the pager data.  Todd passed out the sail assessment test, Scott planned our Sunday turnover, and Shannon wrote this.  As the students tried to catch up on entering data, Scott and Shannon prepared chili and cornbread with cheese and sour cream on the side, because as Tim declared earlier today, “oil and swell don’t go well.”

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Wild wind & water work

It’s a rare and exhilarating experience to lie at anchor with steady 35 knot winds howling through the rigging. Gato Verde is galloping on her anchor bridle tonight. Each gust makes the whole boat shudder. Last night the aerial soundscape was geese honking, great blue herons squawking, and tiny fish leaping. Tonight it is all elemental: moaning and whistling of wind over wire, lapping waves, rattling ports, and the creaking of a thousand stowed items jostled by the boats vibrations.

Today was a windy day, with the orcas lingering in the Strait of Juan de Fuca — just beyond our listening range. We made an effort to be at the right place at the right time, but didn’t get lucky like yesterday. Instead, we had a lot of good sailing and even managed to generate some electricity by using the props to slow ourselves down as we ran with the wind.

Alex holds the record for generating a peak current of 10.6 amps at 52 volts on a single motor! That’s a peak power generation of about 500 watts. I was thinking about how to put that in perspective this evening at anchor. Normally, I say use incandescent light bulbs (100W say) or toasters (1kW) and hair dryers (2kW) as references.

But I want to make an intuitive, tangible connection between food (which powers us) and green power on the Gato Verde, like wind/water power. Luckily, as Anne prepared ocean algae pudding (wonderfully accurate texture), Ash mentioned that sugar has an energy density of 16.5 kJ/g. My Treo informs me that chocolate packs 18.5 MJ/kg, while biodiesel offers 41.2 MJ/kg.

Since a watt is just a rate of energy flow equivalent to joules/second, Alex was generating 500 J/s. To get an equivalent supply rate of energy, you could eat 2.7 g of chocolate in 100 seconds, or burn 1.2 g of biodiesel in 100 seconds.

I also like to mention Greg Lemond on a hill climb in the Tour du France as one of the few humans who can generate 700W for extended periods. At rest, humans need about 100W to keep warm and happy. That range is confirmed by the NOLS Cookery book on board that says easy going sailors in warm climates should eat 2500 kcal per day and active, cold weather sailors should eat more like 5000 kcal (5000 “food” Calories). Averaged over 24 hours (86,400 seconds) and knowing there are 3.8 J/calorie, the NOLS rations are meant to supply 110 – 220 watts. This implies that it would take 2-4 of us well-fed humans pulling pretty hard to match the power of the wind.

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Whale soup

Orcas resting at sunset

Friday, September 28, 2007

We woke up at Snug harbor and Leslie rang to tell us that she could hear the whales off Lime Kiln, so we lifted anchor right after breakfast and put off our morning chores until later. We spent most of the morning chasing the whales—writing down pager information, listening to the radio, and making phone calls to try to figure out which way they were headed.

Shannon and Ash heated up left over lasagna and bread pudding for lunch, as we made our way to Hein Bank, where there were reports of J, K, and L pods. We deployed the hydrophone array and the high frequency hydrophone and began our recording attempts for the day. We switched direction a number of times, alternating between pure sailing and motor sailing, as we tried to record calls, clicks, and whistles of individuals. A rope got momentarily wrapped around the starboard prop, as Scott and Tim were trying to deploy the high frequency. We sailed back to the west coast of San Juan Island and were going to head back to Snug Harbor early, when we saw J1 and a couple of other whales. Shelmar, a research vessel collecting the breath of killer whales with petri dishes suction cupped to a 24 ft pole in order to analyze bacteria, was also there. Tim took advantage of the opportunity to deploy a buoy and record drive-by’s, but the clicks and calls of nearby whales drowned out their jet engines. So, Anne once again attempted to deploy the hydrophone array vertically. A tanker was passing by, so we aren’t sure what the sound files will look like. Just as we were getting ready to call it a day, a large number of whales resting and slowly traveling in a line through the sunset approached us, followed afterwards by a lone minke whale. We finally pulled back into Snug about 8 pm after traveling over 37 miles today.

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Wandering whales

What a classic field day. Leslie relayed news that she was hearing calls early in the day. But as we caught up with them, muliple factors conspired to deny us high-quality data (in the way they often do in field research). First we would be near a whale, but it wouldn’t be vocalizing. Then a noisy ship would approach as the orcas started to call. When the ship would pass and the calls would be frequent, the wind would rise, blow us down wind, and cause the cables to “thrum.” We’d trouble shoot the flow noise and be ready to record, when the waves would build extremely. Suddenly, enforcement agents (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife) would swing over to ask us some questions — distracting us from our quarry.

It was a very long day, but in the end we all gained some new insights. We were lucky the killer whales turned back when it seemed they were headed out to the big ocean! And then we were treated to the near-silent underwater noise from Bob McLaughlin’s jet-drive powered boat, quite a few nice calls and clicks, and stunning silhouettes of a resting (quiet) pod traveling up Haro Strait on the flood tide.

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Mid-program reflections

Today I began my second week with the fall 2007 Beam Reach class. It feels like a real privilege for this dad to again have a chance to go to sea, particularly with this group, these technologies, and the winds building for good sailing as October looms. The killer whales have been doing some exciting things this week — superpods and ceremonies — and with luck we’ll have another chance to listen to them and the boats in their environment.

My main goal this week is to give everyone a few opportunities to reflect on the program, teachers, and students and provide some feedback. With some guidance, we can improve the next 4-5 weeks, as well as future programs. I’ll also try help everyone acquire, manage, and process their data.

The highlights today were marveling at the challenge of planning a day of field work and the calming beauty of a sunset seascape. Ash, Alex, Anne, Tim and Sam did a valiant job of deciding what to do when J+K pod headed up toward the Fraser and L pod evanesced along the southwest side of San Juan Island. With a foreboding forecast (30 knots out of the west), substantial tides changing direction at mid-day, and the lure of novel anchorages, it was tough call. But we ultimately headed south and nearly overlapped with L pod.

The reprieves were some fun sailing, the sunset, lasagna, and the prospect of an evening spent sifting through the GREAT data we have already acquired. The pace is always blistering up here, but the challenges are refreshing and the insights come fast.

It was a treat today to read in Fred Felleman’s thesis that the southern residents “change their direction of travel within an hour of slack current 7 times more frequently than would be expected by chance,” and to then observe L-pod head north against the ebb in the morning (max ~8am), north as the flow reversed ~2pm, and then (within an hour!) south as the flood current strengthened. There is clearly more work to be done on what guides their behavior and how the fish in Haro Strait react to the local oceanography. In fact, looking at the pager record, it seems that there are data for examining at least the relationship between orca travel direction and the local currents.

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North, south, then north again

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tim cooked potatoes for breakfast and as we were starting our morning chores, we headed to Roche to pump out our holding tank and fill up our water tank. We picked up a few essentials (including chocolate chips) and discussed voyage planning for the channel. J and K pods were up north, so we started heading out past Spieden Island, heading towards Flattop Island. But then, we began receiving pages informing us that L pod was heading north up the coast of San Juan Island. L pod seemed more attainable, so we turned around and headed back south. The winds and the seas were picking up considerably. Val and Ash made bean burritos and heated up the last of the stir fry for lunch. After lunch, Sam and Anne worked on the set up for deploying the array and Anne and Tim worked on the high frequency. The students took turns sailing as we made our way south. Unfortunately, L pod switched direction and began heading south as well. Late in the afternoon, we switched direction one more time and headed back into Snug Harbor for the night, where we sat down to lasagna and Greek salad prepared by Scott, Sam, and Shannon.

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Friday Harbor Lab Dinner

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Shannon woke up early again for a direly needed morning stroll and returned in time to prepare breakfast with Val and Anne. After breakfast and chores at Prevost, we sat down to voyage planning and goals for the day. The superpod was resting south of Vancouver Island, so Todd went over parts of the boat and points of sail. Sam and Tim heated up stir-fry leftovers and cream of potato soup for lunch, as Marla, Anne and
Shannon replicated the sound propagation experiments from yesterday with Val and his speaker playing calls and clips from the dinghy. We pulled into Snug Harbor and unloaded Marla’s gear onto the dock before anchoring. Val’s wife, Leslie drove Marla to Roche to pick up her car after Sam and Anne had their last chances to pick Marla’s brain. Jason picked us up at 3:30 and we headed to the Friday Harbor Labs to meet with the other group and discuss data collection and science narrative protocols. We also took the opportunity to grab quick showers, try to catch up on email and make a few rushed phone calls. Afterwards, we sat down to dinner and learned what the visiting scientists at the labs and their apprentices will be studying during their time in the San Juan Islands. There were some particularly interesting research projects on fiddler crabs and worms. After dinner, we headed back to Snug Harbor for the night and to dream of superpod sightings for tomorrow.

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Sound propagation and drive-by's

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Shannon and Tim woke up early to go for a morning hike before breakfast and returned just in time for oatmeal. After chores and a never-ending deck wash, we used the mechanical pump out at Reid Harbor before heading out. Conditions were calm and skies were clear, so we set up an experiment to measure sound propagation. We deployed our high frequency hydrophone and array, and Marla deployed her array as well. Val and Tim boarded the dinghy with a speaker while Anne, Sam, Ashleigh, and Marla recorded the calls and clicks played. Shannon gave the distance between the dinghy and Gato Verdeusing the range finder and Alex and Todd held the hydrophones away from the boat’s hull as they were pushed by the current. After recording both calls and clicks at a range of distances (approximately 25 m to 300 m), a number of dinghy drive-bys were recorded with the high frequency hydrophone. Alex heated up the eggplant parmesan, while Shannon prepared egg salad for lunch. After lunch, Val recorded the speed of sound (1484.55 m/s), the students analyzed their data, and Shannon wrote this. Data analysis continued into the late afternoon, as Tim and Anne tried to troubleshoot the high frequency hydrophone. As the sun was beginning to hang low in the horizon, Val and Sam boarded the dinghy for more drive-bys. Anne set up the high frequency hydrophone with the boat hook as an outrigger, Tim recorded the data, and Shannon perfected her range-finding abilities. We said goodbye to a lone male elephant seal and headed for Prevost Harbor on Stuart Island for the night as Anne was preparing veggie and tofu stir-fry.

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