Author Archive

5-22-08 post

Well, I never thought I would say this in my life, but….I hope the whales don’t come around today. I know, I know, who do I think I am, have I gone insane, etc. BUT THERE IS SO MUCH DATA TO ANALYZE!!! All I’m asking for is one day to catch up on all this data, first because there just won’t be enough time in the last week to analyze everything I’ve got, and second because it would be good to know if something isn’t working, or needs to be adjusted. Also to see if the data so far indicates whether TTS might be occurring or not-I really want to know!
Though data is beginning to pile up, quickly, the process isn’t going nearly as smoothly as I thought, or had hoped. I guess that’s the point of this program: a little reality kick on how research on wild animals….wild endangered animals, goes.  The reality of working with these animals is that you work with what you’ve got.  Meaning that I unfortunately have to compare amplitudes of S1 calls from different days instead of the same before/after exposure periods of the same ship, exposure period end is determined on a per case basis instead of a regimented, consistent stopping point applicable to each session, etc.  However, with some slight detours from what I had hoped to do, I am still getting valuable data which will give me something to say in the end, one way or another.  Below is a spectrogram of an S1 call taken from J-pod on 5-15-08:


Alas…it looks like J-pod stuck around and we’re off to go find them. Definitely excited but a slight bit of anxiety is starting to set in!

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first sailing component

Since the last entry, nearly two whole weeks of sailing have gone by! Unfortunately, I am posting a blog because the engine is out of commission for the next couple days as salt water got sucked into it through the air intakes; until it gets fixed, we sit here at Roche Harbor amongst the fancy yachts with terrible names such as the Victoria’s Other Seacret, Neverland, and La Sea. There is one perk, however…well, two, the first being that there are coin-operated showers!! Big deal here on the Gato Verde where freshwater is in high demand and short supply, especially hot water which is contingent on the engine running-this is further hard to come by on a vessel which primarily propels itself by harnessing wind power. Number two perk: the vessel thoughtfully broke down in a time where the whales seem to have disappeared. I should be used to no-sighting events like these occurring and certainly should have learned by now to never get my hopes too high-but it’s hard!!  I guess what I have learned is that I will inevitably get excited beyond the point of healthy when it comes to whale sightings.  I am starting to worry about when they will return in order to start gathering data. While I am starting to become more and more confident that I will be more useful and productive on the policy end of ocean/marine mammal conservation, I am also finding it more and more vital to have participated in the research process first in order to most effect conservation. For this to happen I need those orcas!!
On the other hand, sailing in the absence of whales has been simply amazing and has passed the time quite quickly. When they do finally decide to grace us with their presence, we will be super sailors handling those lines and sails like pros. My favorite part of the day has been raising the main sail. It’s getting the point where the captain has altered his offer to raise the sail to “does anybody BUT Dominique want to raise the main sail?” Sometime soon though, he promised I’ll get to do it by myself!
With so few people on the boat, I’ve been able to frequently participate in most every sail task, resulting in a much better understanding of wind and wave dynamics, how sails should be set in response to such dynamics, and how to manage the sails and lines in different conditions and situations. My second favorite part of the day is the navigation duty. This job requires one to listen to the VHF radio in order to gather local marine weather forecasts, check tides and currents and their forces as well as list any navigational hazards we might encounter. From this gleaned information the navigator must pick a destination which suits the tides and weather conditions and figure out how long it will take to get there. Fun! Finally, my third favorite part of the day is bedtime. Being out in the elements, which are always quite numbingly cold, combined with moving about and maintaining balance on a boat for 11-12 hours is really tiring! The gentle rocking of the boat only makes it more difficult not to simply lay back and be lulled to sleep. I have never before gone to bed at 10pm for more than one or two nights in a row! I haven’t even been able to finish my book as 10 pages per night are all I can muster before crashing, despite the cold.
Overall everything is going well as there is never a shortage of things to do, both sailing related as well as practice-data collection and analysis related. My inevitable inability to stay warm hasn’t even been able to sour the experience! The scenery is beautiful and my pictures folder on the computer is filling exponentially by day with shots of the landscape, sailing, classmates, and organisms we’ve encountered so far. Surprisingly, though, I’m finding I miss northern New England and even Maine, much to the satisfaction and “told you so” of some in particular.

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week 2

Into the third week already. I just returned from the commons where most every student here at Friday Harbor Labs got together to watch Finding Nemo; last week it was the Blue Planet series, deep ocean episode. So far it’s been great being surrounded by so many other students excited about marine biology. Though we only see each other at meals in the dining hall, the occasional dance party and the organized movie nights, we’ve been getting along great. It’s really rather refreshing to be part of a conversation where I can openly discuss my fascination with oceanography without an awkward silence following, or hear someone else exclaim their love for seaweed and everyone else chimes in with “me too!”, or “whoa, that IS cool”. It’s great sitting around a table where lame jokes and puns are about invertebrates or marine megefauna instead of the typical crude topics which often come up in non-marine bio dork social circles. I’m surrounded by people who are obsessed with microscopic marine worms! Not my forte, but still cool. The other students here are really a great crowd and the added company has really helped the social dynamics of the small Beam Reach class remain comfortable. The only downfall: my interesting facts are always followed by “I knew that already” instead of “wow, great random fact”. Oh, also, another major downfall–I have competition in the intertidal to collect cool shells!

Our days have been packed with lectures all morning, pertaining to topics ranging from sound propagation through water, detecting sound, calculating the speed of sound, critical ratios, salmon life history and whale watching guidelines to sound spreading and statistical programs and tests. We also………….WENT ON A WHALE WATCH! J-pod was hanging out at the mouth of the strait, moving slowly enough and surfacing often enough to allow me to begin identifying them individually-I now know Ruffles (J-1), Granny (J-2), Mike (J-26), and Blackberry (J-27)-he’s my favorite! I can also check stellar sea lions off my list of must-sees-before-I-die.

The afternoons have been proposal writing. Unfortunately, I only established a question that was both feasible AND exciting the day before the proposals were due. On the other hand-so relieved to finally have a research question! I will be addressing temporary threshold shifts (TTS) in the southern resident killer whales (SRKW) in Haro Strait and neighboring waters. After reviewing the primary literature, whale watch traffic does not seem likely to be causing TTSs in SRKWs, however, container ships as well as oil rigs that pass by, emitting low frequency sounds for extended periods of time, do have great potential to cause such damage. Further investigation into the literature, combining various authors’ findings, lead me to believe that if the southern residents are, in fact, experiencing TTSs, then it is likely that if SRKWs continue to experience the same sound levels over the next 10-15 years, they could experience permanent threshold shifts. Slightly important to know for such an acoustically active species. I’m not sure exactly how I am going to demonstrate this yet, but I’m sure it’s complicated, involves way more math than I’m comfortable with, and will cause me to question what I got myself into multiple times along the way-BUT, it is something I’m really interested in looking into and the management implications are too great to divert to an easier question.

On a lighter note, this past weekend was great! The class drove up to Vancouver, BC, for a marine mammal conference, student chapter. While I was hoping to meet professors and network with potential graduate profs, figure out my future, etc., listening to what grad students themselves were studying was just as useful. Hearing and seeing where I hope to be within the next couple years was extremely helpful in gauging what to realistically expect. It was also a very reassuring experience after being able to speak with many of the students; I approached many of them with questions such as what kind of experience they had prior to grad school and I was surprised to find that my own progress is right on track with successful students’ in positions and schools that I hope to be in as well. Many had worked on whale watch boats as naturalists, researchers, or deckhands and had also spent lots of time working on boats. I was also slightly surprised that many students were addressing marine mammal science from a conservation perspective, but aspects of such a perspective that didn’t seem to be the most important research questions needed answered to truly get at the core of their protection. Further, none of them really had answers as to why it is important to protect marine mammals in the first place beyond my own answer: because I like them-a question I’ve been thinking about for the past couple years.

Vancouver aside from the conference was also fun. Great food and a beautiful city! Skyscrapers, snow-peaked mountains-everywhere-the ocean, cherry trees, and a sunset, all in one picture shot! After our teachers retired to the hostel, the rest of us finished our card game of Egyptian Rat Screw (of which I remain the undefeated champion…) on the beach and headed into downtown to explore. We ended up at an arcade where I had my first dance dance revolution experience. It wasn’t all that. Perhaps because it is not one of my strongest skills but hey, I’ll take Egyptian Rat Screw over DDR. Soon after, Laura and I were ready to go find the next cool place and were met with yawns by the rest of the crowd so we shoved them in the direction of the hostel and went in search of live music-we were successful! We found a blues bar with a live band playing old songs and classics. We were too tired to dance with the rest of the crowd so we sat and watched…by the speakers. I may have experienced a TTS. We ended our stay in Vancouver with a bang at the Vancouver Aquirium where we were introduced to the data collection techniques, tools and subjects-stellar sea lions! So far this experience has been great: new places, new animals, new people, new concepts, new music, new outlooks, and learning something new every day–as someone said at the conference: “change is a constant”

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Well, Friday Harbor is gorgeous-similar to Bar Harbor, though, as many people have eluded to, the mountains here are truly impressive and rather dwarf the entire northeast. Being so close to the water here on campus is also a huge perk-certainly one that I could never take for granted. The campus is apparently home to lots of different creatures which unabashedly wander past Laura, Lindsay, and my duplex-like river otters! Despite their local reputation, I find them adorable.

The program itself has proven to be well worth the loans and the scrambling for extra money so far. First of all because we saw orcas from J-pod on the second day here!!! That event pretty much cleared up any qualms I may have had-ever. Second, the opportunity to examine orcas from a new perspective-acoustics-is very exciting. Thus far I have observed whales and their behaviors at the surface, and as exciting as that has been, I’ve only been privy to an extremely small percent of their lives; a weighty “but what happens now” questioning has always persisted in the back of my mind as the whales dove out of sight. This experience allows for the opportunity to scratch the surface of that question via acoustics…which are more complicated than I had hoped by the way. My complete lack of prior experience in this area of marine science has left me slightly intimidated to be perfectly honest, but also excited to gain a new perspective and hopefully acquire new as well as improved skills.
The next step is to establish my research question. While I have many, feasibility has become quite the issue. I am most motivated to examine a topic whose results can have management implications, as southern residents are endangered, or at least serve as a starting point for others more invested in killer whale conservation. Essentially…I want to shed some light on an aspect of killer whale life history which can be used, ideally to establish management regulations somewhere in the near future. While this may be naive and too far-reaching for a 10-week study by a beginner acoustician, I can’t see my motivations straying much.
Finally, I’m excited for this program as it has great potential to answer many “life questions”, you know, provide some of that clarity stuff-if anything prove where my expertise lie, or not as the case may be, as well as let me check off a bunch of things on my list of “things to do before I die.”

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