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Two weeks in a pinch

I have could never find a good chance to update the blog.  This is most likely due to the fact that I was out at sea for two weeks and no internet connection.  Also might be the fact that I have too much to do and I’m always scrounging around to finish everything.  I hope everyone is getting updates on our travels and experiences through the other blogs though.  We have been through quite a bit these past 2-3 weeks.

We set off on the end of April and headed out to look for the whales.  Todd was a bit late picking us up that day because he had to go out to buy groceries to prepare for our two week departure.  Jason also got a call from the Stranding Network about another Steller sea lion washed up on a beach on Orcas Island.  We ended up departing at a very late time, but two weeks, I was looking forward to it no matter how late we left.  The next day, unexpectedly, J-pod returned to San Juan Islands, after a long period of absence.  Jason heard the update right when we docked on Stuart Island; my heart jolted straight away.  The residents are back!  I was really excited from hearing this, trying to contain myself in the middle of Todd’s sailing lecture.  We did peek our heads out off of Turn Point to see if we could spot them.  We actually did too!  They were pretty widespread, as I could only spot two females surface a couple of times.  We believed them to be foraging around that time, which was 6 pm.  But the next day, they were gone.  No updates left of the residents, which made us sad.  The salmon runs are probably not quite here yet.

The next few days, we did not hear from Orca Network about any updates on the whales’ whereabouts.  We did see quite a number of other marine mammals though, such as harbour seals, dall’s porpoises, and more.  But getting lots of science goals out of the way was really great.  We calibrated our hydrophones, went through a behavior exercise with Jason on the Gatito, had a couple of sailing lectures, wrapped up our final research proposals, and journal club readings.  It was sort of nice that the whales did not come by during this time, because it was indeed crunch time when we had to finish up our proposals.  I can recall I was one of the ones that were sleeping later than usual, with my eyes popping out of their sockets from working on the proposal for hours.  We finally turned it in on Friday, after what I felt was a long process of hard work.

But, before turning the proposal in on Friday, transients!  We were stationed out by Turn Point for almost the entire week, drifting about, waiting for the whales to show up.  It was on May 7 that we finally got to see the whales.  We got the text that there were two transients heading north on San Juan Channel.  Perfect!  We were right north of them, heading south.  In that sense, we immediately headed down towards them, in hopes to catch them on camera and film after not seeing whales for a long period of time.  We motored all the way down towards Orcas and saw several boats off in the horizon.  We thought that they were the whale watching fleet out there, and sure enough, they were.  There must have been over eight of them surrounding the two whales.  It was much more different than the time that Kathryn spotted the whales when we wanted to go to Neah Bay.  We were practically the only ones following them.  This made such a huge difference for us, since we had to tow the hydrophones this time to get recordings and boats kept getting in our way.  It was seriously very frustrating.  But we did get a great recording of what we thought of as a call around 17 minutes into the recording!

Afterwards, we sailed back to Friday Harbor Labs in preparation for the open house that was going to happen.  The open house was an event in the labs where the area is open to the general public.  All the students at the labs get to show off what they have been doing this whole time in the labs and demonstrate what they have learned so far.  I thought that this was a great time for everyone to share their findings and interests to the public, hoping to educate them as well about the science out in the world.  For their service project, Libby and Kathryn went to a walk to spread awareness about the salmon farms at Vancouver Island and Alexandra Morton was going to be there.  She was one of the leaders and since it was during the exact same day as the FHL open house, Nora and I had to take over the entire chore rotations and make sure everyone was attended to during the event.  The open house was a success.  I loved every bit of it: the enthusiastic kids, parents that had loads of questions, and all the FHL folk that came down to take a gander at the Gato Verde.  I really felt my communication skills come out during that day, since several times, Jason and Todd were occupied with another person and I would have to take over along with Nora.  Even better, was the fact that it was such a nice warm day.  During my break, I went over to visit the Zoobots and Kellen’s genomics class to see what they were up to.  I ate some gummi worms while investigating the labs, and learned some pretty neat stuff!  Vincent showed me this hermit crab that had a mutualistic relationship with a sea anemone that lived inside of the shell.  Whenever the hermit crab was fed, the tentacles would pop out, and gather and food.  That is just crazy!  I saw scallops also flip around and swim too, rather quickly I would have to say.  But all in all, it was such a great day.  To top it off, we had internet and stayed another night at the labs.  That meant another night of soda, showers, and comfy rest.

It was then, during the next day, that we saw two transients again.  We crossed the Canadian border and found two whales being followed by about 8 vessels once more.  We were at first very far out so it was difficult to see them.  I had the camera for the first time and it was hard for me to get shots of them since we were facing right towards the sun.  I tried my very best.  This time though, it was much more exciting than the day before.  We got to be able to see them act quite strangely.  For one, they started heading towards a boat and not going away from it.  We thought that there was perhaps a seal or something heading underneath the boat that the orcas were that interested.  But for a solid 10 minutes, it would not leave the vicinity of the boat.  The whales kept bobbing up and down around the Prince of Whales and stayed there for a long time.  They did the exact same thing to Eagle Wing.  What was most memorable was when we saw lots of great splashes and some interaction between the two whales.  And…what was most intriguing was that we thought we saw a bit of pink flash on the surface of the water.  Sea snake perhaps?  We all shouted and exclaimed in excitement over the orcas as they were just a spectacular sight to see, yet again.

I felt as if these two weeks zoomed by so quickly, that I did not even notice.  Time never waits for anyone does it?  But we did accomplish so much, and I have felt that I have grown so much since the very first day of Beam Reach.  I am constantly learning, being the youngest and only teen of the group.  I have a long way to go but I aspire to end with lifetime lessons and exuberant experiences that I can share to my folks back at home.

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First week on water…fantastic

We arrived back on San Juan Islands three days ago.  Looking back, it has been a very interesting week out at sea.  My thoughts are sort of all over the place right now, because a lot certainly has happened this week, all accounted for in Nora’s blog if you were interested.  But I shall share with you my highlights and thoughts about this past week.

I have to say, this is my first time officially boarding a boat and sailing out.  I have only been on ferries and cruises, so I believe it does not count.  On the 42 foot catamaran, Gato Verde, our captain Todd Shuster, welcomed us to the sailing world.  From there, I learned how to navigate, read current maps, tie knots, drive the boat and tack when necessary, learn the names of boat parts, and anything boat related I could think about.  It was quite a bit to handle if you think about it, waking up at 7 every morning and getting right to work.  By the end of the day, we as a group would slouch down on the seats around the laden lamp.  Personally, I felt exhausted after everyday, but that tiredness would always quickly shift to giddiness and excitement.  I’m out on a boat, you know!  I’m actually going to be on this boat, living on it and collecting data on wild orcas, which drives me to continue to work hard.

Speaking of orcas, we saw a couple of them on the first day on the boat, which entirely flipped my mind.  It was in the midst of the chore rotations, that we all jumped when Kathryn yelled, “Whale!”  And what do you know?  There were two groups of transient orcas swimming about to the starboard side.  Immediately, I jumped up, super excited about the orca sightings, feeling like a little kid again.  Todd quickly made a huge U-turn to follow the whales’ path.  From there, I knew that we were not going to make it to Neah Bay, where we were originally planning on going to fix a broken hydrophone.

But I think we all made the best decision in following the whales instead of sticking to our plan.  We chased them for a good six hours, constantly scanning the horizon for their dorsal fins with binoculars, while Nora and Kathryn would share the Beam Reach camera in hopes to ID the whales.  We did get an ID on the male and a female: T87 (approx 1963) and T90B (2006), respectively.  That said, there were a lot more whales than that.  We saw about eight of them total.  It made it really hard to count just because they kept taking longer dives.  I guess that is what people say: transients are more difficult to follow and research since they are they ones that dive deeper and longer.  They also spread out into a smaller amount of individuals per group, making it difficult to trace if they speed on ahead of the boat.

The most memorable things that happened were numerous.  Firstly, a couple of orcas popped up from the water right behind the stern, startling us.  I have to admit, I squealed with delight.  They were so close, perhaps about three meters away from the boat.  Todd shut off the motors instantaneously as we watched them swim by.  I was too shocked and stunned to even lift my camera out to take a photo.  It was absolutely gorgeous to experience a transient this close to us.  Later on in the distance, we could see that the orcas were staying in the same area for a long time, erratically swimming in different directions and diving constantly.  We suspected them to be foraging, or found something to eat perhaps.  There were a ton of seagulls flying about, maybe looking for some meat scraps to pick off of.  What topped it off though, was when, I peered through my binoculars, and one of the orcas performed a spyhop.  Lastly, closer to the afternoon now, when two more whale watching boats joined us, we saw the group of female orcas out in the distance.  They started to perform various surface active behaviors.  They blew a couple of times out of the water, and then they started tail lobbing.  That was really a sight to see, gazing at their tail flukes rising out of the water a couple of times.  We also saw some tail slaps in the water.

That was probably the major highlight of the week.  Other than that, we saw other wildlife as well.  Tufted puffins, seals, river otters, and many seagulls as well.  We have practiced a couple of times in deploying equipment and getting situated with using the sound recording devices.  We now just have to wait for the southern residents to show up.  I am thoroughly excited for the rest of the sea weeks to come.  Who knows what wonders can happen when out in the blue?  We shall keep everyone posted while listening to the live hydrophones in a variety of areas.

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Anticipating departure

There was not much that went on during this week, despite the lectures, advisory meetings, and work time.  It was a week of work, to prepare for the following week which would be our first week in this program out at sea!

We refined majority of our methods this week and figured out any group data that we would be able to collect to ease the process.  We had talks about food consumption and how we can manage what we eat.  I learned that being a meat eater that does not eat responsibly makes a huge impact, such as global warming, to our atmosphere.  Localization of killer whales: now that lecture completely boggled my mind.  Technology is so advanced these days that computers can estimate where a whale is located from a call produced.  Vessel regulations were also gone over in our group discussion, regarding the conservation of southern resident killer whales.  Logistically, this week has been a less stressful one, but there was a lot more information to take in compared to last week’s Steller sea lion incident.

But, I cannot contain my excitement about sailing out of the labs.  It will be a memorable experience to be able to go on a boat to conduct research.  This first week, since the southern resident killer whales will not come up quite yet, we will be learning how to sail.  We did hear some transient killer whales off of the Port Townsend hydrophone network however, so I am anticipating on catching some with my eyes out there.  Sailing has so many components that I have barely touched, since I come from living in a large city.  Boat terms, ocean currents, knots, and other materials will be taught to us.  I feel as though this sailing week will be a good one though, since it is a chance for us to bond in a smaller environment as a group.  We get to work together, socialize, cook and clean together.  That way, we all get to know each other better on a personal level and help each other when needed.

From what I have heard, the Gato Verde, the boat we will be boarding and sailing on, is a 42 foot long catamaran equipped with loads of bunkbeds, bathrooms, a galley, and decks for us to go out and observe nature.  With such a large boat and so few of us, I will find all the upcoming sailing weeks a pleasure!  Similar to what we did on Wednesday cooking granola together at S1, I feel we’ll have so much fun!

Lastly, before I end this blog, I just wanted to mention our Cold Plunge tradition of Beam Reach.  Every year, Beam Reach will require all students to jump into the waters by the dock to experience how cold the water actually is in the Pacific Northwest.  Instructors follow along as well, and other students not in Beam Reach are always welcome to join.  We had some students from the 3 Seas program join us this year and it was really fun.  I finally got to experience the cold waters myself and I have got to say, when people say its cold, IT IS COLD.

Nonetheless, I was awake for the rest of the day.  You should definitely try it out.

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Unexpected Steller aboard

Another week has passed here on the San Juan Islands, and overall, it has been an adventure indeed.

This week, logistically, we went over a lot on statistics, acoustics, and equations that would scramble the neurons in your brain.  I did my best to keep up with the work.  On Monday as I recall, we were able to head down to the dock to collect sound data.  We all had great practice in using the sound equipment, in preparation for our main research projects that are coming up.  Gathering the data was a lot of fun, because we finally got a chance to get hands-on with what we were doing.  We hung a speaker on one side of the dock and kept it there, as we inched our way down the dock with the hydrophone, measuring at different distances.  With the data set we collected, we used what we learned in statistics and sound to start on our dock spreading exercise.

On Tuesday afternoon, we went back to the Lime Kiln Lighthouse to do some cleaning!  It felt very refreshing to just contribute to the status of the lighthouse itself.  I helped Val move the lighthouse antenna to the top of a tall post nearby.  It was a hassle to get through those feisty tree branches, for me and Val had an interesting time maneuvering through the branches with the ladder and our bodies.  Once we got it up there though, we felt really accomplished with our task.  Better yet, before we even got the antenna attached to the pole, Val climbed up the ladder to dismantle the older satellite dish.  And guess what?  It was supposed to come crashing down like we predicted, but those branches supported it. Anticipation of a giant falling satellite dish was ruined.  But the entire afternoon was sort of an adventure already.

But the unexpected granted this week to be really adventurous indeed.  Jason got a call to go pick up a Steller sea lion corpse off on one of the islands.  And he called us to come along.  So on Thursday, we needed out on the Buzzard, a small research vessel, to retrieve the corpse.  It was a semi-windy afternoon when we left.  We found it drifting alongside the shore of Lopez island.  It was the first time I have ever seen such a humongous sea lion this close.  It must have weighed over half a ton.  After a tiresome couple of heaves, we got the humongous sea lion on board.  However, the wind prevented us from going any further out in the open waters and thus, we had to leave it tied to the dock for the night.  Even though we were not able to bring it back that exact moment, we began our trail back to the labs.  The wind eventually grew much stronger, and water began to find its way into the boat.  Because I sat on the front alongside Kathryn to balance the Buzzard, we ended up getting soaked from head to toe.  But the whole journey was filled with nothing but jokes and laughter, even if we were getting pelted to the face by salt water.  The next day, we set our course towards Lopez Island once more to retrieve that sea lion.  This time, the sun was out with the least amount of wind that I have experienced here on the islands.  Once we brought it back after an hour long boat ride, we contacted the people to perform a necropsy on the sea lion.  I have never been so intrigued about anatomy in my life, after seeing a grown male Steller get dissected in front of my eyes.  And to top the morning off, we were taught how to sail by Val in the afternoon!  Nora and I made a couple of 360 degree turns out in the waters as Val and the others laughed.  We figured how to get back to the dock eventually.

We finally finished our research proposals on Thursday and just got them returned an hour ago.  It is soon getting closer and closer to the day when we actually can sail out and do our research!

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Opening week to the San Juan Islands

A week has gone by since I first set foot on the San Juan Islands.  Coming from San Francisco, my body has not fully assimilated to the colder temperatures here up in the northwest.  Arriving via the ferry from Anacortes, this is my first time on the San Juan Islands.  My very first impression of the Friday Harbor Labs was a good one.  There was this sense of a small family community here, much like my old high school back two years ago.  It is very different from being in a large lecture hall filled with nothing but hundreds of students.  This year in Beam Reach’s spring 2010 program, including myself, there are only four students.  I feel this is a great opportunity for us to get to know all the instructors one-on-one, enabling a much more in depth relationship towards each other.  Personally, I think a small teaching environment is very rigorous and demanding, but yet again, the experience grants one more friends, support, and encouragement to do better.

On the first week, we were able to learn a lot of the basics of acoustics and how sound works.  I learned a lot of new things that I have never been taught before, and things were revisited that I should have remembered back long ago.  Being the youngest one of the Beam Reach group and a second year undergraduate at UC Davis, I have never had much experience in dealing with loads of reading on a “close to graduate level” expectation level.  The first week dealt with plenty of article reading that we discussed later on during the days in class.  The discussions went well, delving into topics about the southern resident killer whales’ endangerment status, to the influences of boat noises underwater.  Our instructors, Dr. Jason Wood, Dr. Val Veirs, and Dr. Scott Veirs, provided us with a general background to the southern resident killer whales’ world in the northwest.  Acoustics, involving graphs, physics, and noise, really blew my mind.  Even though it might take a while for me to personally adjust to this hard-working environment, I will try my best to keep up with the pace.  Moreover, I would love to take the lead sometimes in the group and help others out as I anticipate the amount of help I shall receive.

We visited the Lime Kiln Lighthouse on the second day of the week, where we formulated our five initial questions to help narrow our thoughts to a potential research question that we will be answering over the course of these ten weeks.  From the photo, the lighthouse can be seen with my two fellow classmates in the background, Kathryn and Nora.  When the weather permitted, we strolled by the docks.

But the most interesting place that we went to was indeed the Whale Museum in town.  Walking there took about half an hour, but that time was worth it.  Although small, I felt that this museum really emphasized that sense of specification with the southern killer whales and other marine species in this particular northwest area.  The exhibits really portrayed what are affecting the species and how we can protect them.  One exhibit that really stuck out to me though, was the acoustic exhibit, created by Dr. Val Veirs himself.  I thought that this exhibit can give the public a general idea of the effects of fluctuating noise levels in the ocean that can cause an irritation to the killer whales.  I had so much fun twiddling around with the different sounds and buttons on the dashboard, quizzing myself to the various calls of the southern resident killer whales out there.

Weather was decent the first week, with much sun, with a gale on Friday and Saturday. :]

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