Steve Morello is a member of the Board of Directors of the Alaska Whale Foundation
As a member of the Board of Directors I recently got the chance to spend a week with the research interns of the Alaskan Whale Foundation. I could not wait. In my mind I had all kinds of visions of what it would be like, whales, whales, and more whales. Well, after the bulk of my time here at the “Center for Coastal Conservation” the headquarters for the team, I felt it important to let you know what the reality of whale research involves. Don’t get me wrong, at times it is as exciting as anyone could imagine and more, but then, there are the times in-between the whale encounters.
The day begins early with everyone scrambling for breakfast, cereal, or maybe a quick version of pancakes made of leftover oatmeal, some seeds of some sort, whatever one can find to fill their bellies and prepare for the cold morning out on the water. Don’t forget to pack a lunch, maybe it will be cold leftovers of last nights meal, or in my case, an American standard of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and some fruit, oh, and maybe a hard boiled egg, and some nuts, or some cookies. It may seem like a lot but you have no idea how hungry counting whales will make you after a few hours on the high seas. Then it’s time to load the boat, refuel the tank, check the instruments, make sure you have all the cameras, the data sheets, and any other equipment needed to collect the samples and data you need for the day. Finally, we are off.
The research needs to be standardized, so instead of simply riding around and looking for whales nilly willy, we head to specific points on the GPS, and do point counts. A point count is where you stop for ten minutes, and count all of the whales you see around you. Most of the time, this number of whales equals none. This does not mean we don’t count whales we see in other places, but most of the day is spent doing point counts on an empty ocean. When we do see a whale, we get into position and try to get images that can give you a positive identification of the individual. That done, we are on to the next. Hey, wait a minute, I thought we would be watching whales, we did, until we got what we needed, then we need to leave these whales and move on to the next. Now, I don’t want to give you the impression there is never anything exciting happening out there, there is, and in the course of a week I will go away with an incredible experience and some remarkable photos, but this experience is made of small snips of excitement and many hours of watching the ocean. It can be long and tedious, and the work involved in studying whales is not just having a good time out in the ocean, and I have not even mentioned the weather.
This is Alaska and we are in a rainforest. That means it rains a lot, and when it does, it is typically cold and miserable to be outside. Our boat is an inflatable Zodiac, about ten feet long with no covered areas to duck into when it is raining. There are normally four of us in it, along with a host of pelican cases of various equipment. When it is raining, and you are sitting in the front, you are constantly barraged by pelting rain, and if the seas are rough, you are barraged while you are tossed up and slammed down as you skip across the ocean. Remember that peanut butter and jelly sandwich I made for lunch? Try eating it in the rain!
After more than eight hours on the water, we are finally ready to head back to the Center for dinner and a good nights rest. It’s after six and the discussion in the boat revolves mostly around our choices for dinner. All kinds of ideas are proposed, chicken, pasta, maybe a homemade pizza, wait, a whale up ahead. Why is it that whales seem to know when you are ready for the day to end. Our departure from the field will have to wait. The whale begins to bubble net, an exciting behavior that they use to gather their food by use of blowing bubbles around the fish in order to condense them into bite size bundles. This is great and the cameras are all clicking away, the spectacle we behold is nothing less than mind-blowing. Coordinates are taken, IDs’ are made, the light is going fast. OK, now we really head for home, albeit pumped from the sight we have just beheld. We make it to the dock and unload all the gear we piled into the boat when we started in the morning. Back at the Center, there are data to be put into computers, photos that need to be cataloged, and OH!, I remember, dinner to be made. Ok everyone, what do you feel like having? Well, it’s kinda late to make something elaborate, someone replies, most of the others agree. Looks like another peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a cup of tea, and then off to bed, ready to begin again the next morning.
Of course, this is not a representation of everyday, but many of them are pretty close. So when you think about the young volunteers, the graduate students doing their field work, and the dedicated staff who’s life seem so exciting, and you think what an incredible opportunity they have to be able to experience such a fantastic life, you are right; but there is so much more to it than the exciting images most of us have in our minds. It’s real work, and the field staff at AWF is an incredible group of people dedicated to the gathering of real knowledge about the whales in the waters of Southeast Alaska, and they are addressing the issues facing whales today. They do it on a shoestring budget, and the students who pass through AWF deserve as much help as we can give them. The week I have spent with them has left me with a determination to double down on my efforts to make sure AWF is always there to support their efforts in research, education, and conservation. I hope you will as well.