The Alaska Whale Foundation’s Rapunzel Project: Saying Good-Bye to the Lighthouse

It has now been 4 weeks since I departed for the Five Finger Lighthouse in Southeast Alaska. The time has gone by rapidly and the experience has been nothing short of extraordinary.

Tomorrow I will be heading back to Petersburg and leaving the Lighthouse behind. We have spent the last few days finishing some sampling and cataloguing sounds. We have taken it upon ourselves to name each sound, with names varying from words like “thwop” and “raindrop.” We have all been huddled around the table with headphones on and hot chocolate in our mugs while listening to whales. We were also fortunate to see another small pod of Killer whales swim past the lighthouse. A group of nearby Sea Lions panicked and we were able to watch them porpoise through the air as they swam for their lives. The Sea Lions were lucky enough to make to it a Kelp Bed and wait for the Killer whales to pass. On yet another high note, a group of native Alaskans stopped by our island and took a short tour through the Lighthouse. This small group of Alaskans also happened to drop off two entire Alaskan King Crabs that they had caught earlier that day. The two crabs, valued at about 500 dollars, made for an incredible closing feast.

I would also like to mention the other interns that I have befriended and shared this experience with. They are Norma, Nicole, and Kate. Norma is currently a graduate student at Oregon State University and she primarily studies Pinnipeds. Nicole is a recent graduate from Boston University and majored in Biology. Kate is a rising senior at Eckerd College in Florida and studies Marine Science. Michelle, our Project Leader, is directing this project in tandem with the Alaska Whale Foundation as part of her master thesis. Michelle is the one who made everything possible, and for that I will always be grateful. They are all incredible people who I am happy to call my friends, and even my colleagues.

It is a funny feeling to be leaving the lighthouse so soon. I feel like I just arrived. But I am leaving the Lighthouse with memories and experiences that have allowed me to grow more than I ever thought possible. This was my first experience working in the Marine Sciences field. I know it will not be the last.

Go Canes!

-Ryan Meeder
RSMAS Undergraduate Student
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The Alaska Whale Foundation’s Rapunzel Project: How Whales Communicate

We have now had ample time to observe the Humpback whales and their many behaviors. Surprisingly, the whale’s behavior in Southeast Alaska has an entirely different purpose than when they sing in their mating grounds in Hawaii. This is due to their motives for remaining in Alaska and remaining in Hawaii for periods of time. A breach in Hawaii has a different purpose from a breach in Alaska. As the warm waters of Hawaii are used for mating, the cold productive waters of Alaska are used to forage.

The whales exhibit several different behaviors when they surface around the lighthouse. There are of course, whales breaching, during which they throw themselves into the air and splash into the water. This behavior is rumored to have several different functions ranging from intimidation to communication while the whales are in Alaska. In contrast, when the whales are in Hawaii breaching is used as a flashy behavior to attract mates.

The whales also perform peduncle throws: a whale at the surface throws its entire tail into the air and slams back into the water, and Pectoral slaps in which the whales swim on their sides on the surface and smack the water. Both of these behaviors are believed to be used in communication and feeding. The Peduncle throw sends such a forceful sound wave through the water and has the ability to scare nearby schooling fish. This works well in the Humpbacks favor as small schooling fish, such as Herring, form a more tightly knit group and become easier prey for the Humpbacks.

Bubble net feeding is also a common practice found in Alaskan waters. Bubble net feeding involves large groups of Humpbacks working together during a feeding frenzy. It begins when one whale gives a bubble net feeding call. It is an elongated note, as if the whale briefly sings and ushers the other whales into the area to begin feeding. One whale sinks deep into the water beneath the schooling fish and sends up bubbles that corrals the fish into ever-tighter circles. The other whales then simultaneously engulf the schooling fish in their mouths and beach the surface. From the surface, it has the appearance that the whales are bobbing on the surface in a giant circle of bubbling water.

This week also held our camping trip. We took a 45-minute boat ride to a nearby island and camped for a night. I was able to take a kayak out to a Sea Lion hollow and paddle to within about 20 feet of the Sea Lions. Sea Lion’s may appear to be sweet doglike mammals of the ocean, but in reality the Sea Lion’s are aggressive and have a bite stronger than a bears. When compared to each other, the skull of a Sea Lion and the skull of a bear are almost identical. The Sea Lions are also extremely inquisitive animals and have no problem swimming up to your kayak to check you out. An 1800-pound Sea Lion with the strength to crush your bones in a single bite can be somewhat daunting as you rock around in a small kayak.

In addition to paddling to the Sea Lion hollow, I also had the opportunity to hike through some of the Alaskan wilderness. The forest was unlike any I had ever seen. This Island, known as The Brothers, has no predators and is completely covered in moss. The moss floor proved to be quite comfortable as we set up camp. For the first night of the season we slept in darkness, as the trees sheltered us from the ever-persistent daylight.

-Ryan Meeder
RSMAS Undergraduate Student
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The Alaska Whale Foundation’s Rapunzel Project: Killer Whales and Killer Sunsets

A few days ago the other three interns and I were lucky enough to find a pod of Killer Whales. They swam past the lighthouse, prompting us to abandon our duties and follow the pod in our skiff. It is a common sight to see the Killer Whales tossing a Sea Lion in the air as they hunt and play with their food. The Sea Lions do not stand a chance against the Killer Whales, but that does not stop them from trying to board a passing vessel.

As we tracked the Killer Whales through Frederick Sound we sighted several breaching Humpback Whales and were able to get as close to a few diving whales as our research permit allows us (which is as close as we need to in order to get a fluke I.D.). The fluke of a Humpback whale is the underside of its tail and acts as a fingerprint. No two whales have the same fluke pattern, and each whale’s fluke pattern remains consistent throughout their entire lives.

This was a very eventful week. In addition to seeing the Killer Whales and breaching Humpbacks, we were able to board a small cruise ship: “The Wilderness Explorer” and intermingle with the passengers. Michelle (Project Leader) gave a lecture to the passengers on the cruise ship and I was able to spend time with the passengers whale watching. I was able to educate the passengers and answer their questions about Humpbacks. This was one of the most rewarding experiences of the trip. It put the science into perspective, as it is one thing to be able to do research and publish results, but another thing entirely to educate the public and increase awareness. Increasing awareness about the oceans is just as if not more important than the actual research and data. We plan on going back on board “The Wilderness Explorer” next time it passes the lighthouse and educating another set of guests. The best way to learn is to teach.

Michelle once said, “The Alaska sun doesn’t burn, it blushes.” There is no better way to put it. We have had a few sunsets so far, and they have been getting better and better. I have seen my share of spectacular sunsets, but none are comparable to the beauty of the Alaskan mountains and shimmering seas. I would also like to further explain some of the equipment we have been using.

The Theodolite: The theodolite sits on top of the lighthouse all summer and can never come downstairs (once it has gone up the first time) as the temperature difference will cause condensation and sabotage the electronics. We use the theodolite to pinpoint the location of the whales both in the immediate vicinity of the lighthouse and along the horizon. The theodolite gives us a horizontal and vertical degree reading, which can then be converted into a latitude and longitude. It is almost like a telescope, but much more expensive and precise.

The Hydrophone: The hydrophone is a small microphone like cylinder that we lower 25m into the sea. With two hydrophones, one on each side of our skiff, we are able to record Humpback whales from miles away. The hydrophones range fluctuates depending on the frequency that the whales are vocalizing on, the temperature of the water, and the bathymetry under the water.

A Humpback Whale’s Trumpet: A Trumpet is a loud noise that we can hear from above the surface. A trumpet is a low frequency aerial vocalization that is typically associated with an exhalation. You can hear the trumpets from the top of the tower, inside the lighthouse, the top of the helicopter pad and everywhere in between. We are studying their role in Humpback whale communication and if there is a correlation between dispersion and Trumpeting.

The Intertidal Zone: The intertidal zone is the area of the island that at high tide is completely covered, but at low tide is completely exposed. The intertidal zone has a 27-foot range on the island, which offers numerous opportunities to go tide pooling. One can observe the starfish, brightly colored anemones and Sculpin that inhabit the pools. Sculpin are small fish that fight each other over territory in the intertidal zone.

We will be going camping for a few days in the near future, during which we will kayak into a Sea Lion hollow that houses over one thousand Sea Lions. It will be nice to get off the island for a few days, but I am sure we will all be longing to get back to the tower before too long. It’s something about living in a lighthouse that will always give a unique and comforting feeling. Vista the resident lighthouse dog and whale chaser always seems to help too.

-Ryan Meeder
RSMAS Undergraduate Student
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The Alaska Whale Foundation’s Rapunzel Project: Life as an Intern

Seven days have now passed since I left my comfortable home in Chicago and departed for a month in the Alaskan wilderness. In these seven days I have had the opportunity to observe majestic humpback whales as they dive and surface all around the lighthouse, as well as poke around the intertidal zone searching for Anemones and Pycnopodia. And this is just the beginning.

The daily duties of marking whales with a theodolite, recording their locations, and dropping hydrophones in the water off a small skiff are divided between the other three interns and myself. We have access to electricity for about 7 hours a day and spend most of our time searching for whales and appreciating the Alaskan wilderness. The harbor seals, sea lions, bald eagles, porpoises, and sea otters that patrol the waters near the lighthouse also serve to keep us company.

A typical day in the life of a Rapunzel Project intern is spent at the top of the lighthouse tower with the theodolite, and out on the water dropping hydrophones off a small skiff. The skiff operator sits in the boat and records and listens to everything that is going on under the surface. The humpback whales around the island frequently Trumpet and send chills running up each of our spines. When time presents itself, we can also fish for 300-pound Halibut off the island.

This week we will also have the opportunity to board a passing cruise ship and give lectures and answer questions about the whales. We have been training up on all the protocol for observing the whales and learning how to recognize different whale behaviors. Today I cut up a piece of Bull Kelp that I found in the intertidal zone and under Michelle’s direction (Rapunzel Project Field Leader) made it into a horn. This is a common practice among children in Juneau, and will hopefully make for an entertaining story for the children in Chicago and at “The U.”

-Ryan Meeder
RSMAS Undergraduate Student
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The Alaska Whale Foundation’s Rapunzel Project

Five months ago I was sent an email about a research project and opportunity unlike any I had ever seen. Without hesitation, I applied for this tremendous opportunity and was fortunate enough to be accepted. The place: An isolated lighthouse in Alaska. The subjects: Humpback whales.

My name is Ryan Meeder and I recently completed my freshman year at RSMAS. This summer I will be spending four weeks (beginning June 21) living in a lighthouse with three other interns studying Humpback Whales. The project is known as The Alaska Whale Foundation’s Rapunzel Project, and has its own official blog, which I encourage you to check out. Each week I will be writing a post here on the RSMAS Blog about the experience and what I am doing at the lighthouse. Our research goal is to catalogue Humpback Whale sounds and determine the impact anthropogenic sound has on the oceans and the whales. If you have any questions about the project for me now, or at anytime during the field season please feel free to email me. I look forward to sharing more information about the internship as well as pictures in my next post.

-Ryan Meeder
RSMAS Undergraduate Student
Follow the Rosenstiel School on Twitter: @UMiamiRSMAS
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