Submarine field expedition
by Amanda Bates 12.05.2020
After reaching the seafloor on the Endeavour segment of the Juan de Fuca Ridge 200 km off the west coast of Vancouver Island in the human operated vehicle Alvin, we spent a very focused morning searching for a vent called “Hot Harold” to sample fluids thought to exceed 350ºC. The time ticked by as we circled through a maze of chimney formations, my list of tasks feeling heavier and heavier on my lap as we searched without success. It was a relief when we finally located the vent, obtained our water samples, and then moved on to our next task.
I remember thinking that I had neglected to savour being a junior scientist on similar submarine expeditions, where my responsibilities had included taking pictures and watching out the porthole window for octopus, where I had the time to worry about whether I would have to use my allotted pee-cup in such close company. But I was able to relax for a few minutes as my team members tested some sampling gear. I realized I was hungry and opened a chocolate bar. Scrunched up under a blanket, 2000 m under the sea, I turned to look out my port-hole window to enjoy a literally stunning view of a large black smoker chimney pumping out hydrothermal fluids, shimmering in the submersible lights, and the tubes of worms forming a garden of red and white. The venting fluids and animals were so close and vivid that I felt I could reach out with my hand to feel the warmth. It was this moment when I was struck by how bizarre and wonderful it was that I was sitting on the seafloor with 2 km of ocean above us, brand-new sparkling, black, basalt beneath us and a view like no other, eating chocolate.
Amanda Bates @AmandaEBates
The strange incident with the giant clam
by Maria Dornelas 19.05.2020
This stretch of the reef between South and Palfrey Islands feels like home. I have been coming here almost every year for the past 12 years. I can draw the contour of the reef crest with my eyes closed. I can tell you in excruciating detail how many species of coral there are here, and how rare or abundant they are. I mostly have my head in the coral when I am here, but I have seen sharks and turtles around. There are rumours of dugong sightings, and photographs of manta rays. But my favourite story about the reef we call Trimodal is about a giant clam. We started calling this reef Trimodal, because of the species abundance distribution of the corals on this reef crest. We counted over 42 thousand coral colonies there in 2005, and the SAD had a funny shape with three modes.
I can’t remember why exactly, but on this occasion we decided to park the boat in the lagoon area, at the back of the reef. We looked for a patch of sand and rubble and dropped anchor. We got our gear on and I braced myself for the swim across the reef flat towards the crest where we were more likely to find the species we were looking for. Because we were anchoring rather than using the mooring we normally used, we checked the anchor before we swam across. This is always a good idea, as coming back from a dive to find your boat gone is not much fun. Much to our surprise as we looked down, we saw that a giant clam had caught our anchor chain and closed up.
We tried to pull the chain out, with no success. I just sat at the surface having a giggling attack. I laughed and laughed and laughed picturing us explaining this to staff at the research station: we lost the anchor because a giant clam ate it. This would take “my dog ate my homework” to a whole different level. Laughing made my snorkeling mask fill up with water, which made me laugh even harder. We took photos and decided there was nothing we could do at this point.
The clam was not willing to let it go, so we decided to carry on with our job, and deal with the anchor on our return. At least the boat was definitely not going anywhere.
It was a beautiful sunny day, and I didn’t even complain much about the long swim. One of my legs is slightly longer than the other because of a motorcycle accident I had when I was 18. You probably won’t notice if you know me, and Ionly notice when I am swimming with my fins on. It makes long swims always interesting. In the British sense.
We got on with our job. Eventually, we were done for the day and headed back to the boat. By then the giant clam had decided the anchor chain was not tasty and had let it go. We headed back with a full day of data and an interesting story. In the literal sense.
Maria Dornelas @maadornelas
Seagrasses - unsung heroes!
by Jon Lefcheck 26.05.2020
Seagrasses are the underappreciated heroes of coastal ecosystems. As heroes, seagrasses are vital nurseries for many species of fishes and invertebrates, contribute roughly one-fourth of global fisheries production, and store as much carbon as some terrestrial forests! But they are sometimes lost in the public eye: a recent scientific study has shown that of all ecosystems on planet Earth, seagrasses have the fewest songs written about them, fewer than marshes, bogs, or even steppes (can you think of a song that you listened to that mentioned the word ‘steppe’ in it? Well, turns out it appears in 36x more songs than the word ‘seagrass!’)
So, it is my great pleasure to publicize the humble seagrass, and the valuable services they provide. Beyond the services mentioned above, seagrasses are vital to the coastal ‘food web.’ They host a wide array of small and tasty critters, including small shrimps and crabs, that are essentially ‘fish food’ for the many species that utilize seagrass beds at some point in their lives. Which is why our group has been monitoring these animals—and the things that eat them—in their seagrass habitat for 15 years at a place called Goodwin Island, at the mouth of the York River Estuary in Chesapeake Bay, USA. This study has generated thousands of samples and taken dozens of dedicated scientists, students, and citizens to collect and process.
Chesapeake Bay is notable for a lot of reasons—it was, of course, the site of the first British colony in the Americas at Jamestown…ok, well, the first reasonably successful one—but what a lot of people don’t know is that it is one of the most dynamic environments on the planet. I have seen icebergs float by on the river in the same year I have sat in water approaching 35°C (that is as warm as, if not warmer than, your bathwater). Working in such a place presents a unique set of challenges.
My most vivid memory was heading out in one brisk November wearing the thickest wetsuit available, hood, gloves, a hat, and a nice warm float coat, speeding out the field site and then having to jump in the freezing cold water and work until my fingers were numb. On the other hand, the water was crystal clear (a rarity in the heavily populated and therefore polluted Chesapeake Bay), allowing me to snap beautiful photos such as this:
Seeing the healthy grass, especially at a time when nearly one-third has been lost in the last 20 years, was a uniquely gratifying experience. That trip was actually the last time we sampled this grass bed, beginning in 1998 and ending in 2013. It was humbling to be there at the end, given that I was only 11 years old when the survey began. Hopefully, someone else will take up the mantle of monitoring this grass bed and continue our efforts. Until then, we will work hard to learn as much as we can from the volumes of data we have collected, to understand and best conserve this valuable ecosystem.
Jon Lefcheck @jslefche
The life of a transect tape
by Rick Stuart-Smith 02.06.2020
Laying out a transect line over the reef becomes one of those things you no longer realise you are doing – you hit the bottom, tie it off and start swimming. But when you turn to start the survey, your brain switches on again, and on coral reefs, can overload while trying to jot down the names of everything swimming in the vicinity of the line. Trying to recount the amazing marine life seen along reef transects can be hard to do justice. So many good memories. Instead of the usual tales of mantas, whales and endangered red handfish, this time I’ve stopped to consider the life of the transect line itself. This 50-m long piece of flattened fibreglass goes through more than most people crunching the numbers at the other end would imagine.
To start with, it apparently looks tasty. Sea urchins are notorious transect line-munchers. They hone in on the line during the survey, and start longitudinal tears, stripping pieces off the edges. Reeling the line in at the end of the survey can sometimes require tugging it out of the jaws of numerous urchins, using all their tube feet to hang on to the reef surface without letting go of the line. Parrotfishes are less secretive about their intentions, swimming along the line inspecting it before deciding on a place to have a taste. They take very clean bites out of it, with cookie cutter precision. Herbivores tend to do the most frequent damage, but large triggerfishes probably give the best bang for the bite, adopting more of a smash-and-grab approach. Seeing what they can do to a pretty hardy piece of fibreglass provides plenty of motivation to steer clear of the big ones!
Transect line attack by marine life has never prematurely ended a survey though, that I know of. Anthropogenic disturbance is more serious, and has resulted in abandoned surveys, wasted effort, air and time. Regardless of how isolated a site may seem, other dive groups can sometimes show up. A few times I’ve been swimming along the line to meet a stranger coming back towards me reeling in my line. Who knows if they thought they were cleaning up some rubbish or thought they could use the line for something themselves. But once a situation like this escalated into what was almost my only underwater fight. Surveying a deeper, high current site with only just enough air to safely do the survey and finish the dive promptly, I met a dive guide followed by group of less-than-expert divers. We were on a coral reef, and he had been stripping up my transect line off the reef and had made a huge tangle out of it. He was waving his arms around at me and pointing at the reef, presumably indicating that he thought the line had been damaging the reef, while beneath him the big tangle he had generated in the line was tearing a bit of soft coral as he was aggressively tugging the line up, and behind him his dive group were crashing around the reef like bulls in a china shop. Regardless of his good intentions, the mess he made took me a very long time to sort out on the bottom, fighting the current and watching my air running down. No data could be collected from that site, which was very hard to get to and became a wasted opportunity.
So next time you are using reef survey data, instead of only thinking about the diverse array of fishes and invertebrates represented by the numbers, spare a thought for the charismatic macro-equipment that we all rely on!
Rick Stuart-Smith @RickStuartSmith
A thrilling and scary encounter
by Samanta Iop 09.06.2020
From 2008 to 2010 I worked on a large remnant of the Atlantic Forest in southern Brazil. This incredible area contains the largest longitudinal waterfall in the world, the ‘Salto Yucumã’ (meaning “big falls” in indigenous language), with about 2 kilometers of extension in the Uruguay river. It is also home for many threatened animal and plant species, including the iconic tropical jaguar and the beautiful jararacuçu, a large viper with a powerful poison.
There, I studied the diversity of amphibians in two ways: using pitfall line traps buried in the ground to capture leaf-litter species, and surveying amphibians in calling activity in ponds and streams deep into the forest.
Salto Yucumã in the Uruguay River, Turvo State Park, southern Brazil.
Every morning began with the duty of reviewing the traps to check if there was something new - and to free the captured amphibians preventing their deaths from “cozy” tropical heat exposure. Because there were eight-line traps located kilometres apart from each other, this task would often last most of the morning and afternoon. Once the sun went down, it was time to go to the ponds and streams in the forest to get dirty and wet amidst loud choruses of calling frogs. We would have several hours of identifying frogs, estimating their abundances, and moving from one water body to another before finishing.
Pitfall traps installed to capture amphibian species that live in the forest ground.
Most days this job was peaceful and pleasant - though utterly exhausting as we would walk a minimum of 8 kilometers every day. Each day a different animal fell into the traps and filled us with joy and excitement. But in one lazy, rainy day, things took an unexpected turn with a bizarre plot-twist. I woke up as usual, had breakfast with my field colleagues and got prepared to start another morning of pitfall trap inspection. Eventually, my team and I had to acknowledge that we couldn’t locate two of the trails, despite the fact that we had been successfully finding them for the last 6 months. Shame on us! However, we didn’t give up and this paid off as we finally managed to find the trails. But that’s not all. It suddenly began to rain torrentially, and we found ourselves in a hurry to move forward and finish the inspection of the traps. When we were on the last trail, we decided to leave unnecessary equipment such as thermos bottles and backpacks on the road to pick up on the way back, this would make the task of walking through the dense forest trail easier and allow us to finish the job more quickly. As we reviewed the traps, we shared the impression that there was something, or someone, around us. A subtle, but powerful presence. “We need to keep up with work because the rain doesn’t look like it’s going to stop, come on team!” I remember someone saying that. As we walked back to the road to pick up our stuff and head to the accommodation, that powerful presence seemed to be following us, somehow observing, inspecting us from a few metres apart, just as we had been doing with the animals in the pitfall traps. “Keep moving guys, rain is getting heavier!”, someone said as if we were afraid of the rain at that moment!
Finally, on the road to pick up our things, I looked at the ground and noticed huge footprints all around the thermos and backpacks we had left there. So, I looked across the road towards the trail entrance, and I saw the silhouette of a huge animal getting engulfed by the forest. My heart raced. Excitement was making my breath run out. It was that iconic, endangered carnivore species. If we still have had some doubts, the fresh footprints confirmed it: our silent secret admirer was a jaguar. We had been so close to each other, and for a considerable amount of time! I tried to recall what the survival manuals say about close-range encounters with a jaguar: run? Stay still? Shout out loud? I could not remember anything. An adrenaline rush took over my body. Maybe the jaguar was as scared as we were, and fortunately didn’t see us as a threat. We did not think twice: we gathered our belongings and left the road in a hurry towards our accommodation. There we dried ourselves off and shared our feeling for having lived such an incredible experience. But the thrilling experience left a permanent marker, as we have been known to good-humoured local residents as "the biologists who fled the jaguar" since then
Jaguar footprint with an old, wet cellphone for size reference.
King without a crown: bowing to snakes in the Thai jungle
by Felipe Serrano 16.06.2020
The before nearby voices of my colleagues of the Sakareat Conservation and Snake Education Team were now only getting dimmer and dimmer. “I am getting behind”, I thought. It probably was due to having to navigate through streams, slippery fallen logs and thorny bushes. It could also be due to only knowing those Thai evergreen forests for about a month now. It was only when I heard the growl that I realized that it most likely had something to do with the 2.5 kg and nearly 3-meter King Cobra I was carrying in a box. The King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) is the longest venomous snake in the world, ranging from India to China, and it feeds mostly on other snakes such as the Reticulated Python, the longest snake in the world. For those who have not been lucky to hear it, its growling hiss is somewhere between an alert Rottweiler and the heavy breathing of a certain masked black-dressed lightsaber-wielding space father
It weighed as much as my responsibility to carry it: it was a sexually-mature male, being released just before the mating season, and the largest individual the team had caught so far. It was now fitted with a transmitter and ready to be followed by radio-telemetry up to four times a day for the next six months to understand the spatial ecology of King Cobras and the threats they face in rural north-eastern Thailand. While you would think locating a 3-meter snake is not that difficult, King Cobras are simultaneously very secretive - often living nearby (and inside) homes without people realizing - and highly mobile. You can easily find them deep into the forest in the morning and under a pile of trash in a village during lunchtime, and they can cover 1.5 kilometers in just 10 minutes which causes their radio signal to quickly vanish. And if the signal is nowhere to be found or if it keeps moving, you keep moving, often through the night.
I eventually found my colleagues sitting in a forest clearing, waiting for me. Coincidentally, it would be that exact clearing where, a few months from then, we would have to carefully dig out from a burrow a very stressed King Cobra whose transmitter was dying, as paradoxically as that sounds. But for now, the clearing was peaceful. The snake had stopped growling and we had begun to prepare to photograph it as it left the box. We took some time to choose which angles would be best, which settings would best capture it slithering away, discretely as most King Cobras had done before. With all cameras in place, one of us carefully opened the box and let the snake go free. However, instead of slithering discretely towards the direction the box was facing, it lifted a great portion of its body and spread its hood moving towards our general direction. With its non-threatening but “Do not mess with me” demeanour, it moved gracefully across the clearing, overcoming fallen logs as a scaly war tank. As it safely passed in front of us, shaky hands holding shaky cameras failed to capture its regal aura, leaving only blurry pictures with a reminder: “The King Cobra bows to no one.”
Felipe Serrano @FilipeSerrano7
Love comes from the sea!
by Viviana Brambilla 23.06.2020
For someone doing a PhD on coral ecology while based Scotland, fall fieldwork in the Tropics is a real game changer. The chance of longer daylight and sunshine lifts the mood and gives us the vitamin D boost we need to face Scottish winters. Fieldwork is what you look forward to the most, since day 1. Or, at least, that is how I feel.
In my fieldwork, I joined a team of marine biologists and engineers to collect data for my research and survey coral reefs around Lizard Island in Australia. Every year we spend about a month at the research station on the island, collecting data for producing 3D maps of reef sites and identifying all the fish and corals we find around our maps. There are so many stories I could tell about how human behaviour changes during those long trips – you could say people loosen up a lot and maybe even lose their mind a bit – but I want to focus on animal encounters, which are the very gems of fieldworks.
One year, 2017, was particularly strong in those encounters. Maybe animals couldn’t be bothered to hide after 2 years of coral bleaching and would rather just be on-your-face most of the time. Anyway, that year we had a few episodes worth of mention. For example, a juvenile fish shoal decided to take shelter in the space between our legs while we were working underwater. We ended up with a bunch of inappropriate close-ups of our groin area in wetsuit just to have a picture of those tiny little fish. But out of all that happened that year, today I chose to tell a (n interspecific) love story.
That day, we had a team three (co-PIs Maria and Josh, and I) and we were heading to survey the corals of our northernmost site with the boat the research station assigned us. Josh was on driving duty, Maria was sitting on his side back in the stern, and I was on the bow, enjoying a PI-free ocean view.
People were seeing a solitary dolphin wandering around on that side of the island, so I was particularly focused on the sea surface, despite the sun reflection and the fact I forgot my sunglasses that day. All of the sudden, I saw something moving out fast from the sea surface
“flying” towards me and hitting my right cheek! I was puzzled and turned back to see if it landed on the boat. Josh, who saw the scene from behind, was already slowing down the boat and after a few seconds, Maria saw our visitor and pointed towards it: it was the smallest and cutest squid I ever saw!
We chorused a “Ooooowh” and I instantly decided that the squid came out from the water just to kiss me on the cheek. Maybe I was losing it a bit as well…
“I think she kissed me!” I immediately said – causing loud laughs from all of us!
In my native language (Italian), “squid” is a noun with female gender (“la seppia”), and sometimes, especially when I am excited or want to say things fast, I use gendered pronouns instead of the neutrals while speaking English as well.
I took the squid in my hands and gently put it back home in the water. I lowered it down by the side of the boat and as I put the squid back into the water, it started swimming down into the blue, disappearing. We had kissed “hello” already, so we didn’t kiss goodbye.
The anecdote has stayed with me since then. We couldn’t stop bringing that up at every occasion that year. Last time I was on the island, I got the nickname of “the Mother of the Squids”, even though I don’t know anything about them and I only know that Squishy - that’s what we called her – came into my heart in the nicest way ever.
Viviana Brambilla @viv_brambilla
On the Edge
by Fritha West 02.07.2020
Standing at the top of Hermaness, peering down at a raft of puffins below me, I wonder how much further I can creep forward. The edge here is rocky and sandy, and it’s hard to know where to put my feet as the ground slopes slowly but surely towards hundreds of meters of sheer cliff below. At least it isn’t raining, I tell myself. When it rains here the grassy fescues and sedges become as slick as ice. A dry day, windy or not, is as rare as it is welcome in the Shetland Isles.
When the rest of the team are here, the moment they see someone getting too close to the edge, up goes the cry of “Amber!”. A teasing tone, accompanied by finger wagging and tutting, telling you you have left the comfort of the Green safety zone and need to watch yourself. They can see what you can’t - perspective is a tricky thing on a clifftop- and it’s good to know someone is looking out for you. But sometimes, it’s a louder shout of “RED!”, when you are contravening the at-least-2-meters-from-the-edge-at-all-times rule - and if you are, this shout is emitted with such ferocity it might shock you into to jumping either way. It can be frustrating; many of us have been in far more dangerous situations than this, on far less stable edges, toes hanging over the ends of the thrift tufts with one hand balanced against the rock, eyes fixed on a mass of birds below, each no more than specks on the rolling sea. Smaller than the tiny black dots of frogspawn on the surface of a pond. But that has been on our own time. And this is work.
Birds counted must be within 200m of the shoreline, in case your view intersects with that of the volunteer on the next transect section. So you have to learn to read the landscape features, the height of each stack, drawing invisible lines on an ever moving canvas, memorizing the maps in your pocket because if you got them out, they’d be blown away. No getting distracted by the gulls or the skuas (also known as bonxies, probably for their tendency to “bonk” you on the head as they fly past), or stopping to watch the gannets chattering on the outcrops. This survey is critical, a vital contribution to the national Seabird Census, monitoring what may be one of the worst colony declines in recent years. So there are rules that must be followed, and there isn’t time to rescue wayward surveyors who have been too cocky for their own good.
It’s a strange feeling. Almost dreamlike, to be standing so close to such a huge drop. 200m of crumbling gneiss above crashing waves. And the winds here rival hurricanes, the air feels solid when it hits you. I don’t get vertigo- I usually pride myself on having a head for heights - but as the gusts pick up again and lurch me forward, I almost cry out in panic. Staggering back and swearing quietly under my breath, I glance around for another team member, someone to share my close shave with. But they are all walking their own transects, the other side of the cliffs. I am alone, just me, and a nearby bonxie, watching me keenly. I shake my head and lift my binoculars, recommencing the count. 2 meters now feels a little too close.
Me, a delicatessen for groupers?
by Daniel Gomez Gras 17.07.2020
To divers, the Medes islands of the Spanish Mediterranean are a veritable paradise. Located in the upper-right corner of the Iberian Peninsula, this group of seven islets are teeming with life, which attracts thousands of marine adventurers per year. The Medes are where I did most of my PhD fieldwork, and where I had some of the most magical (and strange) moments I have experienced as a marine ecologist.
Because the Medes are a designated Marine Protected Area, the marine fauna remains abundant and large. So, while my work focuses on benthic species that are found amongst the beautiful Mediterranean coralligenous reefs, which are coral-dominated reefs formed by the accumulation of calcareous algae, I got used to working surrounded by large friendly groupers.
Medes Islands from L'Estartit. Photo by Eneko Aspillaga
Friendly, that is, most of the time.
One day, my lab mate Ignasi and I were heading down to a coralligenous wall at a dive site called La Vaca (The Cow). Our mission: find the 30 gorgonian colonies that we had tagged the previous year and collect new samples. Ignasi was carrying the scissors and had to find the colonies. I had to put each sample into the sampling bags that I was carrying. Relaxing dive, I thought.
A grouper in Medes Islands. Photo by Eneko Aspillaga
When we spotted the wall, I pulled out the sampling bags from my carrier bag. To my surprise, five massive groupers came straight to me. I gave them a friendly greeting, much as a human can greet a fish; however, I soon realized they weren't just coming to say "Hi". They were coming for me!
The groupers started biting the bags around my hands like no tomorrow. I felt like I was fighting for a toy with some big dogs. Maybe they were just trying to tell me that I wasn't welcome there?
My lab mate Ignasi and a grouper in Medes Islands. By Eneko Aspillaga
I remembered titan triggerfish attacking divers in Mabul island (Malaysia) to protect their brood and thought that maybe the groupers were just doing the same. My immediate reaction was to kick off horizontally into the blue to have some distance from the wall.
However, the groupers continued to chase me and kept trying to swallow all the bags around my hands in a vicious feeding frenzy. The water was speckled with bits and pieces of my sampling bags. That's it, I thought, the sampling is over.
Fortunately, Ignasi, who seemed to be less tasty for the groupers and managed to avoid the frenzy, was more level headed and signed for me to hide the bags. In my initial confusion, I had pushed my hands with the bags away from my body to protect the diving gear (and my vital organs). But Ignasi had realized that the groupers were just interested in the bags, so maybe hiding them against the chest would do the trick.
And it worked! The bags were likely just the same size, colour, and shape as the fish they normally eat. Or maybe someone used to illegally feed the groupers from bags that looked like ours. In any case, the groupers stopped attacking me as soon as the bags were out of sight. We could even get back to the wall and finish sampling.
"I thought the sampling was over," I confessed to Ignasi when we were back on the boat.
"At first, I thought that too," he replied, "but then I thought how quickly we would have been sent back to the water if we had told our supervisor Cristina that we couldn´t finish the sampling because of the groupers".
I laughed, he was right.
Daniel Gomez Gras @danigomezgras
The joys of unexpected field work
by Claudia Faustino 30.07.2020
How does one study vultures?
In my case, I got lucky and got access to an untouched dataset. Then, I got a weeks notice for a fieldwork opportunity in Namibia, which I enthusiastically took. I knew very little about vultures when I first went, and I will never forget the experience.
My PhD project used data collected from satellite-based tags attached - with care, by our experienced field colleagues — to the back of the vultures. Back in St. Andrews (where I live and study, in Scotland), I analysed the data to see how vultures move and interact with their environment.
As exclusive scavengers, vultures do the vital work of keeping the environment free of rotting carcasses, and are as such considered "ambassadors" of ecosystem health. Nonetheless, their populations have been declining steeply mainly due to food shortages and mass poisoning.
Some people never get to experience how their research data is collected, but I got lucky. When the opportunity to do a two-week stint in the field came up, I jumped on a plane to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia.
There, all the field equipment, collected by the lead researcher – a wildlife vet – along with my clothes and food supplies were packed into an awesome four-by-four SUV. My first job was to drive the supplies ~600 miles to Bwabwata National Park, our field site. The field work also required a plane and so the lead researcher was to join me two days later having flown a two-seater plane there himself! How cool is that!
Navigating through an unfamiliar country, on bumpy gravel roads, in +30ºC, and without AC was challenging. I needed two days to complete my drive, so I stopped to overnight at the farm of another fieldwork volunteer. The morning that I left he was tending to his cattle, and later that day he drove up to help with tagging vultures.
On our arrival, and as it was getting late, the three of us parked our respective vehicles on the airstrip and settled for the night. I'll never forget falling asleep on the car roof, under the wide open African stars, listening to an orchestra of unfamiliar animal sounds. The next morning we set out, and overall we camped in 3 or 4 other places within the Park. Other than a few villages and some tourists, there are very few people Bwabwata National Park. The nature here remains vibrant and pristine. It felt like a blessing to see all the iconic wildlife: hyenas, wild dogs, a monitor lizard, hippos and elephants, to name but a few.
Photo credits: Claudia Faustino (CC BY-NC 4.0)
The fieldwork consisted mainly in setting a baited trap, waiting for hours under the shade, and eventually rushing to the trap to release the bird – a definite rush of adrenaline! During this fieldwork, I also got to hold a vulture for the first time in my life. These are hefty birds with a strong beak and, as scavengers, they certainly didn't smell great.
Overall, the fieldwork was a success. We saw plenty of vultures, and managed to tag three. I was grateful for field colleagues who could fly planes, and those that managed to solder broken equipment in a rush.
If you get the opportunity for field work in Namibia, even if it's short notice, my advice is you take it.
Claudia Faustino @claudia_esf
Photo credits: Claudia Faustino (CC BY-NC 4.0)
Deep Sea Research Without Experience
by email@example.com 11.08.2020
Here’s how I got to do deep-sea research in my undergrad.
Too often we learn facts-on-facts-on-facts catching up on millennia of discovery in the span of - in my case - the night before the exam. The adrenaline of witnessing something fully unknown is rarely instilled in textbooks, lecture slides, or pop quizzes.
ROPOS being carefully lifted into the water
I was lucky in that I got a unique research experience during my undergrad, when I was fully unqualified. After taking a project-based course with Dr. Sally Leys, I started working in her lab as a research assistant. Sally's lab is based at the University of Alberta (Edmonton, Canada) and predominantly studies sea sponges (Porifera), what these animals can teach us about the evolution of multicellularity, and their functional ecology.
As a research assistant, I participated in lab meetings and listened to the planning of a research cruise set to explore the sponge reefs off the coast of British Columbia (Canada). On a ship, surrounded by the open sea, studying the deep unknown? It sounded like the aspiring marine biologist's dream, but I knew that room was restricted to graduate students and PIs. Nevertheless, I never failed to mention how desperately I wanted to come; always "joking", but not really.
One week before the ship set sail, one of the graduate students sadly fell ill. To my own disbelief, I was invited as a last-minute replacement. I hopped from a plane to a zodiac, and on to the Canadian Coast Guard Ship The Vector. I was assigned a bunk and a 12-h shift, like everyone else.
The ship had a Remotely Operated Vehicle called ROPOS (ropos.com) on board. This is a roughly van sized robot decked out with over $2M in cameras, thrusters, instruments, and two WALL-E like arms which are linked to on-board mini-arm controllers. Using these hyper-precision arms, the crew can place our 1-cm diameter instruments into a 2-cm diameter sponge opening.
Watching the ROV launch felt like being on the site of a space shuttle lift-off. The deck is abuzz with the ROV crew performing necessary checks, our instruments are loaded on, and the launch is announced over the ship’s intercom. Like a kitten picked up by the scruff of its neck, a crane lowers the ROV gently from the stern deck into the water. The cameras stream live footage onto more than a dozen screens in the control room.
Controllers used to manipulate the arms on the ROV.
As the ROV descends, the water goes from teal to black. Squid, ctenophores, jellyfish, chaetognaths, and countless other animals float past on the way down. At 150 m below, the lights beam down on an expanse of sponges, far as the robot eyes can see, teeming with life. This deep, sponges have no algal symbionts, and are a ghostly pale complexion. Their rigid silica (aka "glass") skeleton, allows them to tower high over the sea floor. It’s truly an alien sight.
The reefs off the coast of British Columbia and Alaska are the only extant sponge reefs so far known; it's likely a globally unique ecosystem. Not only do they filter vast amounts of water, but the nooks and crannies of their exhalent openings provide a home to diverse species, like rockfish, squat lobsters, prawns, and octopus.
After this first accidental cruise I was invited to come on two more, each time accumulating more experience and responsibility. Six years later and I'm still analyzing the days-worth of flow and respiration data we collected. My advice to undergraduate level biologists would be to let people know what you want, and hope for the best.
Evgeni Matveev @matveev_evgeni
Stuck Between Land and Sea
by Damaris Torres-Pulliza 14.09.2020
My fieldwork days as a scientist started at the rim of volcanoes; from there, my career path slowly meandered towards the water. It took me down slopes, passed through caves, watersheds, urban areas, agricultural lands, and coastlines. But before reaching the ocean, I got stuck – quite literally – at the interface between the land and sea.
Back in 2008, I joined fieldwork efforts to characterize the mangrove forest structure and diversity in the north Pacific coast of Costa Rica. One beautiful sunny morning, after checking our gear and confirming that the tide was receding, we entered the Iguanita mangrove forest. For five hours we worked our way through the tangle of roots, going deeper and deeper into the forest. So far, everything was going according to plan. Our team leader made the call — "we have finished!"— and the plan was to backtrack our way to the entrance.
But, at that point, we were quite far from the entry point, it was hot, the chaotic root system was cruel, the mosquitoes were unrelenting, and our water supply was running low. We heard breaking waves in the distance, so we knew the beach was nearby. A new, seemingly better, plan was hatched; we would head towards the beach and walk back along the sea.
But as we moved towards the beach, the root system got crumblier, as if rotten. With every snap, someone would go down straight to the mud, to the surprise of the crabs below. I acquainted a sturdy walking stick, and named it 'Pablo'; it became my loyal companion through the treacherous terrain. About an hour later, we got to a narrow open area – probably a crusted drainage ditch. Beyond it was another strip of thick mangrove trees, and beyond that we could almost see the beach. So close! The next step was easy: cross the ditch.
CC-by Damaris Torres-Pulliza
Two of us went forth first, and within the blink of an eye ended up waist-deep in the mud. What just happened? My first thought was of an old Robot Chicken cartoon where a giraffe sinks in quicksand and goes through the "five stages of grief". Would that be me? What to do? We were utterly stuck and likely sinking. Then, I thought of the tide slowly rising above my head. And then, crocodiles. What is it with the mind playing tricks on us? As a child, I had nightmares with crocodiles, even if we don’t have them in Puerto Rico, where I'm originally from. But what got me worried wasn’t my irrational fear, but the look of the two locals scanning the area, seemingly worried. I didn’t ask why, I just knew we needed to get out of there.
At that point, I realized I had 'Pablo' the walking stick with me. Finally, my thoughts got useful: I just needed to follow the "Man vs. Wild" instructions. That is, to lay Pablo across the surface and use it to push myself up. It was working! I kept using 'Pablo' until I reached the roots at the other side of the ditch and dragged myself out. I passed 'Pablo' around, and everybody got out - distinctively ungracefully. The only casualties were several boots that stayed in the mud and were lost forever.
At last, we reached the beach, and we went straight for a swim. The plume of mud coming out from our clothes reached the surfers floating in the distance. All refreshed, relieved, and feeling silly, we got to answer questions from the curious people around. We briefly explained that we were studying the mangroves and why. They looked interested, and added, "Pura Vida, just be careful, there are crocs around"!
Luckily, I got to continue my career path across the land-sea interface into coral reefs ecosystems. Coral reefs have proved to be another quite adventurous fieldwork realm, and my true passion. All of this, thanks to trusty 'Pablo', my first #fieldmascot.
Damaris Torres-Pulliza @4reefs
CC-by Damaris Torres-Pulliza
You are but mortal, says the whinchat
by Will Cresswell 25.09.2020
I have a picture of this small drab-looking bird, a whinchat, right above my office desk. As I look up from my computer it stares me down, like the servant hired to whisper "you are but mortal" to temper the ego of newly crowned Roman emperors. This whinchat is the one that got away. The bird I couldn’t recatch, no matter how hard I tried. No matter how inventive I was.
I work on small migrant birds like whinchats, which breed in Europe and migrate to spend the northern winter in Africa. They are declining at an alarming rate, so understanding where they go and how they make their journeys is vital in making informed conservation decisions. One of my main methods is to tag birds with sensors that record sunrise and sunset times. Because these times vary depending on location, this method is good enough to locate birds as they move over thousands of kilometers. The tags are small and light enough for a small bird like a whinchat, but they are archival; meaning, we have to recapture the tagged bird a year later to recover the data.
Catching just any bird is easy. Catching a specific bird, and indeed one that you have already caught, is not. Individuals learn to avoid your traps and nets very quickly. We get around this with the whinchats by using a variety of trapping methods. I’ve become very good at it, but some birds seem uncatchable a second time.
Last November in Nigeria, I tried to catch this winchat on six separate days, in six different ways. I had already caught all the other tagged whinchats, and on my last day in the field I pulled out all the stops. I set up all my nets the afternoon before, crisscrossing its little wintering territory to intercept all the flight lines I had observed it using in my previous attempts. To lure the winchat into a false sense of security, I rolled up the nets so they couldn’t catch anything and let the bird fly around and get used to them. When furled, the nets pose no danger to the birds. The next morning, I got up two hours before sunrise, and stealthily unrolled the nets, ready for capture. I was back out of the territory well before first light and hid nearby. It was a perfect setup, I just needed to wait for the window of half-lit dawn when a whinchat patrols its territory, but the nets are still invisible.
But, just as the timing was perfect, a man shuffled along the path towards the territory. He stopped dead in the centre, obviously oblivious to my beautifully invisible nets. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes, lit up, dropped his trousers and settled in for ten minutes of important morning bowel movements. I watched in horror as my whinchat was completely put off by this, and relocated into a neighbouring territory. The man finished, and wandered off, none the wiser. The moment was gone. You can be in the right place, at the right time, but sometimes shit happens.
My consolation, that time, was a white-faced owl that did fly into my net. A lovely thing to see close, but particularly so because I had no idea that they have outrageous bright violet-blue eyelids (you can just see the edge of them in the photo). Ridiculously endearing, like some badly applied party make-up: goodness knows what function they serve in a nocturnal animal. Perhaps they glow alluringly in the ultraviolet half-light. I was left with a big grin as it blinked at me while I released it. My nocturnal efforts were worth it. I might be mortal as far as the whinchats go, but I was left smiling.
Snake encounter in the Trinidad Bush
by Amy Deacon 07.10.2020
Imagine you’ve insisted on bringing a young research assistant into the "bush", despite their parents' trepidation. Now imagine a venomous snake is swimming towards said research assistant. Not good.
I spent 5 years as a postdoc working on the initial BioTIME project, monitoring patterns of diversity in Trinidad's Northern Range. This meant returning to the same stretches of stream several times a year to sample fish, aquatic invertebrates, and diatoms.
Every trip brought something different and exciting – whether an intricate hummingbird nest, a mountain crab covered in babies (they cling on until large enough to fend for themselves), or an endemic stream frog. Other times it was human distractions. Trinis like to 'lime' (relax with food, drink and friends) by the river on days off, and we were frequently offered an early morning beer/rum and invited to stay for a curried duck lunch. We got used to politely refusing such offers, as our samples had to be processed back on campus.
One of our field sites in Trinidad’s Northern Range mountains. Photo Credit: Amy Deacon
While fish could be identified on site, identifying smaller samples meant hours of sifting through petri dishes. Thankfully I had the expertise and company of Sarah, a fantastic graduate research assistant.
One day, Sarah casually mentioned that she had never visited ANY of the Northern Range rivers. I was horrified that she hadn't experienced the beauty of the places where all of our samples come from, and insisted that she accompany us on an upcoming trip. She was keen, but the "bush" is considered dangerous by many Trinidadians, and her parents needed some convincing. We persuaded them that she was in good hands with our experienced team.
I chose one of my favorite field sites, and on a beautifully sunny day Sarah accompanied the field crew on our sampling run. Although just minutes from the road, this site feels like a million miles away once you are there – surrounded by huge trees, white wild lilies, and all the sounds of the forest. Sarah was mesmerized and had a wonderful time helping out.
The field team: Avinash, Raj, Kharran and me. Photo credit: Miguel Barbosa
Shortly after we started seining near a fallen tree trunk, we noticed something moving towards us in the water. As the Jaws theme tempo quickened, we saw it…the snake!
Me (left) and Sarah counting fish on the river bank. Photo credit: Sarah Shageerb
Now, Trinidad and Tobago have nearly 50 species of snake, and only 4 of these are dangerously venomous. Reassuring statistics, you'd think. Unfortunately, the most venomous species, the fer de lance (Bothrops atrox), is defended well enough to be assertive and is therefore most commonly seen. I couldn't believe it; in years of sampling and literally hundreds of field trips, the one time we encounter a venomous snake is when Sarah has joined us for the first time!
Thankfully, my extremely experienced and cool-in-a-crisis colleague, Raj, calmly approached the snake. He used a long stick to "encourage" it in the direction of the bank, driving it far enough away that we could finish sampling. Sarah appeared unfazed, perhaps even excited by the experience. I was relieved, and subtly suggested that her chances of coming on another trip might be improved if she didn’t tell her parents about the deadly snake.
The fer de lance (Bothrops atrox), locally known as mapepire balsain,
is a pit viper. It is extremely well camouflaged on the forest floor and
apparently also enjoys a swim. Photo Credit: Renoir Auguste
Fieldwork in Trinidad is always an adventure. I'm sure that's a big part of why, a decade after embarking on BioTIME sampling, I am still here, exploring the island's incredible biodiversity and enjoying the adventures that each day brings.
Amy Deacon @amy_e_deacon
Trial by... fog
by Cher Chow 21.10.2020
In February 2019 I was part of a team conducting reef fish biodiversity surveys in Hong Kong. This was essentially a two-year field season filled with long days, often spent sopping wet in isolated areas. Conditions I’m sure are relatable to many biologists. While most of our survey sites were easily accessible from the city’s piers, some required a 40-minute speedboat ride along the rocky coastline of a towering UNESCO Geopark. Despite the longer commute and tricky navigation, these were some of my favourite sites to dive at because the steep cliffs usually meant finding more interesting critters and fish.
Our survey days had two dives: one at noon, and another 1 hour after sunset. On the night dive that we were wrapping up our dry season, we had to tackle one of those tricky survey sites, called Long Ke. Our skipper, Ze Fu (姐夫), was one of what we call "water people" in Cantonese— a multi-generational skipper and fisher. He expertly navigated around the craggily shallows of the coastline, even in the dark.
The actual dive went well: I found a huge cuttlefish and some rare red skeleton shrimp. But the adventure started after we surfaced. During our 80-minute dive, the thickest fog I’d ever seen in Hong Kong came rolling in. It was ominous, like a scene straight from Pirates of the Caribbean. Even Ze Fu, with all his seafaring expertise, had rarely seen fog like this.
Long Ke on a better day. The dive site is out on the tip on the right.
The way back to the dive centre was perilous even without the fog, but now visibility was limited to two meters in front of the boat. We strapped our dive torches to our wrists, pointed them outwards, and slowly navigated back. The light beams on the speedboat scattered in the fog and it was all a greyish blur.
Ze Fu had me looking at his GPS system to direct his steering, while he kept his eye on his compass. We knew there was a point coming up around Conic Island with lots of little mounts near the surface. Ze Fu was going extra slowly around this point, following the GPS. Then, suddenly, as the waves crashed against the mounts our dive buddy saw them exposed dangerously close port-side. We were only a metre away from crashing into them and narrowly missed it. The GPS had lagged, and Ze Fu didn't see it coming. We slowed to ~1 knot and meandered our way across the bays.
Skeleton shrimp I found during the UVC.
Somewhere along the first rocky bay past Long Ke, I realised Ze Fu was going in a circle, despite my instructions to tell him to go northeast. My dive buddies were looking on port and starboard to keep a lookout with their torches in case more mounts would come up again, and they noticed that Ze Fu was going opposite of my directions. He was reading his marine compass wrong. One of my co-workers, Jeffery, realised this and started translating my directions into "left" or "right" instead. But Ze Fu was mixing those up too! Jeffery and I solved this by placing ourselves at port and starboard and used us as directions to make sure Ze Fu didn’t get confused anymore. The slow and improvised navigation teamwork continued for who knows how long.
Exhausted, cold, and hungry, we finally made it to the dive centre. It was more than an hour since we surfaced, and I have never been more sure of my navigational skills since then...
Cher Chow @cherFYchow
The longest, blindest speedboat skip in my fieldwork memory.
Three birds in the net are worth tears and sweat
by Claudia Tapia Harris 28.10.2020
Everyone that's done fieldwork remembers that day; the one where everything goes unexpectedly perfectly. For me, it happened during the last fieldwork season of my PhD.
For over three years now, I've been studying the non-breeding ecology of a long-distance migratory bird, the Common Whitethroat Sylvia communis. As part of my project I spent the last three winters doing fieldwork in Jos, Nigeria; a far cry from the cold, harsh winters of Scotland, where I study. In a way, I became a migratory being myself, and it taught me to fully appreciate the benefits of long-distance migration.
My project focused on where the Common Whitethroat breed, what migratory routes they take, and where and for how long they stop over. Understanding this annual cycle will allow us to predict the responses that populations could have to recent global changes.
The reason of my joy, sadness, frustration, and happiness: a Common Whitethroat
To track the birds, we attach light-sensitive geolocators to the birds' backs. These collect times of sunrise and sunset, and because these times vary depending on where in the world you are, we can infer latitude and longitude positions. However, retrieving this data is easier said than done; one needs to re-catch the same bird to remove the geolocator. As Will Cresswell, my PhD supervisor and author of a BioTime anecdote a few weeks back, wrote: "Catching just any bird is easy. Catching a specific bird is not". Oh, how true, and even more so after they've flown over 10,000 km to Europe and back! Needless to say, getting a geolocator back is an accomplishment worthy of celebration.
In November 2019, we spent an entire month trying to find any of the 60 birds carrying geolocators. Of the 60, we managed to sight five, and of the five we succeeded in recapturing three of them. The remaining two, however, turned out to be impossible to catch even after numerous desperate attempts to outsmart them. By mid-December I left for home, hoping that upon my return the birds would be more cooperative.
Bird with a geolocator
When I came back in January, the birds were exactly where I had left them. We decided to go all in, and set up an intricate maze of over 10 nets (each 12 meters long), planning to outsmart them once and for all. It was one hour after sunrise, and we hadn’t even finished setting up the last net when, suddenly, my colleague Arin yelled: "We caught them! And guess what…!?"— I imagine there are no words to describe my face when he told me that we had not only caught our two target birds, but also a third tagged bird that we had not even detected yet! To be honest, it took me a minute or two to actually believe him.
It was thrilling. All the tears, the sweat, the roller coaster of emotions, and the sleepless nights had been worth it. It was just the boost that I needed after a long period of not being able to catch any other tagged bird. By the end of the season, after over three months, we managed to retrieve seven geolocators, so you can imagine what these three geolocators in one morning meant in terms of data, and my happiness.
Fieldwork is full of magical moments. Of course, many things never go as planned. Things rarely happen the way you imagine them to but sometimes, just once in a while, you will have that one day when everything turns out unexpectedly perfectly.
Claudia Tapia Harris @ClaudiaTapiah
A very happy PhD student
Bears, Bombs and Belugas
by Ellen Garland 2.11.2020
Killer mud, Grizzly bears, deadly tides, and unexploded ordnances—such challenges are all part of the rich tapestry of fieldwork experiences. However, as a marine biologist studying beluga whale vocalisations, these were not exactly on my list of expectations.
A few years ago, I was a postdoc at NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center, investigating population-level differences in Alaskan beluga vocal repertoires. At the time, I had never seen a beluga in the wild – clearly, that's less than ideal in terms of understanding your animal. So when I was lucky enough to be invited for fieldwork aiming to tag critically endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales, I jumped at the chance to observe these critters up close and personal.
It was summer in Alaska, so I packed warm— a few thermals, some old field clothes, a woollen jersey—and flew to Anchorage. To observe the belugas, we had to hike across some grassy flats to a particular river mouth where the salmon were running. The salmon swam up river to spawn, and for belugas that meant a glorious feast.
The sign says it all.
Unfortunately, the grassy flat we hiked across was also the firing range for a nearby military base. There is nothing quite like arriving at the parking spot, making lots of noise to scare away the Grizzly bears (!?!), and then hiking 45 minutes across a firing range…in waders….at 5 am. But don't worry, they say, just "stick to the 1 m wide path, it's been cleared of unexploded ordnances". At least on the flats you could see the bears coming.
The belugas came just after low tide, so we had to be there at the right time with all our equipment set up. This population had been extensively hunted so the remaining belugas were very jumpy when people were near. We had to be very, very quiet.
I was not fond of the Grizzly bears.
Then there was the mud. Oh, the mud. A 10 m tide creates a steep 10 m bank down the river edge, and the mud acts like quicksand. At low tide we had to switch over the acoustic gear as it became exposed above the water, which was a race against time. We took safety very seriously as people die in this mud; they get stuck, the tide comes in fast, and they drown.
We had buddies for going into the mud and large sheets of plywood to jump on to distribute your weight. Each day we got covered in mud working extremely hard to monitor the belugas and try to get a suction-cupped tag on them. We did have a lot of fun, and I loved every minute of it (even begrudgingly getting up at 3 am, as I am not a morning person!).
The River, a boat, mud, and me standing at the edge of the 'safe' zone.
Sadly, we did not get a tag on a beluga that year, though we got so close on one occasion. I even crawled on my belly—appropriately army style—to get to the water's edge and film the tagging attempts without alerting the beluga to my presence.
It was a privilege to watch pods of belugas swim past, observe their behaviour and hear them communicating with each other. They are remarkable creatures, and this window into their world helped me understand them better.
Ellen Garland @EllenGarland4
The walk over the grassy flats through the firing range. DO NOT stray from the path!
The modern-day Snow White would be an ecologist
by Dagmar der Weduwen 20.11.2020
In 2017-18, as soon as I’d wrapped up my undergrad exams, I started working as a research assistant with Edinburgh University’s Phenoweb team, studying phenological mismatch in blue tits. I would drive up and down the A9, from Edinburgh to Tain, and spend my days wandering the Scottish Highlands catching birds and counting caterpillars at our 44 field sites.
I meandered through rolling fields and along rivers, serenaded by the echoing calls of songbirds and pheasants. Rabbits and hares jumped out of my path, great stags cautiously sneaked up behind me, and owls flew from their perches as I raised them from their slumber. I saw my first red squirrel, and my first golden eagle. But the best part of the work was the blue tits.
Blue tits are wonderful birds. The adults act as if they are ten times as big as they are, hissing and dive-bombing if you come too close to their offspring. They’re intelligent, remembering where my colleagues and I had hidden on previous attempts to catch them. To stay stealthy, we’d crouch down behind trees, rocks, and bushes, sometimes outfitted in sniper-like ghillie suits (though, they did more to hinder than to help). When the parents went in the nest-box to feed the chicks, it was go time. We sprinted at the nest-boxes to try and catch them; but, more often than not, they escaped before we got close. We’d spend hours measuring chicks and adults, and collecting their droppings. Ecology is messy work. We stank up the rental vans and the local hotel pub, leeching off their Wi-Fi to upload the hundreds of data-points we collected during the day.
My time with Phenoweb fanned the embers of my research interest into a full-blown fire. I realised I loved the long hours of fieldwork, the 10,000-steps-before-lunchtime distances, and traipsing from nest-box to nest-box before driving to the next site. I even loved the dozens of small injuries: the car doors slammed into my knees, stinging nettles clamped between my legs, having ticks cover my skin and clothes, ankles twisted, and, on one occasion, there were even piglet bites. But the moment that really sealed the deal—one that made me realise I wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of my life researching animals— is one I will never forget.
I had reached into a nest-box, like always, to check whether the eggs had hatched. The nest-box was too high up for me to see inside, so I gently groped around and felt the soft flesh of the newly hatched chicks. Excited, I pulled out my scale, and a small plastic photo-film container which we placed chicks into so they didn’t fall all over the place (as in photo above). Setting up my ‘workstation’ on a flat bit of ground, I proceeded to gently lift the squirming chicks out of the nest, cupping them softly in my hand. But one wasn’t fully hatched, and its little bald head was poking out through the broken eggshell. The egg rolled around in my hand as more and more of the chick emerged. I felt it struggle against the shell encasing it, until it had fully extracted itself, joining its siblings in their squirming throng.
The emotions I felt as that little bird struggled into being, cradled in the palm of my hand, can hardly be described. It was a mix of wonder, pride, love, and astonishment. I don’t cry easily, but at this, I almost did. I shared the first moment of that chick’s existence in the world.
Dagmar der Weduwen @DJWeduwen
Eavesdropping on whales
by Franca Eichenberger 01.12.2020
"Why would someone dedicate years to studying the humpback whale song?" you may ask. Well, in short, the allure of mystery.
Unlike Dory from 'Finding Nemo', we sadly don’t speak whale, so—even though we've known that humpbacks sing for 50 years—we're not entirely sure what the 'lyrics' mean. We do know it's the males that sing, and they do so during breeding season; so, it likely serves an important function in reproduction. Humpback whales stand out from other singing animals in the song's complex structure, constant evolution, and high conformity within a population. In other words: the song progressively changes each year, but all males within a population know the same version, and learn the new changes.
The first time I heard the underwater symphony, I had to pinch myself. Growing up surrounded by the Alps in landlocked Switzerland, I never quite dared to imagine that I would end up listening to the songs of these majestic giants on a small boat in the southwest Pacific Ocean. But here I was, researching their longing wails as part of my PhD at the University of St Andrews.
Breaching humpback whale.
In my project, I'm trying to understand whether some males sing better (or, different) than others, and, if so, whether females prefer to mate with males that sing in a particular way. I joined a team of researchers at IRD (UMR Entropie) and Opération Cétacés to conduct fieldwork on a humpback whale population breeding in New Caledonia (a tiny French island to the east of Australia) during the austral winter (June – September) of 2018.
On my first day of fieldwork I was extremely excited and nervous – I didn't quite know what to expect. We cast off on our little red Zodiac, and I started scanning the sea for any conspicuous signs of whales. Before long we spotted a big blow at the horizon and slowly made an approach.
Getting the boat ready for a day of research at sea in the early morning.
The sea was calm, offering a glimpse into a foreign world beneath and unveiling the full length of a humpback whale swimming alongside us. It was gigantic, yet its body moved effortlessly, seemingly weightless through the water. As the whale came to the surface to breathe, the wind blew its exhaled air towards me, scattering little whale blow droplets all over my face. My initial unwitting – and, in hindsight, rather stupid – thought was one of pure joy. I have been graced by the moist breath of a whale! I later learned that whale breath can transmit diseases and parasites to humans, and consequently held my breath and turned away from incoming whale showers thereafter.
On my second day, the sea was rougher yet I was no less excited. We dropped our hydrophone in the water hoping to hear some whales sing. Lucky for us, the ocean was full of high-pitched shrieks, harmonic cries, and rumbling groans. It was an underwater orchestra – but for whom and why? While I was listening to this exhilarating concert in the middle of the choppy sea, pondering about these questions, a marine-mammals' scientist's worst fear was brewing: I started feeling terribly seasick. While everybody else was enjoying their lunch with the view of two minke whales circling our boat, I was fighting the strong urge to empty my stomach contents over the side rail. However, even with face against the dirty boat floor and the world spinning around me, I still felt like I was the luckiest person on earth.
Franca Eichenberger @_francae
Deploying the hydrophone.