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Tracking Marine Mammals on the Harriman Expedition Retraced

Natashia Dallin


Introduction

In the spring of 2000, I was chosen to be a part of the Harriman Expedition Retraced. Beginning in Prince Rupert, British Columbia and ending in Nome, Alaska, I would be on the second half of the trip starting in Homer, Alaska. As soon as I heard that the we Alaskan students participating in the retracing of the Harriman Expedition were to conduct a project with the help of an on-board scholar during our time spent on the Clipper Odyssey, I knew that it would be a great opportunity to learn more about marine mammals and best of all, learn from an expert.

A Love for Killer Whales (Orcas)

For as long as I can remember, I have had an extreme fascination and love for marine mammals. I don't know quite how it started, but I can't help wondering if it doesn't link back to an awesome Alaskan poster of four killer whales that hung over my family's couch when I was three years old. If this is true, it would explain why my favorite marine mammal has always been the orca. Even before I was able to read, I had started collecting books and pictures of marine mammals, jumping at the chance to discover more exciting facts about them. I remember cutting up the marine mammal calendars I would get every year for Christmas and hanging the pictures up around my room until my walls were covered with humpbacks, seals, belugas, orcas, and any other photos of that genre I could get my hands on. I filled my sketchbooks with undersea drawings that always contained at least one whales, usually a killer whale. I would pore over my books at night, copying down pages of facts on marine mammals.

I loved learning about how a cave full of wax, big enough for a family car, in a sperm whale's head helps it dive to depths of over two miles, remaining underwater for two hours or more to catch 66-foot long giant squid using echolocation. And how one male killer whale was found to have 13 porpoises and 14 seals in its stomach.

Kathy Frost, Harriman Scholar and Mentor

The keen interest I had in marine mammals growing up helped motivate my choice of Harriman scholars for an on-board mentor. After reviewing the list of participating scholars and their biographies, I decided that Kathy Frost sounded like the ideal mentor for me. Kathy has studied numerous marine mammals, tagging and tracking some with satellite transmitters through working for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the University of Alaska. She is also a champion sprint dog racer. Hearing from a family friend what a cool lady and great marine biologist she was helped me decide to contact her.

After a few e-mails back and forth, I had developed a plan with help from Kathy to take digital photographs of all the orcas we saw while on the expedition. By getting a good shot of a killer whale's dorsal fin and saddle patch, scientists can identify nearly every individual killer whale in Alaska. Our plan was to e-mail our digital photos to scientists and find out where the killer whales we saw had been seen before, therefore learning about the orca's range. I boarded the Harriman vessel in Homer, Alaska on August 4th and finally got to meet Kathy in person. I was immediately drawn to her, as everyone else seemed to be. It was very obvious that everyone liked her and felt comfortable with her casual demeanor. The Frontier Flying baseball cap and
jacket with a dog food patch she often sported showed that she was totally comfortable with herself amidst the designer rain gear worn by the majority of the passengers. When a few of us were talking about the price of laundry aboard the ship, Kathy spoke up and said, "Wash 'em in the tub! A pair of jeans takes 36 hours to hang-dry." When Kathy's zodiac was having trouble while grizzly viewing in Katmai National Park, she simply hopped overboard, no hesitation, clothes and all into waist-deep water and repositioned the boat.

Plotting Signals from Radio Transmitters

After discussing the killer whale photo-identification project with Kathy, she informed me of a different project she was working on and would rather have me help with. She, along with other biologists and local hunters, had attached satellite transmitters to eight beluga whales off of Point Lay, Alaska in early July. My job was to plot the data she was receiving from the transmitters on a map to enable us to see when and where the belugas were traveling. A few obstacles complicated things along the way. Sometimes we would receive 20 different points a day for only one whale. When this happened I looked at the signal strength for each point. I would plot the point with the greatest strength, the strongest possible signal being ranked a 'three.' Later on the same whale may have traveled for four or five days without sending us a single signal. This variance was due to the conditions in which the belugas were traveling.

Belugas transmitting very infrequent signals were thought to be swimming under ice for a majority of the time, or trying to cover distances. whereas belugas transmitting often were probably resting, therefore spending much time near the surface. The transmitters on the whales were equipped with a conductivity switch, allowing transmission only when the transmitter was out of the water. Since the transmitters were attached to the whale's dorsal ridge, it may not have surfaced every time the whale's blowhole did in order for the animal to breathe.

Then there was the actual plotting; Kathy first had to teach me how. Fortunately I had retained a little of what I'd learned about the coordinate system from middle school geography. She taught me how to read degrees and minutes and how to find exact locations on the map using a ruler and wing dividers she had repaired with Q-tips and scotch tape. First I multiplied to convert the coordinates from degrees to minutes. Then, using either the ruler or wing dividers, I measured the distances from the nearest marked degrees of latitude and longitude on my map and marked with my pencil where the coordinates should be. Then it was just match up the pencil lines and X marks the spot.

Once I got a good method down for selecting and plotting the points, the only trouble was finding enough time on-board the ship to do this. Trying to fit my project in amongst all the other activities was a huge challenge. It didn't make it any easier that once I got started plotting I never wanted to stop. It was so exciting for me to be a part of a marine mammalogist's research and to help find out information that scientists possibly didn't already know, especially when I was so interested in what I was learning about. I remember running into the other room when I'd find something exciting and being able to get Kathy, the expert, excited also about, for example, one of the belugas covering nearly 90 miles in one day or a juvenile female traveling all the way to 74บบ north. Before this project Kathy thought that young belugas stayed south of 72บบ north.

Conclusion

Working with Kathy enabled me to get a taste of some of the work that goes along with being a marine mammalogist -- a career I've thought about pursuing since before elementary school. I learned more from working with her for two weeks than I've learned from my entire marine mammal book collection in years. I'm very grateful to Kathy for sharing not only her knowledge and expertise, but also her friendship and love for life. She is truly one of the most incredible people I've ever met.

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For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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