Monday, May 31, 2010

The Real Work Begins

Today is training day. We have been split into 2 teams of 4. My shift starts at 10am, the other team started at 8am. The scaffolding that will elevate us above the casual whale watchers at a lookout above Frenchman’s Beach is still being refitted for the survey, so today is just practice. Each team will have two shifts per day, Team A from 7-10am and 12-2pm, Team B from 10-12 and 2-5pm. The plan is to count the number of pods and their composition, along with spatial movements, over a 10h period. This will give the average number of whales that pass by every 10h day (also known as a relative abundance estimate). 2-3 people will act as spotters, 1 to operate the theodolite, and the final person to log the sightings into the computer. At the end of the day, we will take turns organizing the data in Excel and backing everything up. Now the work begins.

To keep active, I plan to run and surf with others most mornings. Even though the waters in the upper 70’s, I have managed to develop a cold surfing without a wetsuit. I may have to go into town and buy a springy. We haven’t had any other shark sightings since the first day, but there are plenty of shark nets offshore. Apparently they capture them in the nets and dump the carcasses out to sea in order to protect the beachgoers, what a waste. They should try and figure out a way to stop lighting instead, since it strikes and kills more than a shark. The waves on the first day were epic, head high peelers with an offshore wind, but they have dropped in size the last few days.

When they weather is bad, I will try to get some birding in. I can hear the Kookaburras everywhere, but have yet to see one. I also heard a few parrots this morning fly by. Yesterday, several Australian Gannets where chasing a school of large fish off the point. I’m also on the lookout for snakes and Koalas.

Still waiting on the Facebook page address, which will have lots of pictures posted during the survey. The photo I posted is looking south along the coast of North Straddie from Point Lookout. Tucked in the corner on the right is where I went surfing the first day. You can barely make out the shark nets. Sorry Mom.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hello From Aussie Land

Well, I am here. I just spent the last 20 minutes typing an update of my travels so far on Word, and somehow erased everything without saving it. Bollocks. So instead of spending another 20 minutes trying to rethink my tired thoughts, I’ll give you a quick outline of what has happened so far.

Flew 15 hours from FAT to LAX to Sydney on the first day. Highlights included unlimited movies, food, games, and a tail wing camera on a Qantas flight. Best of all…No infants. Watched a lightning storm over Tonga, it was amazing.

Then a flight from Sydney to Brisbane where I spent a night in the city. The hostel was loud, and I watched an Aussie and some other blokes I was drinking with almost head butt some British dude who commented on one of their girlie jackets. At that point I took my supper to my room and read.

The next morning, I took the train to Cleveland where I hopped on a fairy to North Straddie. Saw numerous pied-billed cormorants and some silver gulls, and heaps of other birds new to me.

At N Straddie waiting for my ride, I watched bottlenose dolphins surfing, a green sea turtle feeding, some rainbow lorikeets screeching, and some humpbacks breaching. Not a bad way to start the trip.

Michael Noad, the PI, picked me up and I met the other volunteers. All lovely people who also know how to drink. Ate kangaroo meat and listened to the British and Aussies tell stories ( something Americans need to improve on). Luckily there’s another American from Michigan. I’m already talk like them aye.

Today, Sun 30th, I surfed the best waves of my life with a few Cetacean experts. Saw several sharks in the very waves we surfed, saw a manta ray jump, and list ended to more lorikeets. Also heard a kookaburra.

We talked about the protocol for the survey, and learned to use a thoedolite and the Cyclopes software. We are now drinking more and playing hangman. This is going to be a FUN 6 weeks.

No photos yet, but soon I may be able to post them. We will have a Facebook page going for the study that we are going to update every day, I'll post the addrees soon. You can try and search for North Stradbroke Humpback Survey, that may work.
I can’t say I miss anyone yet, sorry. I should though later on. More to come later.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Packing My Life Into A Duffel

Ten days to lift off and counting. Now starts the always daunting task of packing. This time it's especially complicated since I'm packing for two trips with opposing weather patterns. North Straddie will be mild, in the mid to upper 70's, compared to Baja's scorching 90 degree average. I'd like to have a light bag for both trips, yet I'm finding out that I want to bring more than can be smashed and compressed into the duffels. Screw it, I'll just pack a few shirts and smell like a real researcher in order to make room for the snorkel, photography, and birding gear.

Reef has learned to recognize when I'm about to leave for an extended absence, and is looking a bit down these days. Luckily Rachel has offered to watch him while I'm gone , which means he gets to at least stay in the house that smells like my feet, armpits, and processed tacos. Good for Reef, not so good for everyone else.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

North "Straddie" Humpbacks

Here is a little history about the population of humpbacks I'll be studying and some background on the research. Note: I didn't write this. Also the photo depicts humpbacks seen in Monterey Bay (whales that I'm familiar with), which have less white than humpbacks in the southern hemisphere.

Every year, a large population of humpback whales migrate along the east Australian coast between their breeding grounds inside the Great Barrier Reef and their feeding grounds in the Southern Ocean. At the latitude of southeastern Queensland, the northward migration occurs May – August while the southward migration occurs August – November. This population is part of what, historically, was called the Southern Hemisphere Group V, i.e. whales that feed in Area V of the Southern Ocean, between 130E and 170W (longitudinally from about the middle of Australia across to just east of New Zealand). While whalers thought of this a one amorphous population, we now know that this is overly simplistic and there is really a meta-population that stretches across much of the South Pacific. Distinct populations migrate to breeding grounds off east Australia, New Caledonia, Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa all within the old boundaries of ‘Group V’, and French Polynesia and the Cook Islands that historically were in ‘Group VI’. While these populations are distinct, there appears to be low levels of interchange among them. East Australian whales are now referred to as Breeding Stock E1 with New Caledonia being E2 and Tonga being E3. French Polynesia is group F.

In the 1950s and early 1960s humpbacks were hunted from several shore stations along the Australian east coast during their migration. The largest of these was at Tangalooma near Brisbane which took 600 - 660 whales per year. By the early 1960s, however, whale numbers were badly depleted and whaling ceased in 1962. Although it was originally assumed that the shore stations had overfished the whales causing their population to collapse, the real problem was high levels of illegal, unreported pelagic whaling by Soviet fleets in the Southern Ocean in the early 1960s. Either way, the population, originally numbering around 30,000, was reduced to only a couple of hundred whales at the most.

Despite this tremendous depletion, the humpbacks are staging a remarkable comeback with around 14,000 in the population currently and an annual rate of growth of around 11%. We know this as the result of a series of surveys of the whales that began in the late 1970s. Every year or two since then there has been a survey by one or both of two different teams at Pt Lookout, North Stradbroke Is, just off Brisbane, which juts out into the migratory path of the whales. The surveys were run by Dr Robert Paterson, a Brisbane radiologist, and Prof. Michael Bryden of the University of Queensland and later the University of Sydney. Together, these surveys form one of the longest, most rigorous and most comprehensive series of surveys of any population of whales in the world with the possible exception of the Californian gray whales.

We took over the surveys in 2004 when we conducted a long 14 week survey of nearly the entire northward migration (late May to late August). This was designed as an absolute abundance survey where we wanted to estimate the size of the migratory population. We estimated that there were around 7,090 in the population then and confirmed that the whales were still increasing rapidly (10.6% per anuum).
The next survey was in 2007. This was designed as a relative abundance survey where we wanted to get a count of the numbers of whales passing per 10h during the peak 4 weeks of migration to compare with a similar index developed originally by Paterson, Paterson and Cato. We ran the survey for 6 weeks thinking that that would allow us to capture the peak 4 weeks even if it was a week early or late. Unfortunately the migration peak was even earlier than anticipated and so we started off with very high number straight away. Despite this, the results sat close to the levels predicted by previous surveys and allowed us revise the long term rate of growth to 11.1%.

The 2007 survey also involved aerial surveys. We did a series of aerial surveys north and south of Pt Lookout to determine the true distribution of the whales off Pt Lookout. Doing land-based surveys, you expect to see lots of whales close to land and fewer off shore, but it’s not until you do aerials that you can see the true distribution. Anyway it demonstrated that this is not an illusion, with about 80% of the whales seen within 5km of Pt Lookout and only about 5% beyond 10km of the Point. This helps validate our absolute abundance estimates.

The other thing the aerial surveys allowed us to do was to estimate the numbers of whales we were missing from the land. Land-based double counts (where we had two land stations independently observing the whales) suggested we were missing around 10% of the passing whales. The aerials, however, showed this to be much higher, around 30%. If this was true then our absolute abundance estimates would be underestimating the size of the population by around 18%. We are currently undertaking a revision of all the data from these surveys and using a more sophisticated modelling approach to try to resolve this discrepancy.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Where in the World

We have all heard the rumors that Australians are a wild, racist, xenophobic bunch; who enjoy hard labor and revel in celebration of their countries oceans and outback. A little bit of knowledge on the history of those who settled the continent explains it all, they were all convicts from Britain. Well of course the original settlers sadly were almost completely exterminated like most other native people around the world. The British sent their worst and dimmest on a long voyage across the Atlantic, and dumped them into what is now Sydney Harbor and Botany Bay; their solution to an increasing clash between the classes in Britain during the time. What a strangely unique and disturbing bit of history it truly is. No wonder Darwin thought poorly of the character of its inhabitants when he visited Australia on his way back to England after a long 5 year journey of discovery. In fact Australia as a whole left a sour taste in his mouth, although I suspect he was dying to get off the Beagle and back to England at that point.

Despite its history, the land down under today sounds like a fascinating place. And luckily I'll be staying on an island, perhaps this will buffer me from the masses. To the right is a map of where I'll be staying. It's just east of Brisbane on the other side of Moreton Bay. Apparently Moreton Island and North Stradbroke Island used to be one continuous stretch of sand. I'm told that the combination of a heavy swell, strong tides and current, and an unfortunate ship wreck that exploded, severed the sand spit in twain.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Wind on the Bay

Spring marks the windy season for Monterey Bay. It's a time when the Pacific Loons are flying in great numbers to higher latitudes where they spend the summer, Gray Whale mother's with their new calves bring up the tail end of the northbound migration, and the graceful "tubenoses" begin to arrive in immense flocks. Albatross, shearwaters, and their kin; the remaining true sailors of the great seas. The albatross, with outstretched wings locked in place like sails on a Frigate, dance along stiff breezes that jet from atop sharp white capped swells. Visitors from halfway across the Pacific, Black-footed Albatross are a common and welcomed sight during the upwelling season in Monterey Bay; a time of year when cold water packed with long lost nutrients wells to the surface and sparks a flurry of life.

Today was one of those rare events where one finds him/herself reflecting on the connectivness of this immense planet. A Laysan Albatross, similar in size yet differing in coloration to the Black-footed, decided to fly into our view just 4 miles from Point Pinos, a rare sight for such a relatively coastal location. I've seen Laysan Albatross on Kauai, one of several nesting islands along the Hawaiian Archipelago; and yet there it was, several thousand miles from its origin. I suppose that's what I enjoy most about paying attention to wildlife, and birding in particular; it really does help one see the bigger picture.