We’re so happy you took an interest in our work! The Alaska Whale Foundation’s Rapunzel Project was launched in June 2011 out of the Frederick Sound’s Five Finger Lighthouse. For two summers this historic lighthouse was home to a small research team whose goal was to classify to vocal repertoire of North Pacific humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) on their foraging grounds, and to understand the social and environmental contexts of these calls. Understanding species repertoire is essential for assessing change in a population, cultural transmission, interactions between conspecifics, and changes over time.
Humpback whale produces complex and varied calls that are usually low in frequency. Low-frequency bandwidths are often inundated with anthropogenic noise- particularly vessel noise- which may mask humpback whale calls. Presently, vessel traffic in Southeast Alaska is relatively low; however, the number of vessels transiting the North Pacific is increasing. Fishing, shipping, and tourism are major contributors to the southeast Alaskan economy, and, as boat-based operations grow, the potential impact of vessel noise intensifies. A comprehensive calling repertoire, coupled with a basic understanding of calling context is the foundation for studying species resilience.
To collect the data we needed to answer these questions we used a theodolite (simple surveyors equipment) to monitor humpback whale distribution and social behavior across Fredrick Sound from the 18.3 meter tower. From this vantage point we were able to map, with fine precision, where in space and time both whales and vessels were located, where they were traveling, and how they were oriented relative one another. With two-hydrophones in the water we were able to collect vocalizations for classification, and monitor how humpback whale dispersion, group size, and density broadly correlated with the sounds they are generating below.
The lighthouse vantage point allowed us to observe humpback whale behavior without inundating the soundscape with research related vessel noise. This effectively allows for us to ‘control’ for quiet periods of observation when vessels are not present in Frederick Sound, and contrast these quiet periods with times when large vessels pass through the area. It also afforded us a land-based research station which was less vulnerable to inclement weather and was logistically much simpler than a vessel-based operation.
We departed the lighthouse on September 3rd 2012, and began the process of processing and analyzing the hard earned data! While less glamorous than life in the field the analysis is revealing some interesting and important results. Take a look around our blog for more information of what life at the lighthouse is like, who our 2011 and 2012 research teams were, what the results are shaping up to be, and what our plans are for the future! Feel free to e-mail me any time with questions about the project or to find out how you can get involved with the Alaska Whale Foundation.
Rapunzel Project Field Leader