In June 2011 the Alaska Whale Foundation’s Rapunzel Project began researching humpback whales (Megaptera Novaeangliae) from the newly established Five Finger Lighthouse research station. This historic lighthouse was been the home to a small research team whose goal is to establish the role of communication among North Pacific humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) on their foraging grounds, and to determine whether vessel generated noise impacts their ability to communicate. 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.
To achieve our research objectives we use a theodolite (simple surveyors equipment) to monitor humpback whale distribution and social behavior across Fredrick Sound from the 18.3 meter tower which dominates the island skyline. From this vantage point we can map out with fine precision where in space and time both whales and vessels are located, where they are traveling, and how they are oriented relative one another. With two-hydrophones in the water we can monitor how humpback whale dispersion, group size, and density broadly correlates with the sounds they are generating below and, ultimately, how this appears to change in the presence of vessels.
The lighthouse vantage point allows 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 affords us a land-based research station which is less vulnerable to inclement weather and is logistically much simpler than a vessel-based operation.
Our 2012 field season ended on September 3rd, and we’re processing data and planning for 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, and what our plans are for next year! 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