I left for Banks Peninsula with my car full of gear: a sleeping bag, pillows, blankets, yoga mat, a bag full of good novels, clothing, toiletries, boots, sneakers, watercolor supplies, photography equipment, notebooks, bags of groceries and a detailed topographical map of the area. I’d been planning this trip for just under a year, planning without really planning, more a looking at something good sideways, so as not to scare it off. I didn’t really know what to expect from the four weeks I would spend in Banks Peninsula as a field assistant to Jesu Maria Valdes (Chile) and Lindsay Wickman (USA)–two phd students from Otago based in the area for three months over summer and three months over winter each year to conduct research on the Hector’s dolphins and their surrounds. I needn’t have worried: the four weeks I spent with them would be some of the most fun, educational and inspirational weeks of my life.
Find more photographs from my trip on my website.
La Investigación de Valdes: Water Sampling, Prey Surveys, T-pods & Dolphin Positive Minutes
Provided the weather and wind were favorable, a typical day on the water began at 5:30 am. We woke up in the dark to quiet all around the cottage, though as the month progressed, the song of the cicadas grew louder and more insistent until there was no break during the night or day, only a clean wall of sound all around. We’d prepare for the day in the half-dark of the morning, each half-asleep and quiet with our own thoughts. We fixed a thermos of tea and sandwiches, hard boiled eggs and filled a picnic bag with chocolate, nuts, crackers and water bottles. Once the truck and boat were packed with everything we’d need for the day Jesu and Lindsay used their expert boat-trailer maneuvering skills to reverse out of the tricky driveway onto the road. We left for the boat ramp by 6:30 and most mornings were out on the water and covered in heavy duty zinc sunscreen by seven am.
For me, starting out on a boat in the morning feels like freedom. With the sun not yet all the way up over the hills and the water glassy and still, I feel a sense of expectation about what the day will bring. What will I see today? What will I learn today? How will I be in the world today? The water stretched out everywhere sets everything into perspective, whether the swell is rolling or capping white or shining with mirror-like perfection, the water is how I know I have arrived. With no question of purpose and little thought of the past or the future, I ride out the day in the sun, on the swell with dolphins and seals and little blue penguins around for company.
One of our first tasks was dropping Jesu’s T-pods–meter-long tubes concealing built-in hydrophones–at data points in and around mussel farms on the peninsula. The T-pods are left to collect data for three weeks before they are collected, cleared and dropped at another data point. The hydrophones are programmed to record the particular frequency the Hector’s Dolphin echolocates at within a 400m radius. Unlike the surveys conducted on Grampus–the NZ Whale and Dolphin Trust’s aluminum-hulled 19.7 foot long vessel named for the Rizzo’s Dolphin due to the silver appearance and scratches lining the hull–T-pods can record in foul or fair weather, twenty-four hours a day, producing a record of dolphin positive minutes–how many dolphins were in the area for how long. Some behavioral assumptions can be made based on what is known about frequency of echolocation as it relates to behavior (such as increased echolocation during feeding).
On our very first day on the water together we were tasked with collecting another student’s T-pod. I kept tension on the rope while Jesu struggled to retrieve the heavily weighted mooring–a concrete-filled car tire. Fifteen meters of rope took fifteen minutes to winch up with moral support from Lindsay and I, until she could unhook the T-pod and send the mooring carefully back down to the bottom.
Jesu and Lindsay are fit and strong, smart, innovative and aware. They’re also funny and fun to be around. When they first undertook this research, both women had to learn to run and maintain Grampus, drive manual, back a boat trailer, and drive on the winding, narrow roads around the peninsula pulling a 19′ boat. One of the first innovative changes Jesu made on entering the program was to replace the large tires she was to use with small ones, though none of her peers have yet followed suit. Winching the smaller tires was a piece of cake and the moorings remained in place just as well as the larger ones.
Like the T-pods, Jesu gathers water samples for nutrient analysis from data collection points in and around mussel farms. Using a Niskin bottle, filtered syringes and test tubes (pre-labelled by yours truly) we collected water samples from the surface and a depth of 10m at each station. Roberto, the CTD was used to collect readings of conductivity (to determine salinity) temperature and depth at the surface and on the way down to just above the seafloor. I enjoyed learning the processes of sampling and the particular equipment used to do so (and having an excuse to get a little bit wet). Because I double-checked everything, Jesu suggested I was really a scientist at heart, which of course, made me smile. I’ve always been a teacher’s pet.
Using fish traps she made herself, Jesu conducts prey surveys in the bays around Banks Peninsula. The traps are lowered and left for no more than three hours which is the time determined by an Otago student when the fish figure out how to escape. When the trap is raised, species are measured and released.
About halfway through my time on Banks, a storm front blew in, interrupting the routine of our work on Grampus. For several days after the weather cleared we saw hardly any dolphins. It’s possible the dolphins have difficulty feeding during storms and spend their days following one intensively hunting further offshore–though the correlation between weather and their feeding patterns hasn’t been studied. We conducted prey surveys during this period and most of the traps came up empty, bar one spiny dogfish. I’d heard they sometimes caught conger eels in Pigeon Bay and I was disappointed not to see one in the flesh.
At the end of a day we’d head back to the boat ramp. One warm afternoon, four of us were on board and all of us were women. Sitting near the boat-ramp were two white-haired ladies reading in the sun watching us and grinning. I knew exactly why they were grinning. Even though it’s 2019 we are still navigating in unchartered waters–people are still surprised when women do typically masculine activities without any masculine supervision. We stopped and chatted, each of us beaming with pride when Jesu told them we were dolphin researchers.
After the long, winding drive back to the cottage, we unloaded our gear, cleaned and performed maintenance checks on Grampus, cleaned and prepared any equipment we needed for the next day, kicked off our boots, stripped off our wind layers and made a cup of tea. We opened all the windows and doors and plated Latin music over the steady chorus of cicada, cricket and birdsong.
On the floor of the small cottage in French Farm Valley lay the detritus of two marine mammal researchers and their field assistant: T-pods; water sampling tubes, filters and syringes; the CTD; two pelican cases for the Nikon D3 and D4 cameras and their two 70-200mm zoom lenses tucked within custom made foam; an underwater camera and housing, an iPad; an old PC laptop; a Mac desktop; an old HP Palmtop and the ancient cords required to connect it to the Mac–strewn amongst several backpacks, boots, socks, jackets, hats and gloves; cellphones, laptops, battery packs and clipboards.
Wickman’s Research: Dorsal Fin Nicks & Dolphin ID and Abundance Estimates
While Jesu’s work often requires getting wet, Lindsay’s research involves mostly surface observation and photo ID while “on effort”: actively searching for dolphins while following a course no faster than 15 knots. The course we traveled each day depended on the wind and swell and where we launched from on Banks Peninsula–a volcanic landmass composed of jagged cliffs and towering rock formations, bays, inlets and harbors. We launched from Devauchelle in Akaroa harbor or Pigeon Bay in the north. If the wind and swell were in our favor we’d travel north or south and if they weren’t, we’d trace the zigzag survey line inside Akaroa harbor. From Pigeon bay we’d head west towards Sumner heads or east towards Le Bons bay.
We saw dolphins right away most days and survey until we ran out of time, weather or reached the end of the survey line though in the first two weeks, we saw so many dolphins we rarely made it to the end. My second day on the water we saw record numbers of dolphins–over a hundred. They were very interactive, swarming around the boat, bow-riding, bubble-blowing, tail-slapping and giving us plenty of opportunities for photo ID. I hung over the bow, up to my elbows in the water, filming the ten or so dolphins swimming a few feet beneath me. At one stage, I felt so happy I held out my arms like Kate Winslet in Titanic and the dolphins instantly vanished! They’re skittish creatures though equally curious and returned after a few seconds.
Photo ID was a great part of field assisting. I felt I was working, helping and challenging myself creatively at the same time: a win win.
With each group of dolphins we looked for individuals with unique markings, primarily dorsal fin nicks which are consistent and visible, able to be seen and recorded from both sides. Marks are categorized according to how visible they are and the probability of “recapture”–the probability of the marking being photographed again. Hector’s dolphins are marked in a variety of other ways: “Rake marks” from dolphin teeth, scratches and “tattoos”–bacterial infections in a circular pattern–though these aren’t valuable for long term identification as they tend to heal and change over time.
Lindsay kept only the photographs of dorsal fin nicks that were in focus, close up and side-on. Some days we’d capture 10 usable ID shots while on other days none–a normal variation when dealing with animals in the wild. On one or two occasions we found a uniquely marked mum. The data from these IDs are incredibly valuable for data on calving. Images would later be matched to the relevant encounter data using the time, date and GPS logged in the metadata of each photograph and linked to the individual in the catalogue or used to create a new individual. Lindsay’s photo ID work and analysis will add to the already significant project begun by by Liz Slooten and Steve Dawson in 1985 who continue to make contributions to the project.
The details of each encounter are recorded in an old HP Palmtop computer tucked inside a homemade, splash-proof case. We noted duration; group size; behavior; whether calves were present and if so, how many; markings, sight-ability and beaufort state (observed conditions at sea). Coordinates are automatically logged at the beginning and end of each encounter and a GPS reading is recorded every 30 seconds for the duration. The Palmtop creates track sheets and encounter sheets for each alongshore or zigzag survey, tracing the route we traveled on Grampus while on effort. Later, the encounter data from each season will be analyzed and Banks Peninsula divided into a grid with sightings in each cell weighted against how often Grampus was on effort in the area. The east coast bays that are much harder to reach due to distance and weather, will have a higher weighting in comparison with Akaroa harbor which is surveyed frequently on days when weather doesn’t permit research beyond the heads.
We’d go off effort for a pee breaks, morning tea and sampling and when we saw dolphins off-effort we didn’t record the data. We talked a lot about the future when we were off-effort. While we sampled or set traps or drifted we told each other stories of jobs, lovers, breakups, countries, families, dreams and other adventures we’d had on the water. We sang songs and danced and wondered about what we would do next but as long as we were surrounded by all that water and our regular cetacean visitors, we had nothing to worry about.
On a day with few dolphins, we left Lyttelton harbor and stopped for a long morning tea in Little Port Cooper. Grampus drifted and the motion of the boat on the water became a lullaby and the sun shone down strong and warm. We talked and snacked and closed our eyes and tried not to fall asleep. Then it was time to go and we roused ourselves to sample in Little Akaloa bay. We turned on the motor and headed out and right away noticed two trawlers heading out to sea from Lyttelton harbor with a group of dolphins traveling fast behind them. Awake now and alert we decided to follow and see if we could ID any of the dolphins.
One of the trawlers was large and headed further out to sea. We trailed the smaller one which set to work a kilometer offshore, dolphins leaping and jumping in its wake. We got as close as we could without risking becoming entangled in the net. I could make out what might have been Dad running the trawler, the youngest at the helm with him and an older child sitting at the front, headphones on, soaking up the sun. It put the industry in perspective for me somewhat, having been under the impression that most fishing boats and trawlers were owned by large companies. Trawling may be a longstanding tradition but the practice doesn’t seem lucrative or smart in today’s world and in today’s oceans. The government has the opportunity this year to put in new protection measures that would prohibit trawling and gill net setting–the top two threats to Hector’s dolphins–in waters shallower than a depth of 100m. These measures would help prevent further fatalities from an already endangered population–since December 2018, seven deaths have been reported in the area.
The dolphins didn’t approach us as they usually did and we took as many photos as we could from a distance. We fell behind, trailing the boat with several pairs of mothers and calves. It was disconcerting to see the calves surface alone while their mums stayed down hunting. After an hour or two of no ID shots we left to sample in Little Akaloa.
Out of the Blue
On my second to last day on the water we woke up to a dead truck battery. After a few failed attempts to jump start the vehicle and an hour or so of waiting around, friends were there to help us. We got the truck running and set out for the day talking about the car accident we must have avoided by being delayed.
The day was beautiful but the wind came up after we turned north out of the heads and the swell rolled in larger than I’d seen it yet. White caps came up and Grampus’s nose dipped down into deep, rolling troughs. I eyed up the coast beneath the towering cliffs for a spot that might have been feasible to swim to. Soon the swell lessened and the laughter of the other women calmed me and I set my eyes to the horizon again. The white caps and the wind made spotting difficult and we decided to turn back. When we did the wind and whitecaps eased off and a rolling fog came in eerily covering the coast. I peered into the fog wondering when and how I might have the opportunity to do something like this again. I was still thrilled by the adventure of the experience four weeks in and reluctant for it to end. Despite the delay, weather, swell, fog and few dolphins it was still fun and freeing to be out on the water with great people, far away from home and my normal routine.
As we motored towards the heads I fell into a reverie, into a spell of looking out to the barely visible horizon, obscured by fog. In the distance, out over the blue, came two tall spouts of white water. It took me about three seconds to process what I had just seen. Now I’m an optimist and some people think that’s naive but I’ve seen some pretty incredible things in my life and lived through some pretty astounding moments and have come to expect a certain amount of possibility, a certain amount of serendipityor even magic–call it what you will–and still every time, I am wholeheartedlysurprised.
I stood up and spun around, yelling at the top of my lungs over the engine noise, “I saw blows!!!!”
“What?” Lindsay and Jesu said in unison.
I had been really hoping, everyday, that something like this would happen and I was happy and certain and shocked and equally worried that I had imagined the whole thing. “I saw blows!!!” I repeated.
“What?” they said.
We did this a few times before they understood. Jesu–bless her heart–didn’t believe me! Later she told me she’d thought, Yeah right.
Again in unison they both said, “Where?” We all four turned to examine the distance and just at the moment we turned saw the back of a huge whale rise out of the water at speed. We all screamed and my heart started beating like crazy.
It’s hard to put into words what happened and the timing of the whole encounter, the whole day. The strange swell and fog had felt premonitory. They were so BIG. I’ve seen a group of male humpbacks swirling around a game-fishing boat but these two whales felt much bigger. It’s hard on the water to determine distance and size but each time they rose out of the water they seemed to be the size of freight trains. We showed the photographs Lindsay took of the whales to scientists and whale experts and it came back that they were Blue whales. Blue whales are approximately 30m long, nearly 100 feet or the length of a football field. They are the largest creature on earth with 400 pound hearts approximately 5 feet long and four feet wide.
We found the whales and lost them and found them again, using their poo–a reddish-brown sheen of particles trailing behind them–to track them. Each time we stopped, certain they were gone and idled or turned off the engine, and both times the whales surfaced near the boat scaring us half to death with the sound of their blows. Imagine the sound a creature with the capacity to hold 5,000 litres (or 1,300 gallons) of breath makes when it breathes out. Imagine you have just turned the engine off, thinking the whales were long gone and one of you was even just about to undo her pants and pee over the side! Imagine the shock and the adrenaline and the joy and the exhilaration coursing through us as we each screamed again and the feeling we had unanimously that we might throw up. I felt like a little girl. I felt like I could die and be happy. I felt like I was in the right place at the right time and that my course was steady. I felt a hundred thousand things. I felt blessed that the whales showed themselves to us in all that immensity of water and that we had happened upon them at just the right time. I was proud I had spotted them, proud that Jesu had driven so well and Lindsay had photographed them so well and that we had all been together to experience such an incredible moment, another line crossed out in open water.
See more photographs from my trip on my website.
I owe so much thanks to Jesu and Lindsay and the NZ Whale & Dolphin Trust for giving me the opportunity to volunteer with them and learn so much from them. They are two inspiring, passionate, amazing, strong women working hard for conservation and science communication. What I learned from them in my time as field assistant will be put to use in my novel: driving and maintaining the boat, using the GPS and chart for navigation, logging encounters, equipment, downloading data, analysis, technique, terminology, protocol and so much more. I look forward to spending the next few months weaving the specifics of the research equipment and methods into the narrative.
Thank you both for teaching me all about marine research, for welcoming me into your beautiful community of friends in Akaroa, for teaching me how to hula hoop (again) and encouraging me to put on some latin music and just dance.