Shirel with all of her “babies” (our tags) on the first night of the cruise. All of these tags would be deployed onto whales multiple times over the next few days.

Humpback and Forth In Search of Blues

“If You Forget the Coffee, I’ll Cry”

We were heading down from Hopkins Marine Station to Santa Barbara for a two-week ocean voyage to put suction cup tags on blue whales. This trip had been in the planning stage for months and required extensive collaboration between multiple professors and their students from universities around the country. Pulling it off required a plethora of tags to collect data, poles and other gear to deploy the tags, echosounders to determine the prey field around the tagged whales, drones to take pictures and video of the tagged whales from above, computers to download the onslaught of data, and creature comforts for the boat such as sheets and miniature fans.

Shirel with all of her “babies” (our tags) on the first night of the cruise. All of these tags would be deployed onto whales multiple times over the next few days.

On this first fateful day of our journey, my labmate Shirel and I checked the bungie cords one final time and piled into the cab of the station-owned truck. The estimated value of all that equipment in the bed was a million dollars, so our professor, Dr. Jeremy Goldbogen, had asked us to drive straight to Santa Barbara without stopping. In addition to all of our expensive gear, Jeremy had made a simple request: “Please don’t forget the coffee. If you forget the coffee, I’ll cry.” There was no more room in the bed of the truck or the back seat of the cab, so Shirel was forced to hold the watermelon-print coffee bag on her lap.

We set out from Monterey and within minutes, Shirel had begun rifling through the bag to see what caffeinated treasures Jeremy had brought along for our two-week cruise. There was a miniature grinder and 8 pounds of coffee, but the most incredible find was a bottle of soap. It was called Dr. Bronner’s and the label was covered in small-print text. Sentences ran for multiple lines and forwent any semblance of syntax or grammar. The author clearly had a tenuous grip on their sanity and sounded like they must be the leader of a cult. For four hours, we laughed and wondered aloud why Jeremy had cult-soap tucked in his watermelon-print coffee bag.

At lunch, we mentioned the bottle to Paolo (one of the post-doctoral researchers from Jeremy’s lab). He instantly recognized the brand and confirmed that the author was, in fact, the long-deceased founder of a cult. He also seemed incredulous that we hadn’t heard of it before as it was well-known and widely-used within the biological community. Apparently, there are dozens of biologists out in the wilds at any given time, spreading the gospel of Dr. Bronner far and wide. We were all a bit surprised, but Paolo swore by it as the best soap he’s ever used in the field. The obvious choice, really. Now it’s anyone’s guess how a peppermint cleaner created by a “master chemist” from Heilbronn, Germany (I looked him up) and covered in quasi-religious ramblings became the cleanser of choice for the scientific community, but our conversation with Paolo made one thing very clear: Jeremy came thoroughly prepared for this trip to the field.

I tell this strange and seemingly pointless story first because I think it clarifies pretty well how I felt on that first day. I have an undergraduate degree in animal science and a master’s degree in biology and I still don’t know which soap to use in the field. Little did I know, the actual trip itself would be nearly as unpredictable.

Nothing According to Plan

The trip was originally sold to me as a two-week excursion out of cell range to the Channel Islands, where we would search for blue whales to tag and anchor up under the stars every night. As of now, our understanding of these elusive giants has been extremely limited, even compared to other large whales. We hoped that a chance to put data-driven, multi-sensor tags on large numbers of blue whales could give us unprecedented insight into their feeding and social behavior below the waves as well as their maneuverability through the marine environment. Unfortunately, the wind was up (close to 20 knots or 23 mph) and the sun was out every day, so we were forced to stay nearshore and make do on humpbacks. While not the end of the world by any means (we got some absolutely incredible data), this was not the expectation of anyone on the cruise and it was not the purpose of our journey south. If we wanted humpbacks, we could have stayed in Monterey. We came here for mythic aggregations of fifty or more blue whales that supposedly could not be found anywhere else in the world.

By the end of the first week, it became apparent that we would not be getting out to those aggregations anytime soon. Jeremy and the other lead scientists (Ari Friedlaender, John Calambokidis, Frank Fish, Jean Potvin, and Dave Johnston) decided to scrap our Santa Barbara plans and move operations up to Monterey to test our luck there. It was a massive gamble. We lost our deposit on the Truth (the boat that we had been living aboard for the last week) and Jeremy had to find other funds to rent a boat up in Monterey. If we didn’t find blues, we’d have no money left and no opportunity to try again next year.

Dr. Frank Fish trying out a cheeseburger from In-N-Out Burger for the first time on our way from Santa Barbara to Monterey. Truly a special California moment.

We took the weekend to travel and fix any of the tags that had become troublesome or non-responsive during the previous few days. Some of the new wireless tags, in particular, were refusing to connect to any of the lab computers. A few people went out on Sunday in the small boats to see what they can find in the bay. Shirel and I stayed behind on stand-by, waiting to hear if we had any tags on or if we needed to go out and listen for them with the yagi (a handheld antenna that we use to pinpoint the location of tagged animals or floating tags).

Luckily, our gamble paid off! The weather was incredible throughout the entire second week and there were blues everywhere. I had the privilege of going out on the small boat Monday and Tuesday. Now I grew up being told that I would never see a blue whale, or that if I did, I would see ONE and I would see it ONCE and I would never see one again. That was patently false. At multiple points, we cut the motors and idled while 5-10 blue whales surfaced and fed all around us. We would go out early every morning, and by the afternoon we would almost, almost be tired of blue whales. That just doesn’t seem like something that should be possible. How can you be sick of the largest animal to ever live on earth?

Being in the boat during a tagging event was by far the craziest part of the whole experience. It’s also the hardest to describe. In order to tag, you have to have the boat within 20 feet of the animal. Just for reference, these animals are over 100 feet long. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s hard to comprehend their full scope. You see a blue glow beneath the surface, then a massive knot appears and blasts vapor high above you. Then a smooth back extends forever. Once or twice, an animal would sense us and lift its head slightly higher out of the water to see what was chasing them around and poking them in the back. In these cases, the blow was preceded by an alien head as long as our boat and a bow wave that could easily capsize us if it were redirected. I’ve never been thalassophobic in my life, but when you’re that close to an undersea behemoth, fear and awe and respect for the deep oceans become palpable.

All of the professors and students involved in the cruise. This picture was obviously taken on the last day…once we realized how successful we had been!

Before this trip, I had never really been a field biologist. I had done some smaller things here and there, but I had never been a part of something on this scale and with this many moving pieces. It was eye-opening to see the process and the planning, but it was probably more useful to see how important flexibility and risk-taking can be. We spent far more than we planned for this trip and it did not go the way we thought it would, but the results speak for themselves. We tagged 38 blues and humpbacks over the course of our two weeks. All but four of those had a drone flyover, which means we have sizes that we can correlate for the first time to a whole range of behaviors. Jeremy joked that this data set would keep us busy for the next decade. He wasn’t wrong about Dr. Bronner’s (which I tried…it’s fantastic) or the decision to move our operation north to Monterey, so I doubt he’ll be wrong on this.