Anika Wall's Diary


Friday, September 7, 2007 Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Sunday, September 16, 2007 Monday, September 17, 2007
Tuesday, September 18, 2007  

Friday, September 7, 2007 It has now been five weeks since I found out I was coming to Monterey Bay in California for my Earthwatch trip. I wasn’t exactly sure where Monterey Bay was. When I told mum, she told me that the poster that used to hang outside my bedroom when I lived at home was Big Sur, and that was very close to Monterey Bay. She has told me how you drive along the cliff tops, and all you can hear are the sea lions on the shore 100 meters (330 feet) below. It was then that I began to get an understanding of where I was going, and I began to get very excited.

The week I found out I was coming to Monterey was a very stressful week for me. I had an exam and a major event on at work, so I only let myself be excited for about an hour, as I knew it would distract me from what I was meant to be focusing on.

I have been extremely busy at work since that time, and, unfortunately, I haven’t really had much time to think about coming. The first I really thought about it was last Saturday when I bought some polarized sunglasses and some new lightweight pants. This past week was very hectic, as I was working long hours to try and get everything in order at work before I left.

Finally, at about 8 p.m. last night, I pulled out my suitcase and started packing. It seems every time I take a trip involving a plane flight, I pack even later than the last flight! At about 1 a.m. this morning, I climbed into bed, only for my alarm to go off at 3:40 a.m. so I could get to the airport by 5 a.m. for my flight. Being so tired, I didn’t move very quickly that morning and probably took too long in the shower. I got to the airport right on 5 a.m., checked my luggage, and got to the departure gate about five minutes before boarding commenced.

I was on my way! My first flight was from Perth to Sydney, which took about five hours. I got off the plane at Sydney and transferred to the international terminal. While transferring between terminals, our bus passed by Airforce One, which was being closely guarded by a number of security vehicles. The back of Sydney Airport was a parking lot for presidential planes from a number of countries whose leaders are currently all in Sydney for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.

I had about 10 minutes to spare before boarding commenced, so I had a very brief look around the duty free shops and boarded the plane for Los Angeles.

The longest plane ride I have ever had until now was about five hours to Sydney, with an additional couple of hours to New Zealand. At this point in time, I could not comprehend being on a plane for 13 hours. It was completely foreign to me. About six hours into the flight, I became very restless. I had managed to have about 45 minutes of sleep after dinner, but I was awake again. To make matters worse, my legs were beginning to throb, no doubt because I was so tired. The next two hours seemed to crawl, as I was bored by the handful of movies playing on continuous loop on the in-flight entertainment. Everyone around me was asleep, and all of the lights were out, so I didn’t want to be the only one in the cabin with a light on annoying everyone, especially the small child sleeping across the row from me. Traveling to your destination always seems to take so much longer than the way back—probably because of the anticipation and excitement of the adventure ahead!

Eventually I landed in LA. After waiting for about 30 minutes for our plane to be towed into the terminal, I got off the plane, passed through immigration, and collected my bags. I joined the queue to clear customs, only to have Tom Carroll and Martin Potter (legendary surfers) line up beside me. This made getting through customs extremely easy, as my customs officer was a huge fan of Tom Carroll’s and was more interested in chatting to him than he was in my luggage (not that I had anything that I shouldn’t have!).
 
I was through immigration and customs, so I rechecked my luggage and headed upstairs to once again pass through security and wait for the final flight leg of my trip—LA to Monterey.

I found my gate for boarding rather easily. From this gate, I had to take a bus to what I assumed was the plane. I showed my boarding pass to the gate lady, who was concerned that the boarding time printed on my ticket had passed (although it did seem to be an unusual boarding time, as it was one hour before the flight was due to depart). She sent me to the help desk, where another woman told me it was fine and to wait about another 10 to 15 minutes before catching the bus. Just after she said that, she looked up and saw that a bus was about to depart. She told me I may as well just jump on that one. It was only when I got to the other end of the bus trip that I realized I had been taken to another terminal, not straight to the plane. It was lucky I had been told to take that bus, as when I arrived at the other terminal, my name was being called since I was the only passenger who hadn’t boarded the plane!

It was a small, twin propeller plane. I have only been on one plane like it on a flight from Sydney to Canberra, but this plane was smaller. There was one flight attendant, who spoke very quickly and slurred all of his words together. I couldn’t understand anything he said!  I obviously need to get used to the American accent.

As we took off, I was very nervous about the large number of other planes that were in the sky. You looked out your window, and there were planes all around. This is an indication of just how busy the LA airport is!

We flew up the coast from LA to Monterey, and I had a good view of the ocean. I was shocked to see that the ocean was covered with a dull film that was only broken where a boat had passed through. It might have been oil—that or some other kind of pollution.

I was also horrified to see the smog—both in LA and Monterey. I learned about this smog at the university, and I remember one of my lecturers predicting that one day in the future, people will die on the freeways in peak hour traffic in LA due to the pollution. I now believe him. The air has a brown haze to it.

I got to my hotel and went for a walk to find a phone card to call home. I found a nice-looking, small Mexican restaurant where I had dinner. It was awesome food, and it was so cheap.

I am now about to go to bed. It has been a very long day. I woke up at 3:40 a.m., and it is now 10:30 p.m. About 34 hours have passed, and I have only had one hour of sleep!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007 Today is day three of my Earthwatch expedition.

On Saturday, I slept in and then walked about five kilometers (three miles) in to Monterey Bay. The hotel staff thought I was insane for walking this far, and when I asked for a map, they showed me where all the “parking lots” were. While in Monterey Bay, I looked around Fisherman’s Wharf and walked down to Cannery Row. I got my first encounter with some of the wildlife—all of the seals and the sea lions.
 
On day one, I met with the group at 10 a.m. at a hotel in Monterey Bay. Cyndi, one of the Earthwatch staff, picked us up and drove us approximately 40 minutes to the house we are staying in. The house is located in a gated community, approximately 10 minutes north of Moss Landing and Elkorn Slough—the focal points for our research. There are eight of us living in this four bedroom, two bathroom house, so things are tight and busy. I am sharing a bedroom with two other volunteers—Sarah R. and Sarah B. 
 
On Sunday afternoon, we visited the Elkorn Slough Visitor Center to get an appreciation of the area and to see models of some of the prey that otters of Elkorn Slough feed upon. Dani, the project’s principal investigator, explained that one of the two projects we would be working on was examining the current availability of food for the otters in Elkorn Slough.
 
We had dinner and went to bed around 10 p.m.
 
Yesterday, my day started very early. I got up at 3:30 a.m., as I had the first shift of otter observations. Dani and I departed the house at 4 a.m. in order to arrive and set up at Elkorn Slough in time for our first observation at 4:30 a.m. This week, we are measuring the effect of the high tide on the otter raft. “Raft” is the term given to a group of otters that are resting. They float in the water together—rather like a raft. 
 
It was very dark when we arrived at Elkorn Slough, but I could make out two dark bodies lying on the beach below and a number of heads in the water. This was my first encounter with an otter. From 4:30 a.m. until 6:30 a.m., we were making night observations, where we counted each otter as being active or inactive every 30 minutes and also assessed how “tight” the raft was—that is, how close together the resting otters were.
 
It was light enough at 6:45 a.m. to begin making our day observations, where we count each otter and observe what behavior it’s displaying at that time—resting, grooming, foraging, mating, or interacting. We also observe the tightness of the raft.
 
I had been watching the otter on the beach below me through the binoculars. He was rubbing his eyes over and over again as he woke up. It was very cute. Just as it got light enough to take a photo of him, he got up and headed for the water, and I missed the photo opportunity.

This otter colony is a male colony; however, there are a couple of elderly females living with this group of young male bachelors. Male colonies usually develop on the outer fringes of otter territories as the male otters develop new territories. However, this colony is in the middle of an existing otter territory, and the purpose of this colony is not yet understood by the researchers.
 
At 8:30 a.m., I returned with Dani to the house, and I went back to bed. I was very tired, as I haven’t been sleeping well due to the jet lag. At 4 p.m., Dani and I were joined by Sarah R and Sarah B, and we headed back to Elkorn Slough to do another four-hour shift of otter observations.
 
During this observation, Dani taught me to do the foraging observations. This involved working in pairs and watching the otters as they dove for prey. We needed to record the time that the otters dove and resurfaced and then identify the particular prey item they had retrieved before they devoured it and dove again. 
 
These otters are incredibly efficient at digging up clams, gapers (a burrowing clam), and worms, bringing them to the surface, tearing them open, and devouring their contents. These animals are so strong that it literally takes only seconds for them to open the clams—and they have often devoured them before I could even focus the binoculars!
 
We observed one otter for over half an hour when he then surfaced with a gaper more than seven times the size of his paw (prey items are measured in paws). This gaper took him over a minute to devour before he dived again, surfacing with a small worm for dessert. He then headed off, back toward the otter raft for some rest.
 
This morning, I am on data entry. I am currently awaiting the return of Dale and Carol from the morning otter observations so I can be trained and get started on my duty for the day. This evening, I am on otter observations again until 9:30 p.m.

Sunday, September 16, 2007 Today is the second to last day of my Earthwatch trip. It has been amazing, and I have been very busy. That is why I haven’t been writing my journal as often as I would have liked.

The following is a summary of what I have been up to since Tuesday.

On Wednesday morning, it was finally my turn to go out on the dolphin survey, which is the second project of this Earthwatch expedition. The crew was Dani and Mark (Earthwatch researchers) as well as Sarah B., Dale, and me.

After boarding the boat and leaving the harbor, we headed south toward Monterey. It wasn’t long before we came across our first group of dolphins. Dani began photographing the dolphins’ dorsal fins. It was then I figured out what all of the other volunteers had been talking about each night after they returned from their field work and why they had been spending hours pouring over dolphin photos on the computer.

Each dolphin has a unique set of notches on their dorsal fin. These notches are caused by parasites, fish bites, scars from social interaction, and occasionally fishing gear. The researchers take photos of the dorsal fins and compare the photos to those in the photo catalog to identify the individual dolphin.

I pulled out my camera to try and take some photos of the dolphins for myself. I very quickly gained an appreciation of just how hard the researcher’s job is. My first 20 or so photos were of water only. The dolphins move so quickly through the water, that by the time I lined the photo up and pressed the button, the dolphin was already back under the water. Mark is incredible—he has a sixth sense for when to press the shutter button.

We came across lots of dolphins in the first part of the survey. The first couple of groups were quite uncooperative, and they took some time to photograph. After a couple of hours, we came across a large group of dolphins. These dolphins were very interested in our group and kept coming in and bow riding. At one point, we had about five dolphins bow riding, with another 10 to 15 traveling alongside the boat. It was very magical.

As wonderful as this was, unfortunately it was extremely difficult to photograph the dolphins from the right angle when they were under the bow. We kept having to pull to the side and slow right down to get them off the bow so we could photograph them. The dolphins were very keen to play and kept trying to tempt us to go faster so they could ride the bow.

The dolphins in the next group we encountered were resting and therefore moving very slowly through the water. It was like they were in slow motion. This made it a lot easier for me to get some photos!

We continued our survey all the way to Monterey. We didn’t see any dolphins in the last half of the survey—only otters.

When we reached Monterey, we turned offshore toward a global positioning system (GPS) waypoint off Moss Landing. Not long after heading offshore, we came across a group of Risso’s dolphins. These dolphins are about three to four meters (10 to 13 feet) long. They have a different face than the bottlenose dolphins, and their bodies are covered with white scars. These dolphins seemed huge compared to the bottlenose dolphins, but a lot more shy.

After seeing the Risso’s dolphins, we continued on to our offshore waypoint. Dale said that the most magical thing that could happen to make this day perfect would be to see orca.

Her wish was granted about five minutes later. We came across three orca (commonly known as killer whales). These animals moved so quickly and with such purpose through the water. They are so black, and their white patches are so white. I can see why people are so attracted to them!

Dani and Mark told us about their behavior. They might look amazing, but you don’t want to end up as their prey. They are very nasty animals that have some very savage methods for hunting and killing their prey.

On Thursday, we did a 24-hour observation of the otters. This was a day full of long hours and challenging logistics!  Among five volunteers and two Earthwatch staff members, we needed to cover 24 hours of observations in four-hour shifts. Cyndi was assigned to coordinating the transport of the research team to and from the expedition house to Elkorn Slough, and to make sure we were all sufficiently fed and watered!  Unfortunately, three of the other volunteers were unwilling to fill their assigned shifts during the night, so Sarah R. and I and the Earthwatch staff ended up covering a number of extra shifts during the 24-hour period.

In addition to the raft and foraging observations we had been conducting earlier in the week, we were now also making boat observations. When a boat went near an otter or the raft, we observed the otters’ behavior in response to the boat. Otters are protected, and boats are required to stay away from them. Unfortunately, a number of otters are found in the slough with injuries from boat propellers, indicating that boats are not observing the restricted areas and the otters are not avoiding the boats.

At about 4 p.m., Sarah R. and I were working together when we observed a kayaker approaching a raft. The raft was the biggest we had seen during our expedition, and it later turned out to be the largest the researchers had ever seen. There were more than 120 animals.

We called out to the kayaker to stay away and leave the otters alone. The kayaker turned and paddled away, but as soon as Sarah and I sat down, the kayaker turned around again and paddled straight into the middle of the raft. All of the otters dove and fled the area. Several minutes later, a parks and wildlife officer drove by, and we told her what had happened. She went over to the other side of the slough and spoke to the kayaker. As soon as she left, one of the kayaker’s friends hopped in her kayak, paddled out, and did the exact same thing. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. Some people are so inconsiderate.

Friday was our rest day. The Earthwatch staff drove us into Monterey around 9 a.m. I planned to go whale watching and then meet up with Sarah R. at the Monterey Aquarium around lunchtime. Unfortunately, the morning whale watch was fully booked, so I booked the afternoon whale watch and went to the aquarium in the morning. The aquarium was amazing—it has some wonderful displays.

After spending the full day at the aquarium, Sarah R. went on a sunset sail. Sarah had been quite unfortunate in the first half of the expedition. She hadn’t seen any whales or orca, unlike the rest of us. Upon her return from the sail, she had earned her boasting rights. As soon as they left the jetty, they saw a great white shark!

On Saturday and Sunday, I was on the dolphin survey. On both days, we headed north. We saw a lot of porpoises between our dolphin pods, and we observed that the red tide was beginning. Red tide is a red-brown colored algae that forms in the bay when the environmental conditions are right.

On Saturday and Sunday nights, Dani and Cyndi gave us a presentation about the other research they do on whales. They both have the most amazing careers and have had some very unique experiences.

Monday, September 17, 2007 Today was our last day of fieldwork. We took both of the research boats out with the intention of surveying the entire bay for dolphins in one day. I was with Sarah R., Dani, and Mark, and we headed south.

Unfortunately, as soon as we got out of Elkorn Slough, there was a massive swell. This made it far too unsafe to get within about 300 meters (985 feet) of the shore—certainly out of viewing range of the surf zone where the dolphins are found. We had to turn back, and instead we cleaned the boat and went to a local restaurant for a grilled calamari sandwich. They are so addictive!

On Monday night, three of the other volunteers decided to leave the expedition early, so they packed their bags and went. That left only Sarah R. and me with the researchers.

The other volunteers really missed out, as this was the night Dani gave us the presentations about the research we had been doing. These presentations provided the context for the work we had been doing and showed us how our data will be used.

Sea Otters
Adult male sea otters are territorial. Their breeding territories average 40 hectares (100 acres) and contain many females. Depending on a combination of age, experience, and fitness, a male sea otter may hold different sizes of territories. They return to the same territory seasonally, moving from areas of high male abundance to areas of high female abundance. During the winter, 74% of adult males leave breeding areas and join concentrations of males located near the ends of the range. Sub-adult males generally stay in male groups near the extremities of the range. Elkorn Slough is unusual, as it is in the middle of the range.

Sea otters using Elkhorn Slough are mostly juvenile males, with a minority of older individuals. The otters use some areas of the slough to rest in rafts and other areas, mainly the main channel, to forage on a variety of invertebrates.

Between 1998 and 2003, the number of otters in the slough decreased dramatically. This decline coincided with a decline in food supply in the area. It seems the otters overgrazed the slough. Over the past few years, the otters have been reinvading the slough.

Tourist activity around the slough is growing, and kayak and other boat traffic is increasing in the slough, with the otters being one of the draws. The sea otter rafts are found right in the middle of this intense human activity area. This research project is examining the effect this is having on the otters’ foraging and resting patterns.

Bottlenose Dolphins
Since 1982, the bottlenose dolphin range on the Californian coast has expanded north. This dolphin research project is trying to answer the following questions:
  • How many bottlenose dolphins are in the population?
  • How many animals have moved into the new territories?
  • Is this move permanent?
  • How often do the dolphins move?
  • How far north have the dolphins moved?
 
In an attempt to answer these questions, the project is studying the population size, range, frequency, social structure, habitat use, foraging patterns, and threats to the dolphins. The researchers do this by tracking each dolphin through observation and identification.

The results to date have indicated that there are somewhere between 250 and 450 individual dolphins, and their range exceeds 1,000 kilometers (620 miles). The dolphins live in the surf zone, up to one kilometer (0.62 miles) offshore, and they move frequently—less than every two weeks.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007 Today is a sad day. It is time to go home.

At about 10 a.m., I went with the researchers to drop Sarah R. at the airport. Then there was one—me. I spent the rest of the day with the staff, helping them, running some errands, and doing some shopping. They bought a new state-of-the-art, massive camera lens that Mark wouldn’t let out of his sight for the rest of the day!

At about 5 p.m., it was my turn to leave. The researchers dropped me off at the airport, and I was on my way home. I must admit, I was really not looking forward to the journey home. It was going to be long. Fortunately for me, I was so tired I slept most of the flight from Los Angeles to Sydney.

This has been an absolutely amazing experience. I ventured farther from home than I had ever been. Wearing my environmental scientist’s hat, I found it wonderful to experience another environment in another part of the world, and to learn about an ecosystem and animals I am not familiar with. The researchers I have worked with are so dedicated to their work, and so passionate. They structure the rest of their lives around their research, because they love it so much. Given the nature of their work, this means spending long periods of time away from loved ones, but the marine mammals are part of their family.

From a personal perspective, it has been a great opportunity to meet some people with very different backgrounds from my own. Each came on this Earthwatch expedition for their own reasons.

I’d like to thank Alcoa for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I encourage anyone who has been interested in what I and the other Earthwatch fellows have been doing to look into joining an expedition of their own!

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Marine Mammals of Monterey


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