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Hawaiʻi Island fieldwork - an intern perspective

Written by Ashley Marxsen


Intern Ashley Marxsen, photographing pilot whales off of the Kona coast, Hawaiʻi Island. Photos taken under NOAA Research permit 21476.


As someone who is about to start their last year of college, it has been a goal of mine to

gain some field experience before entering the daunting yet promising “real world”. I am a

Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences major at Oregon State University, and fieldwork

is something I hope to have the ability to do in the future. Luckily, this summer, I have had the

opportunity to intern with Claire Lacey through MMRP and assist with her fieldwork aimed at

collecting the data required to estimate the abundance and distribution of spinner dolphins around some of the main Hawaiian Islands. Previously, Claire and her team have been working around Oʻahu (see previous blog posts here, here and here); I joined the team for the first round of Hawaiʻi Island data collection, off the Kona (west) coast of the island.


Since I have never been a part of such a large project before, everything was new to me and

different than I expected. It was incredible to get first-hand exposure to everything that

goes into a scientific study. In the mornings, we would wake up around 4:30 and leave the harbor

on a Zodiac boat at 5:30. Typically, there would be Claire, two interns, and the captain. Because

only three people and the captain are needed on the boat, each of us interns got to take a few

days off every week. While on the boat, we would follow either inshore (up to 1.5 km from shore) or offshore (up to 5km from shore) transect lines. The lines followed a zig-zag pattern, to make sure we covered the whole area equally.


While “on effort” we did one of three jobs: port observer, starboard observer, or data

recorder, and we would rotate between every 30 minutes. As an observer, we would stand at

the front of the boat. The port observer would look from 270 degrees to 10 degrees (imagine the sector between 9 and 1 on a standard clock face), while the starboard observer would look from 350 degrees to 90 degrees (11 to 3 on a clock face). Whenever we saw something (or

thought we saw something), we would call out the distance and direction of the initial sighting as

well as what we thought it might be, and how many animals we thought there were. Recording this information quickly allows Claire to match the sighting time to the GPS, allowing for an accurate location of the sighting to be determined.

Once we got closer to the animals, we would take out the cameras to photograph the dorsal fins. These photographs can be used to recognize individuals (see previous blog post). After we were finished taking photos, the data recorder would record the percentage of individuals photographed, an updated estimate of the number of individuals, and any other useful information.


As an intern, another one of my duties is grading the photos we take to determine if they

are usable for photo-identification purposes. They are graded based on clarity, contrast, angle,

and visibility. Each of the categories are giving a ranking, determining whether the overall photo

is considered “poor”, “good” or “excellent”. Additionally, unless the photo is considered “poor”,

the individual in the photo is given a ranking based on how distinct the dorsal fin markings are.

The photos with the more distinct individuals are the ones that are added to our online catalog, which helps with longer term studies, providing information such as how animals move around the islands, how many there are, and, in time, how often they reproduce


Photo collected under NOAA research permit 21476. Some dolphins, such as the spinner dolphin pictured here, have very distinctive fins. We can use these markings to recognize individual animals.


While I will not be able to attend the next round of Kona field work, Claire and the team will be

heading back in August to complete more transect repetitions.

Overall, the fieldwork portion of this internship was an incredible opportunity and I am

excited to continue working with the team on Coconut island. The most unexpected aspect of this

experience was the friendships I created with Claire and the other interns I was working with:

Isabel and Connie. Living and working with the same people can be a good thing or a bad thing,

but being surrounded by people with similar interests as me definitely helped make this

experience unforgettable.

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