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Moving up the Water Column

Written by Kyleigh Fertitta


Since I was young, I knew I wanted a career in marine science because it seemed to combine a couple of my favorite things, the ocean, the life in it, and science. I grew up in San Jose California and spent any free time I had, since I could drive, in Santa Cruz. Growing up, my dad taught me to love the outdoors through camping, beach days, ski trips, lake days, and more. With this great love for the outdoors, I felt a responsibility to have a career in conserving it. When it came to college, I chose California State University, Chico. Unfortunately it did not offer marine biology as a major and had very little opportunities relating to marine biology. Chico State does, however, have a great biology program, resources, and an amazing study abroad program. At the time, I figured I could do my undergrad at Chico and then specialize in marine biology for my masters. I will never forget when I talked to the dean of biology and told him I wanted to go into marine biology. He gave my goals a quick reality check and told me to think of a more practical and less competitive career choice or to transfer schools. I did the closest thing to transferring and studied abroad through the National Student Exchange at the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa. I took as many marine courses I could and found a marine science internship. After this, I graduated from Chico, early, with a B.S. in Biology and a minor in Sustainability, all while still living on Oʻahu.


My Dad and I eating breakfast at the Crow's Nest in Santa Cruz

Paragliding on a family vacation in Lake Tahoe

Visiting Chico State with my Dad


Chico State graduation photo

To this day, I can remember the email I got advertising an internship at Marine Mammal Research Program so vividly. It looked too good to be true and felt like everything I was waiting for. When I joined the Marine Option Program at UHM, I expected there to be internship opportunities, but I never expected ones with fieldwork, especially pertaining to dolphins. I called on my mom, my friends, and my TAs to help me craft an amazing cover letter and CV to send in, then waited anxiously for a response. Once I had a zoom interview scheduled, I read all the recent publications I could on the MMRP website and prepared some questions to ask. I was so nervous during the interview, but after a couple days Liah Mcpherson and Claire Lacey emailed me that I got it! What was supposed to be a three month internship turned into a two and a half year dream. I went out on countless boat surveys for Liah and Claire spotting spinner dolphins (I had never seen a dolphin before), collecting Photo Identification of dolphins for abundance estimates, helping launch and retrieve the Unoccupied Aerial System (UAS, or drone) for age demographic data, and processing the data later on in the Lab.



Photographing pantropical spotted dolphins [photo taken under NMFS permit 21476]

Photo I took of a humpback whale calf [photo taken under NMFS permit 21476]

Searching for marine mammals


After six months of this, their colleague and PhD candidate, Fabien Viver, needed interns to help spot, photograph, and drone spinner dolphins as well, except this time he needed help on the Big island. I jumped at the opportunity and contacted my professors to get homework ahead of time, excusals from missed classes, and packed my bags for three weeks of boat surveys in Kona all day everyday (My first ever research trip!). This field season on the Big Island really showed me what it takes to be a marine biologist. With four am wake up calls, eight hour boat days with Captain Zodiac, two hours of off loading data, an hour or two of homework, and rotations on who would be making dinner that night, I realized it wasn’t the afternoon ice cream keeping me going but my commitment to this field. We chatted about the highs and lows of being a graduate student and what the ‘behind the scenes’ looks like. It truly was the best trip due to all the connections I fostered and experiences I gained. Our second to last day ended with a bang, spotting beaked whales, pilot whales, spinner dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, and false killer whales!




Photo I took of a spinner dolphin calf [photo taken under NMFS permit 21476]

Catching the drone during a Kona sunrise

My face right after seeing a false killer whale jump out of the water


Captain Deron Verbeck from Captain Zodiac and I

At this point I was planning out applying to graduate school, so I continued to intern for Claire, Liah, and Fabien mainly processing and analyzing data. My hard work paid off when Fabien needed someone to accompany him to Sarasota to help launch and retrieve the drone when collaborating with the Sarasota Dolphin Research Project (the longest-running dolphin project in the world!). I felt shocked and honored to partake in something so monumental in the marine mammal field! After many hours of long travel we touched base in Florida and got to meet marine biologists from all over the world. I even got to meet the interns of the SDRP. The first week we were part of a team of 100+ researchers participating in the Sarasota Bay Dolphin Health Assessment Project. This week-long effort to catch and release a few individuals from the dolphin population to evaluate their health, involves the collection of various samples. Our job was to collect drone photogrammetry to assess pregnancy status, age demographics, and morphometric estimates. Through this first week, I formed connections with scientists from all over the world and learned about all the different tools and strategies for studying marine mammals. The second week, all the researchers left and Fabien and I went out with the SDRP crew to drone as many dolphins as we could. As someone who had only worked with MMRP, I was able to see how other organizations conduct their research specific to their populations and environment. This trip was nothing short of a high for me, as I got insight from researchers on their masters and PhD experiences from all over the world.



Sunrise in Sarasota on a field day



Fabien and I finding an alligator





Returning back to Hawaiʻi, I wanted to learn more about acoustics after seeing what a big role it played as a tool in Sarasota. Luckily, Kirby Parnell, a PhD candidate in the MMRP utilizes acoustics when studying the underwater communication of Hawaiian monk seals. Numerous deployments of Passive Acoustic Monitoring devices (PAM) around the Hawaiian islands have given Kirby a plethora of data to analyze for Hawaiian monk seal vocalizations. I was assigned the Lehua Rock portion of the data and spent the summer analyzing spectrograms for the first five minutes of every hour for six days. Listening to the audio while watching the spectrogram, I would classify different call types while locating the start and finish. In the end, I was able to detect 4,080 Hawaiian monk seal calls. Finishing the dataset just in time for the Tester Symposium held at UHM, I was fortunate enough to present my findings with Kirby! I used R to find statistical results and developed charts and graphs to depict the data. This was my first time ever presenting at a conference and it’s a great feeling seeing your work come to fruition.



Presenting at the Tester Symposium

I am so ecstatic to be able to work on my own project for the MMRP now that I am a masters student. My current project involves the combination of the two tools I’ve spent the past two years developing, Photo-ID with boat surveys and acoustics. My research objective is to better understand the marine mammals occupying the windward side of Oʻahu in terms of presence and habitat use. PAM devices will be deployed in three locations around Kāneʻohe bay and I will conduct line transect boat surveys three times a month. I am looking forward to getting started and identifying what is out there!



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1 Comment


Shannon Barber-Meyer
Shannon Barber-Meyer
Aug 30, 2023

Congratulations, Kyleigh, on all your hard work and where it has brought you to today. I look forward to following your upcoming research and the exciting results it will generate!

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