Written by MMRP MSc student Lewis Evans
Thank you, Attenborough!
I have always been interested in the natural world and the outdoors (I know it’s cliché but it’s also true). Although, being from a small town in inland England I wasn’t familiar with ocean/coastal environments until David Attenborough showed us via The Blue Planet. From here my interest in the marine environment only grew. My way to stay connected to the ocean was through marine aquaria. I kept reef aquariums from the age of 13 where I cultivated different species of coral and invertebrates in self-sustaining systems. My interest never dimmed and my aspirations to make it in the field of Marine Biology only intensified. Following the advice of my parents ‘If you work a job you love you’ll never work a day in your life’ I had decided (at 15) I wanted to attend University to study Marine Biology. Fast forward four years and I was enrolled as a Marine Biology Undergraduate at Bangor University in Wales, U.K.
One of my favorite tanks I have ever had. My pair of clownfish were 13 years old by this point!
My university experience
It was here that I realized the variety of opportunities and possibilities within this field and where it could take me. I arrived intending to study coral reef ecosystems, however, I quickly found myself fascinated by all aspects of marine science. Suddenly, mangrove restoration, deep-sea environments, and intertidal environments were just as interesting as coral reefs. After realizing my keen interest in studying a multitude of marine ecosystems I was unsure on which direction I wanted to head in. However, I felt like the world was my oyster – I could go in any direction I wanted to! Bangor gave me plenty of harsh fieldwork from intertidal rocky shores to oyster reefs in the Chesapeake Bay and supplied me with great foundational knowledge on a wide breadth of topics. It was this experience and the people I met that solidified my aspirations of making it in the field and solidified, for me, that I was still heading down the right path.
A few pictures from Bangor University, beautiful sunsets, and amazing people.
First contact with MMRP
In 2021, I stumbled across the Marine Mammal Research Program at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. I sent my cover letter and CV to the lab and managed to get a response from PhD student Martin van Aswegen offering to take me on as an intern. After my first meeting with Martin and learning more about the humpback project, I knew this was what I wanted to pursue for my year of experience. The project seemed special to me - utilizing the body condition of sentinel species such as humpback whales to indicate/predict ecosystem health immediately piqued my interest. After finishing my first meeting with Martin I had so much excitement and adrenaline that I could barely sleep and was (mildly) shaking for half an hour afterward. It felt exciting, interesting, and exactly what I wanted to do – it was a dream! Unfortunately, COVID was a thing, and decided to shut down the U.K.
The pandemic resulted in my international year of experience being put on hold and eventually abandoned. Over the next two years, I graduated from university, moved back to my hometown, and worked a host of jobs to sustain myself whilst I worked remotely for Martin and the project. I worked as a late-night flower delivery driver (don’t ask), in retail and private aquaria/pond maintenance, with the motivation of making it to Hawai’i to help more with this project. During these two years, I measured over 1,000 humpback whale images, and over 300 adipocyte (fat cells) images in my spare time. After three failed attempts to make it out to Hawai’i due to lockdowns and COVID, I finally arrived in January 2022 excited for the three-month field season in Maui, and to see a whale with my own eyes!
Why do we conduct a three-month field season in Hawaii?
Humpback whales spend their winters in their respective breeding grounds – for ~90% of the North Pacific population of humpback whales they breed within the Hawaiian Islands. The Marine Mammal Research Program has been utilizing unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and onboard cameras to collect morphometric data and photo identification of the humpback whale population in Hawaii since 2019. This is part of a long-term monitoring project to intrinsically assess the health and condition of North Pacific humpbacks over spatial and temporal scales.
2022 Maui field season (My first humpback!)
It took me around a month in Maui for the reality of where I was and what I was doing to set in - before then it just felt surreal. To finally see the animals, I had been helping measure for two years with my own two eyes. To see how the data was collected firsthand and to see all the missing pieces I had wondered about fall into place. We managed to gain over 2,400 measurements of humpbacks from January 5th until March 31st. At the start of this season, I was just excited to gain experience, learn new techniques, see how the data was collected, and to experience the species I had been studying for so long in person. By the end of the season, I was proficient in photo ID, equipment maintenance, and as a UAS assistant. During this season I realized this is what I wanted to dedicate at least the next few years of my life to – this was it! I sent an email to Dr. Lars Bejder, asking about the steps I needed to take to become a master’s student at the lab on this project. He got back to me a few days later and mentioned a few things I could do to make me the right fit for the project. This included becoming a drone pilot, becoming proficient in RStudio, and providing examples of my scientific writing abilities. I was motivated and excited at the prospect of becoming a student at the lab and I wanted to get to work straight away. By the end of the field season, I had over 30 drone flights as the pilot, we had taken the first steps to write a manuscript that I would be the lead author on, and I had some kind of trajectory to becoming a master's student at the lab.
Boat issues are always worth it for the fieldwork and the data!
The next step was to see the other half of this project in Alaska. The project encompasses both
the feeding and breeding grounds of the North Pacific population. MMRP collaborates with the Alaska Whale Foundation to collect the same data on humpbacks as we do in Maui. The aim is to try and gather repeat measurements of known individuals in Alaska so we can better understand their changes in body condition and if their feeding grounds are sustaining them.
I was invited to Alaska by MMRP for a 10-day stint to gain more experience piloting drones and to see the flip side of the project. Unfortunately, COVID struck again and two weeks before I was due to leave the trip was cancelled. After a month of sitting tight, I got a call asking if I could fly out the following week to be in Alaska for two months – I dropped everything and I was on a plane to Alaska the next week! Seeing the same individuals months later in the opposite environment was a concept that was hard for me to wrap my head around. This especially hit home when I saw the whale Sibyl with her calf after making a 2,500-mile journey back to Alaska. It is remarkable that these individuals can make such a long journey surviving on reserves from months ago. There is almost a sigh of relief when seeing that the same individuals are found back at their feeding grounds, but they do this year on year.
Alaska was a completely different experience from the one I had in Hawaii. It was in a rural place with no personal WIFI, it was colder, we were more self-reliant and there weren’t nearly as many people. There were so many individual experiences during this trip that blew me away – too many to share here so I have left some pictures below that represent some of the best to me. However, by the end of this experience, I left as a fully qualified and proficient humpback drone pilot.
A collection of images I feel sums up my Alaskan experience.
Once I made my own migration back to England, maybe with a few gin and tonics and a fraction of the time, I received a message from Lars asking me to apply for the master's position on the humpback whale project at MMRP – one of the most standout moments in my life, so far.
Fast forward to the time of writing, I said goodbye to home in England, I have been living in Hawaii for six months, and I am currently in the field on Hawai’i Island conducting my third humpback whale field season. Although I have done a lot to get to this position, it only feels like the start. I am ready for the start of this new journey and help the continuation of this incredibly meaningful project! Stay tuned for more blogs on our current field season in Kona and a blog from the team helping me run this Hawai'i season.