Whales and Glaciers: A Citizen Science Adventure

By August 17th, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Comment

Scouting for arctic terns at Mendenhall Glacier (Kate Atkins)

Scouting for arctic terns at Mendenhall Glacier (Photo: Kate Atkins)

Guest post by Kate Atkins

If your first thoughts when you hear the word “cruise” are fruity drinks with paper umbrellas, jet skis, and late nights in the hot tub: think again.

Replace the hot tub with Mendenhall Glacier, the fruity drink with test tubes of fresh stream water, and the jet ski with a whale watching boat, and you begin to get the picture. If you have the fortune to find yourself on a ship through Alaska’s Inside Passage, you’ll find an extra citizen science kick in Juneau. The Whales and Glacier Science Adventure, run by Gastineau Guiding, does not disappoint.

On the surface, the excursion seems little different from any One Day in Juneau itinerary: visiting the mighty Mendenhall, going whale watching. (I would add eating at Tracy’s King Crab Shack to the list as well, but you’re not here for menu tips.)

But on this excursion, participants collect real data that will be put to real use. On the day my family and I joined the tour, our guides were a PhD student in evolutionary biology, and a Juneau native on her way to her first biology degree. Jason and Annika did a great job engaging a group whose ages ranged from 7 to 70, which is no small feat in itself. Each of us emerged having learned something new and having gotten our hands dirty.

In the Mendenhall area, we stopped at a small fresh water stream to test water quality. Our guides provided us with kits to measure dissolved oxygen, temperature, pH and salinity. In a rapidly changing, successional ecosystem, these data are forming the baseline for tracking change as the glacier continues to melt, and as tourist infrastructure evolves around it. The data will be shared with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the Juneau Watershed Partnership and other organizations for analysis in myriad projects.

Jason demonstrates an ingenious, simple salinity detector (Kate Atkins)

Jason demonstrates an ingenious, simple salinity detector (Photo: Kate Atkins)

Like most citizen science projects, think not of our single sample, but of multiple samples a day at the same set of data collection points, throughout an entire tourist season: May through September. That’s a solid data set.

And why not, after all? If a tour company brings people through a sensitive ecosystem multiple times a day, an excellent way to give back to that natural setting is to report on its health in a scientifically vigorous way. Why not martial the hands of the tourists themselves?

The founders of Gastineau Guiding realized early in their years as an interpretive guiding company that Alaskan cruisers are a different breed. Who goes to a cold place without fruity cocktails in the summer? People who wish to be in awe of Alaska’s natural wonders. People who have placed a direct dollar value on simply witnessing its existence. It’s a perfect tourist subset to harness for science, and it seems this outfitter is doing it right.

Looking for whales in Auke Bay, Juneau (Kate Atkins)

Looking for whales in Auke Bay, Juneau (Photo: Kate Atkins)

In a conversation with Jeremy Geiser, I discovered exactly how deep the sense of purpose and academic vigor runs at Gastineau Guiding. As a founding partner in Holland America’s Cruise with Purpose initiative, the company has developed their tours – the locations, the data collection and reporting practices – in consultation with a broad coalition of partners including Alaska Sea Grant’s Marine Advisory ProgramUniversity of Alaska FairbanksAlaska DEC, the Juneau Watershed Partnership, Project Budburst and the Alaska Marine Conservation Alliance. Gastineau offers three land and three water experiences, each with pedagogical and scientific opportunities built in.

Guides are trained for eighty hours before the season, as they are the quality controls on the submitted data. For instance, although my nieces and nephews were excellent whale scouts, it was up to Annika and Jason to decide what the final count was, and what sort of behavior we were observing. All the while, they spoke with us about making these data decisions, so the purposes of science and education were gracefully served in the same process.

These folks on on the right track, and are turning up all kinds of interesting questions in a changing Alaska. Hopefully along the way they’ll create a few new citizen scientists as well. If you find yourself in Juneau, I commend you to their capable hands for a little extra meaning on your Alaskan cruise.

About the Author: Kate Atkins is an IT Analyst at University of Pennsylvania Libraries. She has an MES is Natural Resource Management from Penn, and is a Certified Land Preservationist. As a master’s student in 2008/09, she was sponsored by the Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership to trek in Antarctica with Wharton Leadership Ventures. In 2009/10 she developed the trek’s environmental curriculum, and was delighted to return to King George Island – but this time, to teach. Since then she’s turned her attention to her home town, Philadelphia, and occasionally guides for Camp Sojourner, a girl’s leadership development camp with Philly roots. An avid birder, Kate is often found birding by bike in West Philly, Cape May, and everywhere in between. She writes about her adventures at http://birdingphilly.wordpress.com.

For more citizen science projects, visit Science for Citizens!