Hi, my name is Sara Williams and I am a PhD student here at the University of Montana.
When you imagine a wildlife biology PhD student trudging through field work, I would guess that you don’t envision this happening on a cruise ship. I sure didn’t. But as luck would have it, that’s where I am ending up….No, for real. Not kidding.
After finishing up a MS at the University of Vermont (where, just to keep my reputation intact, I DID trudge through muddy swamps and tough it out in the field), I was fortunate enough to land a position working with Dr. Paul Lukacs on a project that examines humpback whale and cruise ship interactions. That’s a pretty broad research topic, so, in the next few paragraphs, I will try to narrow down my specific research interests and convince you that this kind of research is important.
In the marine environment human activities, such as recreation, shipping and resource acquisition, affect wildlife in a variety of ways. Wildlife may be affected by things such as alteration of the acoustic environment, displacement of animals to less desirable habitat and even physical contact. Maybe contact occurs in the form of swimming with dolphins or a harbor seal following you around in your kayak. Or…this contact could be a lot more serious: boats actually hitting animals. This is the kind of contact I am interested in.
In a nutshell, my research will explore questions concerning the likelihood of cruise ship and humpback whale interactions (i.e., situations in which they come together in close spatial proximity) within a framework of broader ecological theories, like animal movement and habitat/resource selection. I want to find out if there are characteristics of location, type of whale behavior or movement, operating conditions of a cruise ship or environmental/weather conditions that make it more or less likely for a whale to be struck by a ship.
Getting answers to these questions is important for a couple of reasons. One has to do entirely with humans. People don’t like it when a majestic humpback whale is killed and hanging off the front of a cruise ship. Definitely some nasty PR associated with that. Another reason has biological implications. Some whale species, such as the North Atlantic Right Whale, are critically endangered, and mortality of cows and calves due to collisions is thought to be one major reason for low (or non-existent) population growth.
So how am I actually going to go about this research? Back to hanging out on those cruise ships…
I will be doing cruise ship-based marine mammal surveys in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, which is located in southeast Alaska. This study area provides a unique context to study whale-ship interactions because I can simultaneously collect data on cruise ship characteristics (e.g., ship speed, direction, route) and whales. Also, the park is a true interface of humans and nature – the park is supposed to provide a setting for people to experience the beauty and wonder of a tidewater glacial system AND protect the integrity of the ecosystem that occurs there.
While viewing whales from a safe distance is a benefit to cruise passengers, it is critical that these encounters do not result in collisions or lead to other major negative impacts to the animals. Currently, restrictions are in place to make sure cruise ship visitation activities are consistent with national park values and mission. Speed restrictions in areas where whales have been noted in high concentrations and a limit on the number of vessels allowed within the bay each day and for the cruise season as a whole have been in place since 1985. These restrictions are revisited annually and can be adjusted based on the assessment of national park staff.While we think these restrictions likely benefit the perseverance and success of the humpback whale population, their actual consequences haven’t been analytically tested or quantified. That’s what I’m here for.