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Journals 2003/2004

Elizabeth Gibbs
Thompson Middle School, Newport, Rhode Island

"Impact of human activities on dusky dolphin behavior and population biology"
Field Station, Kaikora, New Zealand
July 13 - 25, 2003

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Sunday, July 13, 2003


I arrived in Kaikoura yesterday and went to the Earthwatch house today. Before meeting the group, I walked on the Kaikoura peninsula at low tide and saw some "fur seals," which look something like our sea lions, basking on the rocks. Then I met Tim Markowitz (top) at noon. He's finishing his Ph.D. at Texas A&M University and is leading the Earthwatch group. The other staff people are Jenny Slepian (left) and Anita Murray(right) Jenny previously worked at the Earthwatch office in Massachusetts and Anita isa student at Texas A&M. The other volunteers are a varied group. Sangeetha and Jeanie are both bankers who work for Hong Kong Singapore Banking Corporation (HSBC). HSBC is a major donor to Earthwatch and also sponsors employees' expeditions. Sangeetha is from India and Jeanie is from Malaysia. Mika, my roommate, is from Japan. She has a degree in theoretical physics. Louise is originally from Wales but is currently teaching small children at an international school in Bangkok, Thailand. Erik is the only other American volunteer. He is teaching English and Journalism to high school students in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

The house where we are staying belongs to Bernd Würsig, the principal investigator, who was unable to come during this part of the project. Our home for two weeks is in a beautiful spot overlooking the North Bay. We are high on a hill, just down the street from the famous town overlook where everyone goes to get the best view of Kaikoura. We can see the water from our bedroom and from the deck the Kaikoura mountain range and Mount Fyffe are visible. There is snow on the tops of the mountains.

After introductions in the house, Tim led the volunteers on a hike around the peninsula for a couple of hours. We walked on the high bluffs through some of the cow and sheep pastures that are everywhere in New Zealand. We also got a bit closer to the fur seals. While there is a 10-meter minimum distance that people are required to stay from the seals, the seals may sometimes be found lying on grass very near pathways or roads. They are not especially shy! Tim explained that, contrary to their apparent behavior, which looks quite luxuriant, their lives are pretty hard-hunting, avoiding predators, using a lot of energy-and many of them don't live more than one or two years. Only the strongest make it to adulthood. I found several bones and a rib, which has two ends that slip into the socket depending on whether the lungs are expanded or contracted. I also found a vertebra that I think belongs to a seal, and also a pelvis bone.

As we walked along the top of the bluff, I saw what looked to be a splash. Then I saw it again and it was definitely spray. We identified our first sperm whale! After a few sprays-big exhalations, actually-we saw the tail come out of the water as the whale dove. They surface for about 5 minutes then dive for about 45. Because the water drops off quite abruptly here, they are seen very close to shore over deep water.

The landscape here is stunning: limestone rocks carved by the weather and sea, green grassy slopes, bordered by an ocean on one side and snow-capped mountains on the other. What an amazing place to do research!

After our walk, we watched the IMAX movie Dolphins on video, ate dinner prepared by Tim, Anita, and Jenny. I looked at the stars from the deck and, with the help of H.A. Rey's book, The Stars (in which neither Curious George nor the man in the yellow hat appears), identified the Southern Triangle and the Centaur. Mika had taken an astronomy tour the previous night and showed me the Scorpion and the Archer. Mars and Venus are out too. The moon is just about full and it's gorgeous in the clear New Zealand night!

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