Researchers look for unique ways to collect data as COVID-19 changes methods

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The director of the University of British Columbia’s Marine Mammal Research Unit will be doing the latter with eight researchers as they continue a study from last year to determine if there is a shortage of chinook salmon for southern resident killer whales.

Andrew Trites said the researchers are creating their own bubble on the boat, starting with a two-week quarantine period before they board the vessel in mid-August.

Everybody is “a little paranoid,” Trites said.

“In the end if the pandemic doesn’t kill us, maybe being confined together will,” he said laughing. “It’ll be quite a challenge.”

On a similar research trip last year, scientists got off the boat after docking and went into cities and towns, but that won’t happen this year, he said.

Only one person, masked and gloved, will be allowed to leave the wooden boat called Gikumi to get supplies while the vessel is refuelled.

“We’re going to be packed a little bit like sardines but everybody has a job on the boat,” he said, noting team members are aware of the effect the quarantine period might have on their mental health although being able to see the horizon may help.

Field work is important, Trites said because there is an element of biology, which can’t be done without being near animals.

While computers and mathematical models make projections and look at probabilities, he said answers to some questions can come only by observing animals in their natural habitat and recording what’s going on to make meaningful comparisons and draw conclusions.

What the team will miss, Trites said, is the interaction with researchers on other boats.

One of the biggest losses this research season may be the generation of new ideas, reflection, and the “ability to brainstorm together to solve biological mysteries,” he said.

“So, we’ll be waving at other researchers whom we know from a distance, and hoping there will be an opportunity in six months, a year, year-and-a-half, where you can finally sit down together and have much more meaningful conversations.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 1, 2020.

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