One student describes her experiences in UAA’s Semester by the Bay

As the boat she was riding cruised into a cove of Kachemak Bay, Amelia Johnson saw a large flock of birds bobbing on the surface—a good indication of fish below. Suddenly, seconds after putting the boat in idle, two humpback whales spouted simultaneously fewer than 50 feet from the bow.

“I felt exhilarated and stunned,” said Amelia, who had just arrived in Homer last summer to begin studying in the UAA Kachemak Bay Campus’ Semester by the Bay program.

“There was so much power behind their movements, such grace,” she continued. “I saw their great muscles flex as they pushed themselves back in the water. Time stood still. I completely lost any thought of everything else. Seeing these whales made me realize just how insignificant I am in the scope of the earth. I felt truly humbled to be so close to these large creatures.”

The rich world that thrives beneath the sea always enthralled Amelia. “I have always been interested in becoming a marine biologist,” she said. “All of our family vacations were to the beach. Ever since childhood, I have sought out research experiences in marine biology.”

Amelia started scuba diving at age 12 and volunteered weekends at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park Invertebrate House for years. She enrolled in the University of North Carolina Wilmington because, being near the ocean, she could study the whales and other marine mammals she loved.

Then, an unexpected classroom visitor opened a new world of possibility thousands of miles away, on the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula. Amelia found out about Semester by the Bay’s field research opportunities when Deborah Boege-Tobin, a professor who teaches SBB’s marine mammals and seabirds biology class, visited UNCW during a recruitment trip a year ago.

“She gave a 10-minute presentation in the classroom of my marine mammals and ichthyology lectures,” Amelia said. “I had always known I wanted to study abroad, but could not find the type of program I really wanted. Once I heard Debbie’s presentation, though, I knew I was sold.”

“What I was most interested in about the program was the opportunity to conduct an internship concurrently with classes,” Amelia said.

Amelia journeyed to Alaska last summer, enrolled in SBB classes and immersed herself in internships with the North Gulf Oceanic Society, Eye of the Whale Research and Alaska Maritime Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Alaska has always been a place I have wanted to go because of its biodiversity, and abundance of marine mammals,” she said. “Whales and sea otters became a daily occurrence for me in Homer.”

Amelia took part in killer and humpback whale photo identification efforts—going on a research expedition to Prince William Sound to photograph whales and getting out on Kachemak Bay to learn how to individually identify them.

“Photo identification is one of the main tools researchers use to track individual whales over time,” she said, “and I was very interested in having a chance to learn how to take and then analyze photographs of whales. I knew this was a tool I would potentially need to know in my career as a researcher.”

Amelia also worked as a sea otter stranding intern, traveling daily on Kachemak Bay stranding calls. “I collected data and samples, conducted necropsies and filled out corresponding documentation for each stranding,” she said. “There was an increased sea otter die-off this past fall; there were some days we responded [to] up to 10 stranding calls in a day.”

She and other stranding interns visited the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward to volunteer for four days in that facility’s rehabilitation and animal-training centers. “We were able to assist with sea otter health assessments, food preparation, tank cleaning and octopus feedings,” Amelia said.

While taking Boege-Tobin’s marine mammals and seabirds class, Amelia studied beluga whales in Cook Inlet and Turnagain Arm.

“The best aspect of my classes was the focus on research experience,” Amelia said. “In Debbie’s marine mammals class, we went out on many field trips that all focused on field data collection. I gained experience in recording respiration rates of whales, conducted a biodiversity survey, and made an ethogram in the lab portion of the class.”


Tangible benefits
Amelia also relished her SBB land-based classes, including two taught by celebrated scientific artist Lee Post, who lives in Homer. Post’s scientific illustration and skeletal articulation classes prompted Amelia to think about the foundational structures of marine mammals.

“In scientific illustration, I recorded every minute detail of the bones I was drawing,” she said. “Skeletal articulation gave me an appreciation of the physiology of beluga whales as we reconstructed the entire skeleton bone by bone. As more and more was added to the finished product, Lee would stop to explain specific functions on certain bones and how that related to their behavior in the wild.”

Amelia says her SBB classes offered tangible benefits she’ll carry with her into graduate school and an upcoming internship with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“I learned a set of skills that will be useful in the research field after graduation,” she said. “Having a foundation of these skills will make me a stronger candidate in the work force.”

Seeing those Kachemak Bay humpbacks highlighted a sense of purpose for her life, Amelia said. “At that first sighting of those whales, I knew I had chosen the right path,” she said. “I am excited to commit my career to the conservation of these animals.”