NORTH BEND — For Abigail Kirby, boarding the Oregon State University research vessel was just a stepping stone for bigger scientific aspirations.
“Any opportunity to do science, I’m all in,” Kirby said.
The North Bend High School senior took the cruise over the weekend alongside a handful of other students, paid for by the Oceangoing Research Vessel Program at OSU, the Ocean Sea Grant and the Oregon Coast STEM Hub.
Kirby shadowed marine mammal scientist Leigh Torres, from the Oregon Sea Grant and the OSU Extension Service, seafloor ecologist Sarah Henkel from OSU’s College of Science, and seabird researcher Jessica Porquez from OSU.
“I applied to do this because I’ve grown up by the coast and worked with South Slough for a long time,” Kirby said. “Once I became a freshman, I started working as a summer employee at South Slough and fell in love with the ocean. I want a better understanding of it because they say we know more about space than the ocean, which is a funny thought to me.”
Kirby left for Newport, where the Oceanus launched, last Wednesday, Sept. 11. She arrived a day early to get used to the ship and was pleased when she got used to the rocking pretty quick.
“The majority of the others got sick,” she said. “I did witness people throwing up overboard.”
Alongside Kirby were three other high schoolers from Newport, Waldport and Beaverton, as well as an undergraduate from the Oregon Coast Community College and three OSU graduate students.
The goal of the excursion was to study whales and survey the ocean. Kirby was able to experience standing for three hours on the flying deck, or the highest deck on the boat, trying to spot whales but learned that even when they aren’t seen it still counts for data.
“It’s called ‘absent data,’” she said. “They are trying to figure out where on the Oregon coast whales congregate. (Torres’) research is on gray whales, but we didn’t see any of those.”
Instead, the group saw humpback whales up close. At some points during the trip, Kirby got as close as 10 meters.
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“We could get so close because they had a permit,” Kirby said. “When whales were spotted by someone on the flying deck, a smaller boat was deployed off the Oceanus to get up close.”
What Kirby learned during her participation in the research is that whale tails, or flukes, are like finger prints that can be used to identify each whale as they travel. By using the spots and patterns on the flukes, a whale diving can be photographed and compared to other pictures in the database to track it.
Kirby was also able to be involved in Hinkle’s research, which collected sediment samples from the ocean floor. After gathered, it was sifted through to find creatures and tested to find out if the Oregon coast could be a place to use wave energy.
“There might be a permanent installment for that, but first they need to understand the sediment they’re working with and to make sure there are no vulnerable populations,” Kirby said.
While sifting through the sediment during the research cruise, they found various worms, shrimp and brittle stars.
According to an email from her mom, Debbie Kirby, Abigail is on track to earn three associate degrees and an honor diploma in June. She is also involved in both the National Honor Society and National Science Honor Society while she captains the volleyball team, plays golf in the spring and works part time when she can.
After graduating NBHS in 2020, Kirby plans on attending Montana State Honors College to study virology.
“Basically I want to study the effect on viruses in relation to climate change, like AIDS,” she said. “We might not have had such a big issue with AIDS if we hadn’t gone so far into the rainforest because we never had interactions with those animals that had it. With the world heating up, we’re noticing how it allows viruses to mutate and jump species. My goal is to study possibly marine life and its effects on humans because the ocean has a lot of different things showing up that we haven’t seen before. I want to study how climate change is directly affecting our environment.”
From the trip on the research vessel, Kirby said it taught her how “real science” works, how to flush data when it’s not there and recognize it when it is.
“It was an awesome experience,” she said. “The Oregon coast is beautiful and this was a totally different view of it. The ocean is also an important thing to understand because it affects all of us, no matter where you live.”