Failing Gracefully

It’s been big year; there have been many successes and a few failures. Most recently Leanna, David and I flew to Glacier Bay National Park (#FindYourPark) to deploy the four elements in our hydrophone array, and we failed. We were not able to deploy any of our instruments. We did however, fail gracefully.

Poise under pressure is something that I learned from ice; I was recently reminded of this when we were in Juneau (my unofficial hometown) standing in front of the Mendenhall Glacier, which I’ve seen a thousand times before. It took cold, pressure, and time to make that glacier. In the Juneau spring light the glacier glistens like the gemstone it is. When I’m under pressures I strive to transform myself the same way glaciers do, with grace and quiet poise.

We were, in large part, capable of this during our failed deployment trip. Steadfast in her optimism Leanna kept us moving forward from solution to solution, and true to my glacial training I think I kept up with cool head and rational mind. While we were disappointed that we could not fix our broken hydrophones in time to meet out deployment schedule, we were never actually ‘stressed’ about the decision. It was clear that the decision not to deploy was the right one. Better not to put our precious ears into the water now, then to pull them up in October and discover they haven’t been listening.

What happened?  It’s small and technical, but it had to do with using a 9-volt battery to do a job that it wasn’t big enough to do. A simple mistake in a complicated process, one that may have been avoided if perhaps I’d had more experience programming hydrophones in PicoDos- but then how do we gain experience if not by doing things for the first time? I could point fingers, place blame, or beat myself up, but where’s the poise in that?

So Leanna and I are headed back to Alaska next week to try again. I hope we don’t fail a second time, but if we do I’m confident we’ll learn something along the way, and that the whales and seals will not stop calling as a result.

Antarctica Part VIII- Homeward Bound

The ice has grown thinner, the ship has grown boisterous with passengers, and with the exception of a few errant edits to cruise reports our scientific mission is complete.  But the journey is not over; I still have a few days in New Zealand to tell you about, and a 30 hour transit home. Plus… we celebrated Christmas on the ship!

When I first started this trip I spelled out the cast of characters on the ship (my beloved Kiwi pilots, my Italian roommate Ombretta and her ocean acidification project).  Well, the curtain has risen and fallen a few times on the passengers of the R/V Araon and it’s time for a new update. After our research cruise the R/V Araon returned to Terra Nova Bay to retrieve the scientists and crew that had overwintered there (that’s right, a year at Jang Bogo station).  We also picked up a handful of KOPRI geoscientists who had spent the Austral spring at the base (and found a stunning meteorite!) to transit them back to Christchurch as well.  The meteorite, which I feel privileged to have seen with my own eyes, is said to be the largest ever found by a Korean scientist and one of the largest in the world.  It’s retrieval is exciting news in the geoscience world – history in the making.

In addition to our Korean colleagues, however, we picked up Scottish volcanologist John Smellie (if you aren’t immediately impressed with a volcanologist in Antarctica let me remind you that this man studies volcanic eruptions underneath the ice), and a motley crew of nine geologists, biologists, zoologists and one fine soldier from Italy’s Mario Zucchelli Station,. Remember how I said the ship had become boisterous? You can imagine why.

My Italian friends and colleagues and I on the bow of the R/V Araon, departing Terra Nova Bay en route for New Zealand.

My Italian friends,  colleagues and I on the bow of the R/V Araon, departing Terra Nova Bay en route for New Zealand.

Thanks to the graciousness of documentary filmmaker/marine zoologists Roberto Palozzi I resumed my Italian lessons (grazie mille, Roberto). Thanks to the sheer charisma of Nicoletta Ademolla I now have a sincere dream to study the vocal behavior of Adelie penguins (not forgetting of course the Weddell Seals). And thanks to my friend Arnold Rakaj I will forever look out for eels in shallow freshwater streams (although he is a marine ecologist by training, studying plankton… not eels). I won’t go into the specialties and details of all of the PNRA team, but suffice it to say that I was extremely impressed with the breadth and range of their work… I’d even go so far as to say envious.  A comprehensive seal reproduction study which includes live captures and the weighing of seal pups?  Yes, I would like to be included, of course.  Oh you need a bioacoustician? I just happen to be one. I just need a few more weeks to improve my Italian.

Weddell Seal Mom and Pup.  My new favorite animal.  (Photo credit Nicoletta).

Weddell Seal Mom and Pup. My new favorite animal. (Photo credit Nicoletta).

I’ve mentioned in the past that every scientific mission is accompanied by a personal one.  When I traveled to Glacier Bay this past summer one of my primary goals was to build a relationship with the landscape and the community.  I did not have the same expectation of my time in Antarctica.  I admit I’d cast the landscape as a barren bedfellow, and anticipated my time on the ship to be filled with solitude.  I can happily admit that I was wrong. Relationships are forged in unlikely places, professionally and personally. While I thoroughly anticipated feeling scientifically awakened and inspired by the scenery, I’m pleased to report that it was in the conversations with the passengers on board the ship that I truly began to build collaborations.

But enough on the value of science and relationships… I want to tell you about Christmas.

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Amico Mio, Roberto. Cuciniamo gli spaghetti di Natale. (My Friend Roberto and I cooking Christmas spaghetti).

Christmas in Korea is celebrated largely on Christmas Eve — which was amenable to our schedule given that we were slated to arrive in Lyttelton, NZ on Christmas morning.  Christmas Eve we were treated to an early Korean Christmas dinner, complete with wine and roasted nuts for a bit of flair. Our five o’clock meal, however, was complimented by a midnight meal.  The chef onboard the R/V Araon graciously agreed to turn over his kitchen (and his pantry) for the evening so that we might make Christmas Spaghetti.  Let by Chef Roberto (though admittedly I may have tried to mutiny once or twice) we cooked three dishes, complimented by Italian cheese and salami courtesy of Mario Zucchelli Station. The evening was completed once Santa Claus himself (Kiwi Engineer Chris) made an appearance, passing out candies, and asking us all what we wanted for Christmas.

It was glorious, and festive, and fitting for our last night on the ship.

I realize that unlike previous posts that this entry lacks much sincere scientific merit.  However, one of the things that was emphasized on the ship, and throughout my training as an ecologist, is the importance of balancing work and life.  Nowhere does this seem more critical than transiting to and from the bottom of the world, where the lines are blurred.  Following Christmas we docked in Lyttelton Harbor near Christchurch, New Zealand marking the end of my journey through the Southern Ocean. Bittersweet.

Don’t fret though, fearless readers, There’s one more post before I end this story, because New Zealand was glorious.

 

Your (former) Antarctic Correspondent,

Michelle

 

 

Antarctica Part VII- Mission Accomplished!

I’m happy to report (I’ll be it a bit late) that the OBH (Ocean Bottom Hydrophone… for those of you just joining us) has been safely recovered! It is now snugly packed on board the R/V Araon and prepared for transport back to NOAA. Our first attempt to contact our instrument was a success (we sang to it, it sang back… how I love acoustics); however, the glorious sunshine that graced us during our recovery was unfortunately accompanied by 45-knot winds. The ship, which is large and generally stable, pitched in the wind. Our instrument is robust, but not unbreakable, and requires hoisting onto the deck via an onboard winch once it appears at the oceans surface. This translates to a lot of potential swinging – particularly in choppy seas. As usual the crew of the R/V Araon did not disappoint. They recommended a delay, and the recovery was postponed.

Brett and his "beard-cap".  Who says scientists don't have a sense of humor?

Brett and his “beard-cap”. Who says scientists don’t have a sense of humor?

What was not postponed, however, was our end of research cruise celebration. Despite the delay our research team was treated to a feast! Korean wine, sashimi and tempura, even chocolate cakes were served. We ate until we could not eat any more, and made merry in the mess hall until our sides split from laughing (ok, there may have been some dancing in the lounge as well, a cap with a beard knit into it, and Christmas carols). It was a glorious way to celebrate the ‘almost end of cruise’.

While the following day’s 8 AM recovery seemed early given the night’s festivities, the entire operation went off without incident. Our instrument appeared as predicted after the release command was sent, and the crew deftly maneuvered her onboard (despite another pick up in the wind). For me, the moment was one of blissful relief. This was my first large-scale recovery (of what I hope will be many). This trip was a gift and an opportunity, to successfully accomplish my mission was glorious. Further, the anticipation for seeing the instrument when she appeared from ~1000 m depth had been building for months. When it was finally placed on board I completely forgot about the lack of sleep. It was amazing. I was struck by how little bio-fouling took place (although admittedly the instrument was well beyond the photic zone), other than a thin film and what appeared to be a handful of deep water limpets.

Hydrophone recovery attempt #1- notice the white caps in the background?

Hydrophone recovery attempt #1- notice the white caps in the background?

By comparison, the OBS (Ocean Bottom Seismometer) recovery was significantly more dramatic.  Two OBS’s were deployed last year, both locations are currently covered in ice.  To recover our instruments the R/V Araon’s ice breaking capabilities were put into full use.  The ship was used to break, and then clear, a hole in the ice directly above where the OBS was deployed.  Nature abhors a vacuum, so as soon as the ice was cleared (which took hours) it would quickly drift back into position.  Despite this, the ship’s captain managed to clear an opening in the ice about the size of a small lake.  this required copious amounts of circular ice breaking, the ship track lines were dizzying.  The operation, however, was brilliantly executed.  The OBS was released directly into the center of the clearing (much to our relief).

Overall we successfully recovered one OBS, one OBH, deployed ~20 CTD casts (more if you consider that at times we deployed two separate instruments), and we successfully deployed to 500 m oceanographic mooring. Most of this was done in close proximity to the Drygalski Ice Tongue, which lived up in full to its reputation.

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The Drygalski Ice Tongue, just prior to the OBS recovery

 

While our team was able to ride the euphoria of a successful mission for some time, I must admit the days following the end of the cruise were hard. Brett, the Kiwi scientist from NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmosphere) joined us on the Araon for the duration of the cruise, but would not sail back with us. Similarly to our Italian colleagues Brett left via helicopter and disappeared across the ice. It strikes me as somewhat ironic that in a landscape that exists at such a large scale, that relationships here are formed so quickly. It’s a silly metaphor but I suppose this is not altogether unlike the ice  itself, which freezes quickly (pancake ice anyone?), but has the potential to stay intact for many years. In any case we returned to the mouth of Terra Nova bay and bid a rushed goodbye to our dear friend. I hope he makes it home in time for Christmas.

Our research team (minus photographer Brett) enjoying Korean barbeque.

Our research team (minus photographer Brett) enjoying Korean barbeque.

As for the rest of our team? We’ll spend Christmas on the ship. We should be back in Lyttelton, New Zealand by December 27th, and will disembark shortly therafter. For now, we have a new group of Korean scientists on the ship. They have been at Jang Bogo for various durations, some only a week, others as much as a year! Additionally, we have a new group of Italian scientists from Mario Zuchelli Station who are in transit home. I’d thought my Italian lessons were over… I suppose we’ll have to see.

 

More on Christmas and the northbound transit soon!

 

Your Antarctic Correspondent,

Michelle

 

**Disclaimer — This post was written a few days ago… but due to lack of internet I wasn’t able to post it. Stay tuned for notes on how Christmas turned out, and what our return to New Zealand looked like**

 

 

 

 

Antarctica the Day After Tomorrow: Part Three

The day after tomorrow we will arrive in icy waters on the R/V Araon. It will take another few days to break through the ice and arrive at the Jang Bogo. The overarching mission of the KOPRI project is to investigate ice dynamics in the Ross Sea/ Terra Nova Bay region, with particular interest in the Drygalvski Ice Tongue. We’ve just entered Antarctic waters (we passed the 60 degree parallel late last night), and we’re getting closer.

An interlude: there is a lot of time to burn on the ship. Most people spend time working (I’m writing my dissertation proposal, and processing data for my first manuscript) but in the evenings, after our daily science meeting, we watch movies. Last night we watched “The Day After Tomorrow”. The premise of the movie is far fetched- paleoclimatologist (Dennis Quaid) predicts a catastrophic climactic shift 100-1000 years in the future and it actually takes place instantaneously in the next 48 hours. Due to the melting of Antarctica the earth’s ocean has become desalinized, the Gulf Stream has cooled, and climate goes haywire throwing us into an instantaneous ice age.

Is it possible? To the best of my scientific knowledge- no. However, there’s an interesting line in the movie when Dennis Quaid (NOAA scientist) asserts, “We know that Antarctica has been melting, but no one knows how much fresh water it puts into the ocean, or understands anything about ice dynamics!” Evidently the entire fiasco could have been avoided if we just knew more about Antarctic ice!

Well, the movie had it way off, but they got one thing close to right. We are investigating ice dynamics in Antarctica. The NOAA-Pacific Marine Environmental Lab (PMEL) is part of an integrated effort to understand just that -ice dynamics in Antarctica. The hydrophone that I’m sent to recover for PMEL (in cooperation with KOPRI) has been listening to the sound of shifting ice. If you are unaware that ice makes noise, well you have been missing one of life’s great sound effects. While I haven’t had the chance to listen to Antarctic sea ice you may remember from a previous blog post that I was part of a team that analyzed a years worth of acoustic data from the Arctic where winter sea ice abounds. The sea ice sings, wheezes, moans, cracks, and whirs. It sounds like an abiotic opera, and could easily be the character in a science fiction movie (Marvin the Martian was a Bearded seal… remember? Well, perhaps Sea Ice is his alien companion?).

But these squeaks, wheezes, and moans are more than the musical byproducts of ice- they are data. Sound can be used to infer the state of the ice, whether it is melting, moving, or quaking. In short, similar to using passive acoustic monitoring to understand ecosystem dynamics of baleen whale species, we can also use passive acoustic monitoring to understand something about polar ice dynamics. And if Dennis Quaid has taught us anything it’s that ignoring Antarctic sea ice could destroy Manhattan, this weekend (well… maybe not). More likely, understanding Antarctic ice dynamics will give us critical information linked to sea level rise and shifting climactic regimes. Not quite as sexy as destroying Manhattan- but equally as important.

Over and Out.

Your Antarctic Correspondent, Michelle

 

PS- Did I mention we passed the 60 Degree Parallel! I’m at the bottom of the world!

Antarctic Expedition: Part I Travel and Mission Description

For the first time in the last 13 hours the electronic plane icon that has been flying across the digital screen in front of seat 41C on this United Airlines international jumbo jet is traveling above land. We are flying over a small island chain to the northeast of Australia as I type this; the capital of Port Vila is marked with a white dot. Prior to this the plane on the screen flew over nothing but vast Pacific Ocean. We land in a few hours in Sydney. It’s my first trip to Australia, and a short one at about 2-hours before I catch a flight to Christchurch, NZ where the R/V Araon will be docked.

Getting to Antarctica takes a long time.

Three flights totaling ~20 hours of flying time across four airports and three countries, and that’s just to get to New Zealand. From there I’ll board the R/V Araon for a ~9 day sail to the Ross Sea. In a world where I can transit continents in a day, that it takes over a week to reach Antarctica is both satisfying and daunting. It really is that far away, but it’s Antarctica… shouldn’t it take a long time to get there?

I don’t have a lot to report yet. The days leading up to the trip ended with a flurry of activity. Equipment had to be shipped, driven, and then flown around the world. An early evening training session with PMEL’s Matt Fowler got me up to speed on what’s expected of me, what I’ll actually be doing on the ship, and why the expedition is happening at all.

The cruise is multi-purpose; resupplying the Korean Antarctic Base – Jang Bogo Station – is one of the expedition tasks. As is collecting valuable data on conditions near the Dragovski Ice Tongue, and recovering various instruments deployed last year to study seismic activity in the region. But my role is to recover an Ocean Bottom Hydrophone, or OBH for short, from approximately ~1000m (3300 ft) beneath the cold ocean waves.

This seemingly impossible recovery task is accomplished by chirping. We’ll be using something called an acoustic release. What that means is I have a piece of equipment on the deck of the ship with an acoustic element that gets slung overboard to ‘chirp’ into the water. The right chirp, at the right frequency, and the right timing, will wake up an element built into the hydrophone on the ocean bottom. If it hears the right signal, it chirps back a predictable reply. It’s all very charming to hear, and slightly more technical than I’m describing, but as Matt said when he was training me on it “it’s technician proof”. Once contact is made with the hydrophone, and I confirm that the signal it’s responding is in fact our own, I can send a release command that will theoretically release the hydrophone from it’s bottom mooring allowing it to float to the surface of the water (should take 5-20 minutes, Matt tells me).

It all sounds fairly straightforward and I’m assured that the technology is sound. Will it work? I don’t know yet, it should. But it’s going to take me another 9 days to get to the Ross Sea, so you’ll have to standby while I get off of this plane, onto another one, then into a taxi, and onto a ship, then sail south south south. This may take a while.

 

-Your Antarctic Correspondent-

Michelle

Listening to the Past

…but first a name

This is what we see when we study humpback whales... but what do we hear?

This is what we see when we study humpback whales… but what do we hear?

I’ve dedicated the past 3 years to understanding non-song vocalizations, which admittedly is just a drop in the bucket. Now, as I venture into my fourth year of this relationship I have to acknowledge that I’ve moved from one chapter of my research into another. The Rapunzel Project (the whimsical name for my M.S. project) was my first foray into bio-acoustics, large scale fieldwork, and in internship development. While I wouldn’t consider myself an expert at any of these things, I’m also no longer a novice. I defended my thesis, we’re working on publications, and by and large I’ve put the Rapunzel Project to rest (I even retired the blog!).

All that being said I’m thrillingly eyeball deep in my PhD (first committee meeting: check!), and my research is actually rolling along in advance of my first field season (patting myself –very lightly – on the back). I’ve been giving talks on my research, and the blog posts are rolling out in various forms and locations. With all of this communicating about my research I became aware of something, my project didn’t have a name. Now I know that naming each project isn’t mandatory. Some people name their cars, some don’t; some people name their research, others don’t. But I have to admit writing the words “my dissertation research” over and over has grown tedious. As someone who values accessible communication as well as the role of creativity in science, I reached out to my fellow lab mates and asked for help with a name.

Calypso as she wistfully watches the sea... for humpback whales of course

Calypso as she wistfully watches the sea… for humpback whales of course

Suggestions varied wildly (“Life is the bubbles” anyone? How about a Calypso reference… so much fun). The name we settled on was astutely suggested by none other than ORCAA’s Selene Fregosi (maybe that writing workshop she wrote about helped with more than just her thesis). Without further ado let me introduce you to ORCAA’s Acoustic Spyglass: investigating the impact of vessel noise on humpback whale non-song behavior from the shores of Glacier Bay National Park.

I’m please with this name because (a) it incorporates both the visual and acoustic elements of the study, (b) because the use of a hydrophone array to localize animals is quite literally a form of “acoustic spying”, and (c) the use of a spyglass implies both antiquity and a sense of looking forward. When you pair visual observations with passive acoustic monitoring you are often looking forward (to the sea, tracking whales), but often technological constraints require that you listen retroactively after the hydrophones have been recovered. In this way I am quite literally listening to the past.

Listening to the Past

Nowhere is this more poignant than in the first chapter of the Acoustic Spyglass (see that… not “my dissertation research”), where I investigate non-song call stability at the decadal scale. I’ve acquired recordings of non-song vocalizations in North Pacific Humpbacks from the mid-1970’s through present day. I’ve been reviewing these to assess if non-song vocalizations, similar to song, change rapidly with time, or if humpbacks exhibit vocal stability. It is well known that humpback whale song changes annually, and this change is believed to be culturally mediated. Little is known, however, about how non-song vocalizations stand up to the test of time. Understanding the stability of non-song vocalizations may tell us something about call innateness, and may provide clues into how these vocalizations are used. Further, if non-song vocalizations (or specific types of non-song vocalizations) have been relatively stable for the past four decades then they may act as a metric against which to quantify change in the face of a shifting baseline (increasing ocean noise, climate change).

What’s so exciting (to me and possibly the ~twelve people who study non-song communication in humpback whales) is that based on first glance at least one call type – the SEAK Whup call – is remarkably stable over time! I’ve detected this vocalization in every data set currently in my possession. I want to be clear, that these findings are anecdotal at this point.  I’ve only just started quantifying my samples, and I have a long way to go before everything is sufficiently measured and described.  But from first glance would you agree that these two spectrograms look pretty similar?

"Whup" calls, R-L: 1976, courtesy of Roger Payne; 1982 courtesy of Greg Silber and Adam Frankel; 1995 courtesy of Fred Sharpe

“Whup” calls, R-L: 1976, courtesy of Roger Payne; 1982 courtesy of Greg Silber and Adam Frankel; 1995 courtesy of Fred Sharpe

There’s something magical about listening to vocalizations that were produced in the 1970’s and hearing some of the same purrs that I’ve grown familiar with.  That the scientific community forty years later is just now beginning to investigate what these non-song vocalizations mean is a testament to the breadth of research yet to be done on Southeast Alaskan humpback whales.  Humpback whales are long-lived, with lifespans that can reach 90+  years.  This means that the whales in these historic recordings may still be vocalizing in Southeast Alaska today.  Or perhaps these recordings may be a link between a previous generation of whales and those who have only recently made it to Southeast Alaska to forage.  In either case the analysis of this long-term acoustic data set is the first step to answering some of the basic questions about how humpback whales communicate and I’m extremely excited to be listening.

~This work is extremely collaborative. Data contributions have been made my individual researchers referenced above as well as the National Park Service, and the Alaska Whale Foundation~

***Follow my personal research blog here, or check out my lab’s blog blogs.oregonstate.edu/bioacoustics for a broader view of bio-acoustic research***

Getting My Feet Wet

Hello Acoustics Aficionados!

Getting to know Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve!  I was grateful for my Helly Hanson rain gear.  This temperate rain forest stops for no one.  A welcome relief given Oregon's hot dry summer

Getting to know Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve! I was grateful for my Helly Hanson rain gear. This temperate rain forest stops for no one. A welcome relief given Oregon’s hot dry summer

A few weeks ago I wrote to you about my upcoming trip to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve and my big “Solo” adventure into the great Alaskan Wilderness.  Well I’m happy to report the trip was an enormous success and — like so many endeavors in science — all of my “solo” work was accomplished through collaboration.

The purpose of the trip was threefold (1) familiarize myself with Glacier Bay and the surrounding community, (2) identify a viable field site that would enable Leanna and I to meet our dissertation goals, and (3) to build and maintain relationships (with the area and with the people).  In short, my goal was all about getting my feet wet in the world of Glacier Bay research, which as it turned out was an extremely easy to accomplish literally and figuratively — Southeast Alaska is very very wet.

Xtra-Tuffs.  Don't leave home without them.  Further, it's how airport employees know you'll be spending the night in the SeaTac Airport, and that may gain you a little peace and quiet overnight.

Xtra-Tuffs. Don’t leave home without them. Further, it’s how airport employees know you’ll be spending the night in the SeaTac Airport, and that may gain you a little peace and quiet overnight.

The nearest airport to Glacier Bay is in the diminuative village of Gustavus (small town, big character).  Living in Juneau off and on for years I’d heard a lot about this tiny place — slow bicycle races and town-wide pancake breakfasts on the Fourth of July, a community garden that would make most Alaskans blush.  With a population that ranges from 350-600 (with an influx of seasonal workers in the summer) Gustavus isn’t exactly what you’d call a city, even by Alaskan standards… and it’s not so easy to get there.

I traveled via shuttle from Corvallis to PDX (nothing new here) and hopped a flight to SeaTac Airport where I settled in for a cozy overnight on an airport bench.  It felt very familiar.  Traveling to and from Southeast Alaska (for less than a small fortune) requires patience, a little bit of traveler’s tenacity, and typically an overnight in Seattle.  Sipping an evening tea and looking around the airport I was not the only one with Xtra-Tuffs on bunking down for the night… there were quite a few of us headed home.

It's a bit remote, but the trip to Gustavus is beautiful!

It’s a bit remote, but the trip to Gustavus is beautiful!

A 6-hour layover in Juneau was just enough time for coffee with University of Alaska- Fairbanks PhD student and humpback whale biologist Suzie Teerlink, who filled me in on some of the details of her citizen science initiatives, whale watch cooperative efforts, and some of the in’s and out’s of her Juneau fluke ID project. My first foray into humpback whale research was working with Suzie on some of these projects in their infancy, and was exciting to see how much they’d grown!  We wrapped up our reunion with a quick hike before heading over to Wings of Alaska and boarding the 6-seater Cessna 207 turboprop aircraft that would safely transport me over over the mountains and fjords and set me down in Gustavus, AK. There I was warmly greeted by the Park whale biologist (and co-PI on our project) Chris Gabriele.

Over the next few days I had the chance to meet a number of the Park Staff (fisheries biologists, bear biologists, research technicians, administrators and more!), and importantly Chris and I had the opportunity to talk (face-to-face) about humpback whale non-song vocalizations — also called social sounds — produced in Southeast Alaska.  Chris and her colleague Lauren Wild of the Sitka Sound Science Center have a new study coming out in the Journal of the Canadian Acoustics Associations on the acoustic properties and usage patterns of the humpback whale “whup” call.  The call (which can be heard here), which is a putative contact call, plays a large role in my research past and present.  I hope to build off of the work they began at the Park to understand more about how humpback whale use this and other vocalizations, as well as how vessel noise may change vocal behavior (including producing the “whup” call) or limit acoustic communication space.  More details on that, and the first chapter of my dissertation, in my next blog post.

Our field site requires an elevated viewing platform, visual proximity to both whales and seals, low current, and as much logistical ease as possible (i.e. is there water?  Is this dense bear/moose territory?)

Our field site requires an elevated viewing platform, visual proximity to both whales and seals, low current, and as much logistical ease as possible (i.e. is there water? Is this dense bear/moose territory?)

Back to the trip, I would be remiss if I led you to believe that we spent all of our time talking (remember goals 1 & 2!).  While initially we didn’t think we’d have access to a boat (hence my initial decision to camp on the island for a few days), much to my excitement the Park research boat R/V Capelin came available.  My second day in the Park was spent on the water scouting for field sites, measuring bottom depths, marking waypoints for locations of interest, and kayaking through non-motorized waterways to scope out potential field sites.  I’m happy to report that we found one!  After eliminating what looked to be a lovely cliff (with lots of blind spots and bear scat), and a good hike around Bartlet Cove where the Park’s current hydrophone is deployed (and where vessels transit daily), it was the north east tip of Strawberry Island that made the final cut.  It might not look like much in the photos (did I mention that Glacier Bay is part of a rain forest?), but I think it’s exactly the spot we’re looking for.

It doesn't look like much here, but come summer 2015 we'll be tracking whales and counting seals right here!

It doesn’t look like much here, but come summer 2015 we’ll be tracking whales and counting seals right here!

With a field site decided (Goal 2, check!) one of the last things I was hoping to accomplish on my trip was to familiarize myself with the area, both terrestrial and aquatic. I was fortunate to spend another day on the water with Chris during one of her many whale surveys.  It was a great opportunity to view whale behavior in the Park, which I’d anticipated would be different than the behavior I’d observed in Juneau or in Frederick Sound (and qualitatively, it was different); but it also gave me the chance to see more of the Park wildlife (otters! so many otters!) and get a feel for how operations work there.  Part of getting familiar with an area involves knowing how to have the least negative impact both ecologically and culturally.

A Tlingit Canoe sits on the shores of Bartlett Cove

A Tlingit Canoe sits on the shores of Bartlett Cove

I took a camper orientation which gave me some good tips on how to minimize my impact on the island, but I also spent some time walking through the exhibits and chatting with Park employees, trying to get a feel for both the scientific community at the Park and the rich cultural heritage of the native people in the area.  Long before Glacier Bay became a national park it was the ancestral home to the Huna Tlingit people.  Near the end of the Little Ice age the glaciers (of which there are MANY) surged forward and the Tlingit were forced to abandon their settlements in the bay and move across Icy Straight to establish a new village.  To the Huna Tlingit, Glacier Bay remains their home.  In Barlett Cove (where the Park headquarters and the Glacier Bay Lodge are located) the presence of the Tlingit culture is palpable.  A Tlingit canoe is on display and current plans are underway for a Tlingit Tribal House.

In what I thought was a poignant manifestation of the culture of science alongside the culture of people, on the same path as the canoe is a structure housing the recently re-articulated skeleton of a humpback whale named Snow, who was struck by a vessel in the Park in 2007. Snow’s bones were buried, cleaned, sent to Maine for articulation and organization, and then finally returned to the Park for the final installation.  In a “Alaska’s such a small place” sort of way, one of my first field technicians, Linsday Neilson, was on the articulation team.  The skeleton was complete by the time I arrived, but I did manage to catch her for a long overdue hug on the dock.

The recently articulated skeleton of a humpback whale names "Snow". Snow was struck by a cruise ship in the Park and after 7 years has been returned to the community.

The recently articulated skeleton of a humpback whale names “Snow”. Snow was struck by a cruise ship in the Park and after 7 years has been returned to the community.

The John Hopkins Glacier in all her glory!

My last day in the Park I headed out early (5am early) and was fortunate enough to catch a ride on the small cruise ship the Baranof Dream which was headed up-bay toward the glaciers.  I spent the day on the boat as a tourist admiring the spectacular scenery and mingling with the passengers.  I spent the following two days as the “marine-biologist in residence”, giving talks about our research in the Park, pointing out wildlife, and harkening back to my days as a naturalist in Juneau (the killer whales were certainly a highlight too).

IMG_0505After a few days on the boat, I disembarked in my hometown Juneau, Alaska, exhausted, happy, inspired, a little damp and ready to go home….

 

 

 

But c’mon this is Alaska, you never get out that easy!!! Despite my efforts to leave straight away I ended up with an extra day in Juneau, and while I won’t go into the details of how the extra 36 hours went (that’ll have to be another blog post) you can see from the photo that it turned out pretty well.  Until next time!

-Michelle Fournet

Juneau Girl at Heart

Juneau Girl at Heart

 

Words that Start with S

Summertime

IMG_0182It’s Summertime here at ORCAA and in case you haven’t noticed that means fieldwork.  We’ve got Amanda eavesdropping on porpoise here in Oregon, Selene is tagging whales in California (yawn, who would want to do that I ask, green with envy), Niki (while not technically in the field) is reporting to us from the turquoise Mediterranean, and our honorary labmate Leanna is in full blown seal tagging development.   I am, admittedly, not spending my summer in the field this year (probably just as well… I need some time at home with my data, my dogs and my sunflowers: read about previous summer field adventures during my M.S. here) that doesn’t mean that I’m going to disappoint you.  While my 2014 summer field season may be short, it’s just the beginning for 2014.


Solo, Southeast, Social Sounds

SL_sketch1For those of you who don’t know me, I finished my M.S. here at OSU in the Oceanography department.  I received an M.S. in Marine Resource Management with a focus on conservation.  I studied humpback whale communication in Southeast Alaska (you can read my M.S. thesis here).  I moved to Juneau in 2007 after traveling through wet sunny tropical Central America.  I thought Alaska was going to be a brief pit stop on my way to tropical living.  Little did I know that 7 years later I’d still be working in the inside passage, that it would have slowly become home to me, or that I somehow would have become a cold-weather biologist (I blame it on the whales).

So, I’m headed to Glacier Bay National Park on Monday to scope out a field site for my dissertation research.  For my dissertation I’ll be investigating the use of social sounds in humpback whales (how do social sounds fit into the general repertoire of humpback whales?) and what impact noise has on social calling behavior (Lombard effect in migratory corridors has been documented in Australian humpbacks , what might vessel noise do to calling rates on a foraging ground?). For this study I’m paired up with our own seal enthusiast Leanna Matthews (see her previous post for details on the other side of seal research), who will be looking at the impact of noise on harbor seals.  We’ll be sharing a field site, and more importantly we’ll be sharing a bottom mounted hydrophone array that we intend to use to localize vocalizing animals. Noisy-Neighbors_600px Concurrent with our acoustic deployment we’ll be making visual observations with a theodolite from a nearby elevated platform.  My job next week, is to investigate potential field sites, with elevated observing options, calm waters, seals, whales, and a sleeping location as far away from the bears as possible.  Should be easy right?

The glorious part?  I’m taking the trip Northward alone- Solo. Though I will be well tended to by GLBA biologist Christine Gabriele, if the weather holds I’ll be spending a night, or two, alone at our potential field camp.  Hiking around the island, observing whales and seals, and breathing in the cold wet Alaskan air all by my lonesome.  Call me old fashioned, but I still think that seeing an area is the best way to choose a field camp.  I’ve done my research, looked at velocity charts, bathymetry charts, and topo maps… but without seeing it, listening to it, and being there I don’t feel prepared to set our precious hydrophones on the bottom on the ocean and hope for the best.  So, solo I go.

But… like I said earlier, this short trip (a week total) is just the start my 2014 field season.


South

I think secretly every biologist imagines the day that something like this happens to them:

*Phone rings*

Me: Hello?

Brilliant Super Scientist (a.k.a Holger) *on phone*: Good morning! Did I wake you?

Me: No of course not (I’ve been awake for at least 15 minutes, and you don’t know I’m in my pajamas.  Who makes work phone calls before 8am?).

Brilliant Super Scientist: Good.  Do you want to go to Antarctica?

Me: Yes. Yes I do.

This actually happened. I’m going to Antarctica! This November I will head as far South as you can get.  I’ll be joining a crew of scientists on the Korean icebreaker the R/V Araon as we head southbound from New Zealand toward the Ross Sea.  My role will be the recovery  of a U.S. hydrophone that was deployed in the area last year. The hydrophone was deployed as part of an interdisciplinary project to track oceanographic and geologic (namely glaciers) conditions in the Antarctic.  The ocean is a noisy place, and lots of features biotic and abiotic contribute to the ocean soundscape. Human activity in the Southern Ocean is limited… making it an ideal place to use acoustics to study natural phenomena like ice (and whales… lets not forget that there are lots and lots of whales in Antarctica).

Noisesources

We will be at sea for almost a month, with a stop at one of the the Korean Research Stations at the midway point.  I don’t know all the details yet, but rest assured there will be many stories to tell.  Lastly, while this isn’t technically a “solo” expedition, I will be the only one from my lab and possibly one of the few native English speakers on the boat.  I spent the evening listening to Korean phrases, luckily I have a few months left to figure out how to say hello.

In short, it’s going to be a big field year for me.  Followed up by an intensive field season in the summers of 2015 & 2016 (with interns! I love interns!)- and all it cold weather places.  If you pair my upcoming trips with my past year of Arctic data analysis (Marvin The Martian was a Bearded Seal… remember?) then I suppose my dreams of becoming a tropical bioacoustician are out… or are they?

 

Stay tuned!

 


 

 

***all cartoons reprinted from www.michw.com an excellent blog about science, and comics***

SeaBASS- an insider’s perspective on bioacoustic summer school

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SeaBASS attendee and UCSD PhD student Jeremiah Karnowski experiences masking

Holger, Selene, and I spent all of last week participating in a Marine BioAcoustics Summer School (SeaBASS), hosted at the National Conference Center in Washington, D.C. (well, near D.C. – technically were were in Leesburg, Virgina just beyond the temptations of our nation’s charismatic capital city.).  I think I can safely say that we are collectively exhausted, inspired, and academically saturated.  It has been glorious. Before the glow wears off, and the social media requests from all of my new colleagues and friends stop rolling in, I thought I’d take a moment to recap the experience.

SeaBASS, for those unfamiliar, is a week long intensive bioacoustics course headed by Dr. Jennifer Miksis-Olds of the Penn State Applied Research Lab, and Dr. Susan Parks of the Syracuse University Biology Department.  The goal of SeaBASS is to “provide the opportunity for graduate students interested in pursuing careers in marine bioacoustics to develop a strong foundation in marine animal biology and acoustics, foster technical communication across disciplines, and to develop professional relationships within the field.” (Taken from the 2014 SeaBASS handbook).  To achieve this, Susan and Jenn invite experts from the field (including ORCAA’s own Dr. Holger Klinck) to give half day seminars on topics relating to underwater sound and the behavior and biology of the marine organisms who depend upon it.

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ORCAA’s Selene Fregosi, and honorary ORCAA affiliate Dave Cade (OSU CEOAS Allumni, and Standford PhD student) using acoustics to answer the question “why is the sky blue?”

Topics broadly cover the field of bioacoustics, which is simultaneously interdisciplinary and highly specific.  This year topics ranged from the fundamental physics of marine sound (taught by Dr. Adam Frankel– a fellow humpback whale specialist and senior researcher in the field of marine bioacoustics), to echolocation (taught by Dr. Laura Kleopper, powerhouse marine bioacoustics newcomer, and inspiring woman in science), with stops along the way to study Acoustic Density Estimation (SeaBASS favorite Dr. Tiago Marques, of University of St. Andrews), active acoustics (Dr. Joe Warren of Stoneybrook University), Animal Communication (Dr. Sophie Van Parijs– NOAA scientist and oft cited acoustics expert), Impacts of Noise (Susan Parks of Syracuse University), Hearing (Dr. Michelle Halverson) Passive Acoustic Monitoring (Holger Klinck, our fearless leader),  bioacoustics “Hot Topics” (Jenn Miksis-Olds), and my personal favorite Sound Production in Fishes with the Cornell Bioacoustics Research Lab’s own Dr. Aaron Rice (Holger tried to convince me to do my PhD in fish acoustics once, I laughed at him… I was so naive).

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ORCAA’s Michelle Fournet (me) sneaks a snapshot in during a SeaBASS group photo.

I have to admit I’m glad I didn’t see the line up before I got on the plane to head west.  If you’ve spent time in the field of bioacoustics most of these names you are likely familiar with, if you’re not – now’s a good time to head over to google scholar and check out their work.  The initial intimidation factor was high, but I’m pleased to say the interactions were the opposite.  All of the presenters went out of their way to interact with the students on both a professional and a personal level (I’m tempted to post karaoke photos… but I won’t… not here).  I got career advice from the greats (work-life balance anyone?  I have two dogs and a garden, I plan on keeping them once I’m done with a PhD), learned about the elusive mating habits of the wild haggis (to hear a mating call of a wild haggis click here), and made some important connections both with the presenters, that I now feel comfortable considering my colleagues, and the other students who I now consider friends.

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Michelle Fournet and Syracuse University’s Susan Parks nestled below Jeremy Young (UH- Manoa), Cornell’s Aaron Rice, Mike Bollinger (UT- Brownsville) and Dave Cade (back, Stanford).

I could go on for pages about my experience, I learned new material and reinforced some of the principles I’m already familiar with, I furthered my research, I drank beer while talking about acoustics (so much fun… seriously…. so much fun), and helped myself and others to find their inner spirit animal.  Some of these things may not make sense to those of you who weren’t there, but the take home message is this: Marine bioacoustics is a discipline, a tool, and a community that I am increasingly excited to be a part of.

PS- Stay tuned for stories about honorary OCRAA team member and SeaBASS colleague Leanna Matthews as she makes her way to Newport to test some theories on how to get small acoustic transmitters to stick to the body of harbor seals… field trials ahead?  I think so.

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Saying goodbye is never easy. So thrilled to have met Leticaa Legat (U. of Cumbria)

 

PPS- One of the most important things I learned from SeaBASS?  The value of Twitter.  Check out our Twitter feed (@ORCAALab) for a play by play of the SeaBASS action.  Live tweeting, as it turns out, is super fun #SeaBASS2014

Marvin the Martian was a Bearded Seal

You may find this difficult to believe, but now that I’ve reviewed an entire year’s worth of data from Alaska’s Beaufort Sea I can say with great confidence (and no scientific evidence) that Marvin the Martian was in fact a bearded seal. https://i1.wp.com/www.angelfire.com/pa/lkmarvin/Pictures/marvk9.gif If you don’t believe me I encourage you to listen to this sound and tell me that when he’s hanging out in his PJ’s on Mars that this isn’t exactly what’s coming out of our little Martian friend’s mouth.

While of course I’m being facetious, it is only to a point.  The scary alien sound effects that have been ingrained in pop culture are made manifest in the Arctic soundscape.  While the stoic images of starkly white sea ice may elicit feelings of cold noiselessness, underneath that sea ice it is loud.

In collaboration with the NOAA/PMEL a calibrated autonomous underwater hydrophone package (AUH) was deployed at the continental shelf break approximately 50 miles off the of the coast of Alaska in the Beaufort Sea.  Using the AUH we were able to record continuously for an entire year (as my lab mate Amanda tweeted once she was done analyzing beluga calls “I’ve officially finished analyzing 8,760 hours of Arctic #bioacoustics data”). For the acoustic buffs out there, the AUH was able to precisely record underwater ambient sound levels with 16 bits resolution (i.e., with 96 dB dynamic range) in the 10 Hz to 2,500 Hz frequency range. For the non-acoustics buffs out there this means that we could record sounds ranging from just below the low end of human hearing to about the pitch of a high whistle (think a little girl whistling Andy Griffith).

This was my first foray into Arctic acoustics, and I was properly daunted.  My experience to this point has been strictly working on acoustics collected in Southeast Alaska that had concomitant visual observations.  There were only three species my hydrophones were likely to detect- humpback whales, killer whales, and harbor seals.  In the Arctic, however, there are many species (we detected bowhead whales, killer whales, humpback whales, beluga whales, ribbon seals, ringed seals, AND bearded seals).  Furthermore the sound of the ice itself is deafening!  It whistles, whines, creaks, groans, and pops- making this critical abiotic feature a character in its own right.

Bearded_Seal-Spectrogram-croppedThe Arctic is known to be visually “other-worldly” and I cannot emphasize enough how this is made manifest acoustically.  For the spectrogram savvy this is a spectrogram of  Marvin the Martia… I mean two bearded seals. FYI- this spectrogram was generated from the afore referenced sound file. For those less familiar with a spectrogram, a spectrogram is a visual representation of sound.  Time is along the x-axis, and frequency (which we related to pitch) along the y-axis.  The colors represent energy (or as we manifest, volume).  The brighter the color the louder the sound.  By generating spectrograms it allows researchers (like the PI’s, technicians, and of course grad students) here at ORCAA to classify caller species, to classify call types, and to gain a better understanding of who is utilizing the marine habitat and when.  In the case of this Arctic data set I enlisted the advice of Arctic expert Kate Stafford at the University of Washington Applied Physics Lab to help me classify some of the more obscure files.  She generously pointed me toward an excellent new publication which enabled me to compare the spectrograms that I was generating with those from known species.

Despite the many resources (publications, lab mates, experts in the field) I was still unable to identify all of the calls to species.  Many calls were graded, others obscured by the sound of airguns (possibly more on the topic of airguns in the future), and still others vocalizations obscured by the sound of ice.  Given that the goal of the project is to monitor long-term changes and trends in the Arctic underwater ambient sound field I understand that this is a cursory first pass at an incredibly rich data set.  With as many hours as have yet to make their way into our lab I can’t help but imagine… who other than Marvin we might find there.