Story and Backstory: Why we commit to research and science communication

I’ll start this off by saying we have some rather large news to share. If you are in a rush, then feel free to skip to the bottom of this post and watch a really beautiful film preview that came out today. I can take no credit for the beauty, but it is an exciting short watch, and rather personal to Sound Science and myself.

That being said, I want to offer some context. 2020 may well be regarded as the year that nature regained the global spotlight. In light of COVID-19 halting human activities worldwide – a phenomenon dubbed the “Anthropause” – nature has captured the hearts and minds of the public as the unanticipated beneficiary of this global pandemic and the unlikely savior rescuing people from the most human of afflictions – boredom

Early in the pandemic I was quoted as saying

“Nature is taking a breath when the rest of us are holding ours.”

Michelle Fournet, The Atlantic

The science has since confirmed this sentiment. Whales and birds were given a respite from manmade noise as vacations were cancelled and stay at home orders were issued. When we weren’t outside breathing in the fresh air (an activity that was up in popularity by 58% during the pandemic), gardening (up 57%), or watching the wildlife ourselves (up 67%!) – you could find us at home reading about nature in National Geographic and the New York Times.

Oddly, and unfortunately, for some of us whose summers are typically spent exclusively outdoors (I mean that literally, during my fieldwork I will camp for up to 4 months in a single summer), the pandemic resulted in a massive shift in the other direction. I’ve been inside a lot this year. While my dog and my garden were pleased to have me home last summer, I found myself needing more to accommodate this dramatic shift. One path was to continue our quiet ocean research (another blog post of what we’ve found soon! Hint – we have thousands of hours of recordings from 2020 and will be deploying again in 2021). Unexpectedly, the rest of my time was more or less filled with science communication. Instead of camping on an island in Alaska well beyond the range of cell service, I found myself talking with journalists, podcasters, and artists almost daily at times as we collectively tried to tell nature’s pandemic story.

Dr. Fournet during our 2019 field season in Southeast Alaska, photo courtesy of Drew Xanthopoulos

This past year has seen more outward facing materials than ever before in the history of Sound Science, or in my personal history as a biologist. This flies in the face of one of my more naive 2020 goals:

Learn to say no to things that aren’t directly in support of my research.”

In retrospect, I realize that sentiment is incorrect. It falls squarely with the traditional view of science that success is measured exclusively in papers published and grants acquired. But is that the best way to frame the goals of science? Publishing papers is no doubt essential for credibility and dissemination of our results, but who reads them? How does the world benefit? Getting grants is essential to keep our work afloat! But who decides what questions are worthy of being funded? Part of our mission here at Sound Science is to shift the culture science toward one that is more inclusive and equitable – this means including a broader audience in the conversation. That includes you, reading this post.

My goal as a science communicator is not to inspire everyone to become a scientist. The world needs plumbers, chefs, psychologists, grocery store clerks, musicians, gym managers, and yes, biologists. My goal as a science communicator is to include everyone in the science process so that we cultivate a shared responsibility for this great earth. One doesn’t need to be a professional scientist to be invested in nature. By being transparent about our work (which is extremely difficult to do, expensive to maintain, and can be hard to explain), my hope is that we cut windows into the ‘black box’ into which science places interesting questions and the process makes more sense. In doing this, perhaps the scientific community can earn back the public trust and we can collectively progress toward solving the ecological crises our world is facing.

With that ethos in mind, my heart softens a little knowing that although I didn’t sleep on the ground for 90 days in the company of whales in 2020, perhaps we accomplished an equal or greater good by sharing our work. If you’re reading this post, then our efforts are rewarded.

In light of this, we do have some rather large news to share that ties these topics together. In 2019, myself and three of our Sound Science team members spent a grueling field season in Frederick Sound, Alaska doing a particularly difficult playback experiment. Our goal was to determine what the function of a humpback whale call actually is. Simply put, we were trying to understand what the whale is saying when it calls.

We’ve been hesitant to broadcast this work through the media or on our own site because we were joined in the field by a documentary filmmaker Drew Xanthopoulos. Over the years we’ve built a strong, candid, and important relationship with Drew. He directed and filmed “Fathom”, a film aimed not just at glorifying humpback whales, but at understanding whales and the biologists who risk everything to study them. For our part, Drew followed us through the field as we conducted our research. In watching the film you can see what the process (warts and all) of doing this work actually looks and feels like. I am extremely proud to announce that Fathom will premiere at the Tribeca Film festival in June of this year, and will premiere globally on Apple TV+ on June 25, 2021.

For your enjoyment, take a quick look at the preview below or read the press release here.

With gratitude,

Michelle

PS- Without being too pushy, Sound Science is a small 501c(3) non profit. Our current research is supported by your donations and by the goodwill of our team. Your donations help our organization to grown and our research to flourish. Please donate if you are able.

Global Change: COVID-19 and the quiet ocean

The term “Global Change” calls up images on a grand scale. Perhaps the visual of earth from space, forests growing and sinking, mass migrations, cities rising a falling. Until recently, the concept of global change occurred on broad almost indiscernible scales.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic began, and the globe changed almost instantaneously. Human activities halted at a scale unseen since the industrial revolution, and importantly to us here at Sound Science – in Alaska cruise ships stopped sailing.

In collaboration with partners at the National Park Service, University of Alaska Southeast, and NOAA we have begun the act of listening to these quiet oceans to see if we can track how humpback whales may be responding to what may be their first ship free summer in a generation.

Read more about of COVID-19 work in this article put out by National Geographic.

The Eye of the Beholder: In Support of the Gulf Toadfish

Charisma comes at a cost. Whales, dolphins, and seals have captured the attention of millions for generations, and with time hunting pressure has morphed into abject reverence (sometimes to the same mortal end). I am by no means immune to the pull of the leviathan. My fascination with humpback whales has driven my life choices for over a decade, and even now I am planning our 2019 fieldwork at the Five Finger Lighthouse to keep our studies of whale communication moving forward. I am also not naive, however, to the great myriad of other life on this planet. In my postdoc at Cornell’s Bioacoustics Research Program (BRP) I’m working closely with Dr. Aaron Rice who is opening my eyes to a wide range of spectacular creatures.

Starting with the humble toadfish.

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Gulf toadfish (Opsanus beta). My glorious study species. -Photo by A. Rice

Toadfish are a sound producing benthic ambush predator (hide in the mud making breeding sounds, and later BAM jump out and grab a meal). They can be found throughout Gulf Coast, and in particular I’ve been listening to them in the estuaries of the Florida Everglades.

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Florida Bay is rich with mangrove islands and pelicans.

Male gulf toadfish produce an amazing sound often referred to as a “boatwhistle” (listen below). This is extremely important for my purposes, as I am using a series of hydrophones widely distributed throughout the Florida Bay Estuary in order to (a) detect cool fish sounds like the toadfish and (b) investigate whether toadfish alter their calling behavior in response to conditions in the estuary.

See, the estuaries in Florida Everglades are not what they once were. Farmers needed water to keep crops alive; new settlers needed land in which to build (settling on a gently sloping swamp was ‘unappealing’ to say the least) – and so the massive re-routing of freshwater in South Florida began, and with time it continued until the once brackish water became hyper-saline and a once rich estuary grew unrecognizable. Now, resource managers are working to bring freshwater back, and are tasked with figuring out how these changes in water flow impact the critters who live here, and how (or if) the estuaries can be restored.

Enter our vocal fish. Toadfish have a few qualities that potentially make them a good (if not  obviously charismatic) species for ecosystem monitoring. They nest in estuaries, and males stick to their nest sites during the breeding season. They are resilient to a wide range of oceanographic conditions, and – importantly – the males call predictably and loudly throughout the breeding season.

 

 

My aim is to see if these muddy little chatterboxes are a good indicator of overall ecosystem health. This is likely because, beyond being easy to listen to, toadfish are mid-level predators. They are important in terms of eating the little guys (crabs, shrimp, small bottom fishes etc), but they are also a potentially important prey species (dolphins eat lots of toadfish). If toadfish are responding to changes in water quality, it’s highly likely that there are shifts up and down the food web.

For now, I’ve got ears in the subtropics listening to the songs of fish, but for our next field trip we hope to be more active participants as we playback the sounds of toadfish to the predators of Florida Bay.  They may not be as flashy as a humpback whale, but you know what they say: beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

 

PS- I didn’t manage to get a toadfish on video- but I did spend some lovely time with this ray when I was changing our hydrophones in Bob Allen Key!

The inexplicable made plain: a dissertation defense

In her poem “What we want” Mary Oliver writes:

In a poem
people want
something fancy,

but even more
they want something
inexplicable
made plain,

easy to swallow—
not unlike a suddenly
harmonic passage

in an otherwise
difficult and sometimes dissonant
symphony—

even if it is only
for the moment
of hearing it.

This has become both one of my favorite poems, and my favorite concepts: the inexplicable made plain. Oliver writes of poetry, but isn’t this (shouldn’t this) be the goal of science as well?

Science is complicated; but only in so much as we strive to dissect parts of the natural world independently, and often fail to put the pieces back together again. It is in the putting back together that we ‘make plain’ the essence of nature, where we as storytellers are obligated to share with the world what we have uncovered. It is what I strive to do in my work professionally, and personally.

So, with that prelude, I invite you all to attend (virtually or in the flesh) my dissertation defense. On almost exactly the ten year anniversary of when I began studying humpback whales in Southeast Alaska I will present my doctoral dissertation. It will be technical (for me to pass it must be), but I will also make every effort to tell the story of my work once I have explained the pieces.

After? We will celebrate. I will hike with my pups (as I do most days). I will begin a new story…. but more on that to come.

 

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Click the flier for streaming.

Not-so-social calls?

It’s been some time in the making, but after months in the rain, and hours in the cold (not to mention a roller coaster of a relationship with statistics, which I’m pleased to report ended in a happy marriage) a few of our humpback whale research projects can be marked complete.

Last week we published two short manuscripts on the calling behavior of Southeast Alaskan humpback whales. Note that I said “calling-behavior”… not “social calling behavior” or “non-song calling behavior.” Now why might that be?

While the field of marine bioacoustics is vast, the number of people who have research programs dedicated to humpback whale vocalizations that aren’t song is relatively small (growing, but small). The first publication came out in the 1980’s by Dr. Greg Silber, who recorded a suite of vocalizations in groups of competitive male humpbacks on breeding grounds. Thus the term “social call” was born.

The running definition of a social call, however, has always been “a vocalizations produced independently of the structure of song”.  Bearing this in mind several researchers, including myself, adopted the term “non-song vocalization”, to more specifically describe the vocalizations.

Here’s the rub…  as it turns out these independent vocalizations sometimes pop-up as song units (As Bec Dunlop and Mindy Rekdahl have taught us) and as we recently discovered these vocalizations definitely aren’t always social.

In one of our new publications we describe how humpback whales in Southeast Alaska produce feeding calls, even when they are foraging alone. This call, we propose, is a prey manipulation call, and doesn’t always occur in social situations. In our second publication we demonstrate that when humpbacks in Southeast Alaska produce vocalizations in Alaska, they are doing so quietly. Which may indicate that they are intentionally restricting their audience (think whispering into someone’s ear versus yelling across the room). So while these calls almost certainly facilitate interactions between individuals humpbacks, they aren’t as widely broadcast as say… song (if Alaskan whales whisper, Hawaiian whales scream).

So what do we call these sometimes-social-sometimes-NOT-social-usually-not-song-unit-vocalizations?

Calls.

I think we should refer to them as calls.

The use of the term ‘calls’ to encompass any short vocal unit that doesn’t occur in a song structure is well established in the animal communication literature (birds, frogs, primates). The term covers all manner of sins, and can be qualified (alarm call, flight call) to increase the specificity.

So, without further ado, let me introduce this borrowed lexicon into the marine mammal literature with this publication:

Source levels of foraging humpback calls in Southeast Alaska

Let’s increase the specificity just a bit with:

Feeding calls produced by solitary humpback whales

 

Enjoy!

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The face of a very very happy whale researcher who might just finish this dissertation after all

Meet the Ocean

When I was 21 years old and backpacking through Central America I met a man named Paul North at a dive shop. For a few precious weeks we shared an underwater community, diving among friends on the coral reefs of Utila, Honduras.  We became friends, we talked theatre and fish (we were both studying playwriting at the time), swam in the wine dark sea and parted ways.

Ten years later I receive an email from Mr. North. His path and mine had converged again, this time over a shared love for science, communication, and most importantly the ocean.

Paul is now the director of a non-profit organization called Meet the Ocean ,dedicated to educating the public on the importance of the saltwaters of our planet. At the heart of the organization is a combination of storytelling and science used to combat environmental apathy. He invited me to join the team as their resident acoustic ecologist. He remembered the version of me from my early 20’s that was dedicated to telling stories, and honored the me now who has committed my life to acoustic ecology. I accepted his invitation, honoring also this new version of him.

Well, Paul and the Meet the Ocean team have just released their 8th podcast, this time focused on the Alaska Whale Foundation, where I am a Research Associate. I listened to the podcast today, and immediately wanted to share it. Not only because I’m featured (listen for a tutorial on acoustic ecology), but because it’s really nicely done. I encourage you to listen and share the podcast as well. It paints a picture (using sound) of what our organization is like, how we got here, and why what we do is so important.

If you like what you hear, please don’t hesitate to donate.  Meet the Ocean is just getting off the ground, and it means a lot to us.

Download the Podcast Here

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The animal behind it all.  A humpback whale dives in Frederick Sound; not pictured is me on a small vessel nearby, listening.

The Right Tool for the Job

During my master’s degree I remember a professor saying that oceanographers’ prided themselves on sinking heavy expensive equipment to the bottom of the ocean. In my second year as a wildlife science PhD student I began my fieldwork in Glacier Bay National Park in Southeast Alaska; we dropped four 700 lb hydrophones from the decks of a 78 foot landing craft into the mighty Alaskan Pacific.  They would spend over 8,000 hours listening for the sounds of humpback whales, harbor seals, and vessels. Lowering them overboard I felt a combined sense of pride and dread. Pride at having mounted such a large project, and dread imaging that (1) we may never recover these (practically) priceless instruments, and (2) that I may be mastering technology that, as an acoustic ecologist, I would never again be able to afford.

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This was my way of saying goodbye to the hydrophones that I’d spent so many months preparing. I openly admit that I love these instruments; I do not believe they reciprocate.

To accomplish the goals of my PhD, I needed these instruments. My advisor, Dr. Holger Klinck, and I meticulously crafted a list of needs and wants of my project. If I wanted to understand how humpback whales responded to vessel noise in Glacier Bay, these were the right tool for the job.

But throughout my graduate career I’ve been hopeful that this level of technological sophistication needed to answer my research questions might be found in a simpler (less expensive) package.

I am a believer in simplicity; the philosopher in me wonders if it is the science with the smallest footprint that has the potential for the greatest impact. Do we truly need a landing craft?  Or can we use a kayak?  Do we need a chase boat or is there an ideal viewing platform just up these stairs? If we dedicate our creative ecological minds, can we cultivate rigorous scientific studies that leave no trace, burn no fuel, and simultaneously help our human-selves to flourish?

Yes.

I’ve just returned from Glacier Bay National Park were I can happily report that my investigation of humpback whale non-song vocal behavior is going strong. My fieldwork this year, in stark contrast to 2015 and 2016, has been unusually simple. Using two small in-air recording devices known as “Swifts”, a GPS, and a kayak I mounted an investigation into the aerial vocal behavior of North Pacific humpback whales (that’s right, sounds produced in air). The instruments were deployed on two islands in Glacier Bay National Park; my research associate and I reached the islands just before sunset.

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En route to one of the unnamed islands in Glacier Bay to deploy an acoustic recorder. This is fieldwork at its absolute finest.

Swift units are small, can be deployed long term in this rain forest environment, and capture a wide range of sounds. I am hoping to record the booms, trumpets, and purrs, that humpback whales produce in Alaska’s near shore environment. This study is a first step toward understanding if these sounds are vocalizations which serve a communicative function, or whether they are a byproduct of physical exertion which may inadvertently signal something about a callers activity or motivational state. Acoustic ecology is a complex field, made simpler by the use of equipment that is (1) sturdy, (2) small, (3) portable, and (4) affordable.

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One of Cornell’s Swift recorders (camouflaged) attached to a young Sitka Spruce in Glacier Bay.

Similar to when we deployed our hydrophone array in 2015, I feel a sense of pride in this low-tech field season. Without the use of a motorized vessel, with very little money, and with an abundance of beauty (and health!) we began an investigation of ecological merit. Will we see a return on our efforts?  That remains to be seen; I cannot, after all control the whale. I am confident, however, that we are using the right tool for the job.

 

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Alaskan humpbacks produce aerial sounds through their blowholes. Some sound wheezy and airy, others sound deep like a french horn.

First Impressions

Following up on my last blog post (about culture) I thought I’d start this post with a quote. In the epic words of the Rolling Stones “you can’t always get what you want.”

I’m in Monterey Bay, California right now doing some fieldwork with my friend and colleague Dave Cade (a PhD student at Stanford) and as the quote alluded field work is filled with surprises.

I came down to help Dave tag humpback whales as part of his dissertation work with Jeremy Goldbogen on humpback whale kinesthetics and foraging ecology. Admittedly my interest is this visit is three-fold.  First, I wanted to see my buddy Dave.  Dave and I have worked together a long time and have been attempting to collaborate on project since we finished up our M.S. degrees in OSU’s College of Earth Oceans and Atmospheric Science. Second, I needed some training on tagging whales in preparation for my own fieldwork. As an addendum to my already rich PhD research I’ve been designing a tagging playback experiment that I am piloting with Dave’s help this summer from my favorite Five Finger Lighthouse. This July we’ll be playing back social sounds (Whups and Feeding Calls) to humpback whales in Frederick Sound.  The ultimate goal is to play sounds to tagged whales, so we can assess dive responses (should there be any), changes in foraging behavior, and of course, approach and avoidance behavior. We’ll also have a hydrophone in the water to document any acoustic responses from our focal animal.  It seemed wise to me to actually participate in a tagging event prior to trying to pull this off.  Lastly, I’m getting close to finishing up my PhD at Oregon State, and I’m trying to spread my wings and collaborate with more labs, institutes, and groups to see where my next few years as an acoustic ecologist might take me. A trip to visit my friend Dave at Stanford seemed like a great start.

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This July we will conduct playbacks to whales in the vicinity of the Five Finger Lighthouse. This island is nestled in Frederick Sound, Southeast Alaska. One of the world’s most productive humpback whale foraging grounds.

One of the folks I’ve been eager to meet is John Calambokidis, founder and research biologist of the Cascadia Research Institute.   Cascadia is a non-profit organization that is, in my estimation, the best example of non-profit research in the United States.  They successfully couple research of scientific merit with applied management implications. Further, they do so with humor, grace, and (from my outward eye and by their reputation), real concern for the environment. From this description, one can glean my excitement to introduce myself to John.

Well, spoiler alert, this weekend hasn’t gone as smoothly as I’d hoped. In part, I’m sitting in a coffee shop right now writing this. I am not tagging whales. Yesterday, despite our greatest efforts, we did not tag whales. We also did not run echo sounders or fly drones. In the words of my friend Dave Cade “it was a bust”. For me though, this weekend  was more than a bust.  Prepare yourself for the story I will tell for the rest of my life when someone asks me about my most embarrassing moment.

It’s about 8:15 a.m. We have seen, but not successfully tagged any of the humpback whales milling about Monterey Bay. I’ve not fallen on my face, said anything offensive, or made myself look overly confident while working on our 9 meter open air rigid hull inflatable. This should be easy enough. I’ve done fieldwork in Alaska, Hawaii, Antarctica, and the Oregon Coast. I spent months of my life living and working on boats. Not looking like a fool on the water should have been a given.

Now it’s 8:45 a.m., and we are a little further from shore. The swell has rolled in and, despite a lack of wind chop, the boat is noticeably rising and falling in the 8-13 foot rollers. At this point John begins to ask me about my research. We’ve met once before and he’s somewhat familiar with what I do. For whatever reason, however, I’m unable to articulately respond. This, for those of you who know me, should come as a surprise. Articulate is my secret middle name. It’s my tiny super power. It’s what I rely on when I am feeling foolish, lost or uncomfortable, and at 8:45 a.m., for whatever reason, my super power is gone, my brain, fuzzy, my mouth dry, my tongue uncoordinated. John continues, politely, to ask me about my work and as I worked through the rubber in my mouth to respond I realized something. My only option is, as politely as possible, to raise my hand ask John Calambokidis to please wait a moment, so I may vomit over the side of the vessel. Repeatedly.

There it is. Networking.

Moreover, as it turns out the simple act of talking turned out to be the trigger. So over the course of the day (we did stay on the water) every time I attempted to have more than a four word conversation, I’d have to politely excuse myself to throw up. Repeatedly. How can I speak more plainly: talking to John the founder and director of the Cascadia Research Institute, made me vomit. #NeverGettingHiredAnywhere.

To add insult to injury, we didn’t tag any whales yesterday. The behavior of the animals, possibly in combination with rising afternoon winds, and we couldn’t quite seal the deal. The drone pilot who’d been scheduled to join us on the water took a page out of my book and – not having a reputation as a seamen to uphold – asked to be returned to shore before he tossed his cookies. For me though, to add injury to injury my sensitive tummy didn’t let up until this morning, two hours after Dave and company left without me on flat calm waters to go tag whales again. I won’t go into the fine scale details of why I couldn’t go out today (I would have been happy to spend the day throwing up on the side of the boat again if it would salvage my poor reputation), but it suffices to say that while one can maintain some grace while vomiting over the side of the boat, if the tummy problems manifest in a different form… one should stay home.

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The view of windless, flat calm, Monterey Bay.

So here I am, at a lovely coffee shop in Monterey Bay, trying to imagine how I may have better prepared for this trip to avoid such calamities. There are some options, certainly, but none of them obvious or foolproof. So what I am left with instead is not how to avoid this situation in the future (I will inevitably be sea-sick again), but how to handle my current situation with as much grace as possible.

This, dear readers, is where I (as always) return to the esoteric. I once believed that in life I had, at the very least, control over my actions, my words, and my body. As it turns out, this weekend I relinquished that control to the ocean; and, if I think broadly, that is where the balance of power rightfully belongs.

So, rather than fight the literal movement of nature, I am left instead seeking grace. Grace is found in humility. Humility found in humor. So rather than crawl in a hole and cry, I’m here. Writing this.

My strengths are not in successful networking. The word makes me uncomfortable. When asked to put my “best foot forward” I have a tendency to take a step backwards. Forgiveness, on the other hand, and sincerity, these are my strengths. So, today I tell my ego to take a few days rest. I forgive the ocean for exposing my weaknesses and begin mentally drafting the email I’ll send to John Calambokidis next time I want to talk about collaborations.  It will start: “Dear John, you may remember me as the girl that vomited repeatedly from your boat. I was wondering if you’d be interested in collaborating on an acoustics project?”