Find Your Park

The marine forecast is calling for 25-knot winds and 5-foot seas in Glacier Bay National Park today. Yesterday, when we were tightening the last nylocks on our hydrophone landers, and working out the last details of our array deployment, folks were pretty keen to remind us that the weather was going to kick up. I decided not to be nervous, what’s the point.

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Clockwise from upper right: Snacks, Kenya, Bumblebee, and Bruiser.  The hydrophones that listen where we cannot. 

Today in the rain and the fog we put four instruments, that our team has literally pour blood sweat and tears into, into the ocean for a second year. Aside from one overactive buoy on the final drop (I turned to Chris and said, “My only concern is about that buoy.” I should have listened to my gut sooner), our day went smoothly and quickly – despite the persistent drizzle and fog dancing on deck. Our efficient little team completed the deployment by 10:45am. Plenty of time for a quick visit to Strawberry Island, and a boat ride home, all before the weather hit. Unlike last year, where we hooted and hollered our victory, this year the boat ride back was subdued. I didn’t dance a victory dance, I sighed a blissful sigh of relief.

Want to know something though? The best part of today wasn’t getting the hydrophones in the water (though long term, I’m certain that’s what I’ll be most grateful for), the best part was seeing the harbor porpoise sipping air off the port side of our deployment vessel, watching the bull sea lion growl with his huge mouth agape, and spotting the seals and birds diving after the same schools of small fish. I love our hydrophones – don’t get me wrong. I’ve slept with them next to my bed at night, kissed their housings, and whispered sweet nothings to them. I love them most, however, because they give me the motivation, the inspiration, and the permission to be outside here in Glacier Bay.

The National Park Service is having its centennial anniversary this year. It has been one hundred years since the intrinsic value of our wild places was recognized, and protected for no other reason than to ensure its persistence. Being a part of this legacy is something that I can’t quite put words too. Joining the ranks of my mentors, past and present, and contributing to what we know about and how we interact with the natural world with forever be one of my greatest achievements. I’m fortunate enough to stand in the footsteps of giants; for me, however, those footsteps were carved out by the journey of glaciers moving through this landscape well before I was born. Footsteps that have become the ocean home to the animals that I love, and the backdrop to the science that I create.

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Staged and almost ready to go on the dock in Bartlett Cove. Our equipment prep was completed in the company of otters, eagle, and Bonaparte gulls happily cackling

Technology enables me to listen to a world I otherwise cannot hear, but it is the sound of the ocean butting up against the islands that brought me to acoustics in the first place. We human tool users are ingenious in finding ways to solve problems and answer questions. Places like Glacier Bay, however, are essential for inspiring the questions in the first place.

One hundred years. That’s not a trivial tenure. How many times over the past 100 years have you visited a National Park? If you’ve never been, let this be the year that you find your park. I’ve certainly found mine.

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The view from Strawberry Island, overlooking our hydrophone array: Glacier Bay National Park

 

 

 

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***

What Does Sound Look Like?

Before I can begin running analysis on the data we collected over the summer it first must be processed.  While I may have dreamed of attending to data in the field (and to a degree  that was done) the bulk of the data processing is being done retroactively. Preparing sound files for analysis is easily the most labor intensive part of this research phase.

We collected over 300 sound files, and a minimum of 248 of them require fine scale attention.  This means that  every vocalization our interns heard in the field while floating  in Noble Stead must be listened to again during the verifying process, again as I measure its parameters, and yet again as it is placed into a broad vocal category.  Sounds were initially categorized by ear as we intuitively began to recognize certain call types.  They are further categorized, however, not by ear but by sight.  For each sound listened to (once, twice, three times listened to) I create what’s called a spectogram- or a picture of the sound.  This picture allows us to see the shape of the sound, the duration, the frequency, and the modulations.  Obviously, things that look the same should sound the same.
So, what do humpback whale calls look like?  Like this-

 

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Field Prep… down to the wire

My last post was all about prepping for our 2012 field season. I had every intention of following up with a “Part 2” of sorts, which would go into more details on what was happening behind the scenes at the Rapunzel Project. What happened behind the scenes ultimately kept me so busy that I couldn’t report on what was happening behind the scenes. I know it doesn’t seem like it would be that much work. Just grab a few hydrophones and a small boat and head to the lighthouse, right? Wrong.

Here’s a brief recap of some of the things that I’ve been up to lately:

  • Write (and receive!) small grants for research supplies
  • Produce poster to present at symposium for said grant
  • Finish up fellowship and scholarship applications that will be otherwise difficult to complete with in the field
  • Track intern arrival/departure times and finances
  • Communicate as much as possible (hopefully without growing obnoxious) to answer intern questions and prepare interns for a cold, wet, glorious summer
  • Write and send out Intern Primer, so everyone knows what to expect 😉
  • Send out sound catalog and example spreadsheet (after creating them, of course)
  • Book hotels for interns, plead with hotels and guest houses in Petersburg to waive the 4 night minimum.
  • Book my own travel to Alaska, including flight to Juneau for supplies (and visit with family and friends) and ferry ride (with Andy’s car) to Petersburg
  • Figure out what supplies are necessary for 3-month field season
  • Find out where to order somewhat obscure supplies, or how to get even very ordinary supplies sent to Alaska (it IS part of the US after all…)
  • Drive to Newport to calibrate hydrophones (Borrow car from generous grad student- Amelia I couldn’t have done it without you).
  • Discover one hydrophone is shot and arrange to have a new one built as quickly as possible! (Please oh please oh please arrive in time- Success! Thank you Joe at Cetacean Research Technology)
  • Collect existing AWF gear from colleagues in the Pacific Northwest and prep it all for transport to Alaska (How many bags do they let you fly with again?)
  • Miraculously collect all of the gear before leaving Oregon for the summer (no small miracle given the number of signatures required for delivery)
  • Come up with new plan for heat and electricity at lighthouse when old plan called for reconsideration
  • Order MORE gear, only for lighthouse this time (We will need electricity after all)
  • Travel to Juneau with copious numbers of bags and pelican cases… not to mention Vista’s dog kennel.  (How I wish Corvallis had an airport!  Again, thank you thank you thank you Amelia)
  • Grocery shop for a five person field team for three months of field work (The cart was overwhelming even by Costco standards)
  • Find way to store food for transport, then get it to the lighthouse without ruining it (I have single handedly moved the ~700 pounds of food through southeast Alaska, up stairs, into refrigerators, onto ferries, into other refrigerators, into boxes, into cars, out of boxes, onto boats, into totes, onto skiffs, through the slimy mucky intertidal, up precarious metal beams, up lighthouse stairs, and finally into cabinets and drawers… phew.  What we do for a few potatoes and a good cup of tea at the end of the day)
  • Budget fuel, purchase fuel, transport fuel (see above description of food transportation and substitute fuel)
  • Purchase fuel gear (fuel drums, fuel filters, fuel pumps, fuel cans- whale research is largely about fuel)
  • Organize and prep field equipment (radios, batteries, sound recorders, hydrophones, hydrophone chords- which are impossible to find- etc.)
  • And lastly…. spend every other waking moment thinking about sampling questions and sampling protocol.  Because what’s the point of moving all of the gear around, if there isn’t a study to be had?

So far I’ve spent one blissful night at the lighthouse.  I was alone on the island. The power isn’t on yet, neither is the water.  For a moment the rain stopped, and my body aching with carrying supplies was on the verge of falling asleep under the 11pm sun, when I heard a whale spout.  I couldn’t see it.  I listened to it exhaling. Then I remembered why we do what we do… or maybe just why I do what I do.  Where there is great love, there is great effort.