Art and Marine Science

The relationship between art and science is more pronounced than might be obvious. To interpret the actions of the natural world requires creative design, an open mind, and the admission on the part of the researcher that what is coming next is unknown. With every study we conduct, our role is to interpret the true story of the natural world. In this way, creativity is essential for truth-telling; and as scientists, our role is to tell the truth. The role of the artist is perhaps not so different: creative interpretation of the essential. Telling the story of science can also be done with fabric and thread, pen and paper, or a camera and lens. 

Ink on paper by our friend and colleague Danielle Nelson. Danielle also designed our logo and has been an affiliate artist since our inception. Find her on instagram @dayvayen

Sound Science is committed to shifting the culture of science to be more equitable and inclusive. Embracing the arts and artists who are committed to our work and our story is one way of doing this – our way of sharing science so all can understand.

This summer, we are doing this in a tangible way, starting with the premiere of the Drew Xanthopoulos’ feature-length documentary “Fathom” (I’ve mentioned Drew and his film on our blog before). This week, our team is headed to the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City to watch the premiere and hold our breath as we share this intimate fieldwork experience with the world. 

This is an important moment for us. Indeed, it is also an emotional and vulnerable moment for us. We are a new organization with a team of scientists, who have dedicated our careers and lives to study these animals to ensure they have a permanent place on our planet. This film follows one of our first major Sound Science projects from inception to initial conclusions. This includes our struggles, our quirks, and our successes.

In short, the film represents an experience that we have lived through yet lack the skill to express fully. Drew has filled that void for us by capturing what we do, why we do it, and what we risk to share the secrets of the ocean with you. With this documentary, as well as some of the other exciting projects we are working on, we see an future ahead of us. To share this process of our research is an enormous privilege.

We hope to continue collaborating with artists long-term, starting with our own (see the piece by Danielle Nelson above). On our team, we have painters, crafters, and writers. We hope you’ll be excited to see their work as our organization grows. 

Rent Fathom from the Tribeca film festival here and watch on June 17th or watch on Apple TV+ starting on June 25th. We’re embracing social media in a whole new way this week. You’ll see a bit of a blitz in our Instagram stories and likely on Facebook. Follow along as your interest and life allow. We hope you get a chance to enjoy the film and don’t hesitate to reach out to us. 

Sound Science is a federally registered 501 c(3) non-profit. Your donations are tax-deductible and keep our organization afloat.

The Season is Officially… over.

The 2016 Alaskan field season is officially over. I can drag my feet and hang my head all I want, but the acoustic and behavioral data collection for 2016 is done and the process of studying for my comprehensive exams is in full swing (I’m taking a short break from outlining the management procedures of the IWC to write this blog). Admitting that I will not wake to the sound of humpback whales breathing outside my tent is a tough reality. Going a day without seeing a seal or an otter has been harder than I expected, but I realize it is time to say goodbye.

This summer was challenging, for various reasons. Year two, I think, always is. Expectations are variable, hopes run high, and the delicious satisfaction that comes with problem solving doesn’t always happen. The problems are already solved.

Despite this, the 2016 field season remains the most lucrative of my career , with hundreds of hours of data collection and a total of nearly a thousand surveys to compliment the anticipated 3,000 hours of recordings. I learned a great deal about nature, humanity, and myself, and I have high hopes that our scientific efforts will be fruitful! Further, I deepened some of my most valuable relationships (scientifically and personally) which colleagues that intend to keep for a lifetime.

But my writing this blog post doesn’t adequately paint the picture of what life felt like on the island, or why we study what we study. PBS, however, has done a pretty nice job of doing that for us. So I encourage you to watch the five-minute film below. It was produced by PBS and Alaska public media, but really it’s the brainchild of Hanna Gomes.  She did a really nice job capturing our world of Strawberry Island. I can’t think of a better way to say goodbye.

Watch and Listen

My broken heart limped off of Strawberry Island a few weeks ago on a day when the fog was too thick to permit my sentimental heart watch the island fade into the distance. But while our field season on the island had come to an end, my field work for the summer was not quite complete.

My work in Glacier Bay studying humpback whale acoustics is partially based on my previous work conducted from the Five Finger Lighthouse. I’m interested in comparing the two regions (both the soundscapes and the behaviors of the whales themselves), as we have historic population and acoustics information from both regions dating back to the late 1980’s (Thank you Malme and Miles! Thank you Scott Baker!). To get the ball rolling on this comparison I made my way to the Five Finger Lighthouse for a short 10 day foray into “late season acoustic behavior”.

I don’t have anything definitive to report, except that the team of volunteers who have been working on maintaining my favorite historic structure have been hard at work, and that the whales were abundant beyond my wildest dreams. If Glacier Bay is indicative of high quality interactions with individual humpback whales (remember Cervantes), than Frederick Sound is a strong argument for quantity over quality. In this, my tenth summer spent with Alaskan humpbacks, I finally broke the record for highest concentration of animals in a single area. Don’t believe me? Watch the short clip below and see a glimpse of the 40+animals milling around the region. Once you’re done watching, listen to the sound file to get an idea of what these animals were saying when this video was filmed. In my humble opinion, it is in this pairing of sight and sound that we begin to understand.



(These videos and recordings  were collected  under a research permit and with zoom lenses. Endangered or not it is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to approach a humpback whale within 100 yards, to alter the behavior of an animal, or to recklessly operate a vessel — even a kayak– in the presence of humpback whales).