So, from time to time the media finds that our work as scientists is worth highlighting. Today, a short article came out in Hakai Magazine highlighting our work on solitary foragers in Southeast Alaska. For a brief recap of what we found, and the short story behind how we found it read below:
In her poem “What we want” Mary Oliver writes:
In a poem
but even more
they want something
easy to swallow—
not unlike a suddenly
in an otherwise
difficult and sometimes dissonant
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.
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?
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:
Let’s increase the specificity just a bit with:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.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.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?”
One of the special things about studying marine megafauna is how completely and unequivocally devoted their fans are. Judging from the popularity of Roger Payne’s best selling 1970 LP “Song of the Humpback Whale”, I think it’s fair to rank humpback whales among rock idols like David Bowie, Mick Jagger, and Madonna in terms of popularity. I feel quite confident, however, that the number of students willing to dedicate their careers to spying or eavesdropping on whales, is higher than those that are actually interested in year long appointment shadowing Cher.
Whales are a part of our human culture; this is unequivocal. The traditions of Inupiat whalers are passed between generations, skills are shared among whaling teams, and successful bowhead whale hunts are the inspiration for song, story, and festival. Historically, the oil of whales has shaped course of human history. The first street lights to brighten the dark streets of London burned whale oil; the city saw an almost immediate drop in crime as a result. Spermaceti literally greased the wheels of the industrial revolution, not to mention the gaskets on US spaceships. Our human history, — our human culture — has been shaped by the body of whales.
The cost was enormous.
Industrial whaling was responsible for the largest removal of biomass from the world’s oceans… ever. Great whale species were hunted to the brink of extinction or – in the case of the Atlantic grey whale – past the brink of extinction to fuel the market for oil and other whale products.
While arguably the loss of life at this scale for any species would be considered a tragedy, there was a concomitant loss of something that makes the epoch of industrial whaling somehow more poignant: cetacean culture.
Whales and dolphins have culture. While this phrase makes some cultural anthropologists cringe, and has certainly sparked its fair share of debate, this phrase is generally accepted among behavioral ecologists and marine mammal biologists. But what does it mean? Technically and in terms of conservation?
Culture can be defined as shared behavior propagated through social learning. In humans, an example of this can be culturally specific foods. For example my grandmother taught my mother how to make seafood gumbo. My mother in turn taught me how to make gumbo. The act of making gumbo is a shared behavior that was learned; making gumbo it is part of our culture.
Humpback whales don’t cook, they do eat. In the same way that methods of cooking vary between human populations, methods of hunting vary between humpback whale populations. In Southeast Alaska humpback whales use feeding calls in combination with bubble blowing to herd herring toward the surface of the ocean and then *gulp*. No other population of humpbacks in the world, that we know of, pair this call with this behavior. Evidence suggests it may be a learned behavior; culture.
Similarly, in the North Atlantic humpback whales slap their flukes to herd fish in a behavior known as lobtail feeding. Based on years of observations, and the hard work of a bright you grad student, we learned that this foraging technique was spread culturally throughout the population. Which means to say that individuals learned it from each other. Significantly, humpback whales also learn where to forage. They gain information from their mothers during their first year of life that tells them where to migrate to, good spots on foraging grounds to find and catch a meal, and what is good to eat. This is where conservation comes in.
During the height of industrial whaling large portions of whale populations were extirpated. When those whales were removed from the system, their traditions died with them. For some baleen whales that loss of cultural knowledge has led to the abandonment of fertile foraging grounds, and in other populations it has led to high fidelity to poor foraging grounds without the knowledge of any alternatives.
So understanding culture in whales matters. It matters because it helps us to understand their adaption to population recoveries, it allows us to track their plasticity and resilience, to understand how and why one whale population differs from another, and maybe it allows us another way to relate to these animals. More personally, perhaps by understanding the importance of culture in whales we can begin to value the importance of culture in our own world, in our own country, in our own lives. Something, I would argue, that we might need right now.
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.