Making a splash in the world of marine mammals

*Guest Post By Lucas Williams*

Hello friends,

Those who’ve been gracious enough to check out my blog are likely aware that I spent last summer in Glacier Bay, Alaska as a field tech under the mentorship of Michelle Fournet (Miche). Well, I am happy to announce that I’m doing it all over again. I will be returning to my home away from home, Strawberry island, for the summer of 2016.

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Oh yeah, I’m back baby

I get to go back out into the field this summer to practice some ‘hands on’ science (not to mention experience some of the best camping this world has to offer for 3 months), but my school year has also been filled with science. There’s just been a lot more numbers involved, and lots of maps.

Before I joined everyone in Alaska last summer, Michelle and I sat down several times before the field season started to discuss potential thesis projects I could do using the data we would collect. My original idea was to investigate sound shadow usage by humpback whales in Glacier Bay. Sound acts as a wave, and similarly to light, can be blocked or dampened by obstructive objects. I was going to use the spatial data we collected to determine if humpback whales were foraging/traveling more frequently in sound shadows created by the topography and bathymetry of the survey area, and compare densities in sound shadow areas depending on level of water vessel traffic. Unfortunately, the whole survey area was essentially one large sound shadow, making any kind of comparison on the local scale largely pointless.

So, my original project was bust. But, with plenty of guidance from Michelle, I was able to craft an even better thesis project. I decided to investigate corridor usage by humpback whales. This eventually evolved into my current thesis project, eloquently titled “Local scale habitat use by humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) on a Southeast Alaskan foraging ground”. I’m looking at how whales use their forage grounds on a smaller scale to minimize energy expenditure while maximizing foraging intake.

I’ve made a lot of progress on this research, but not without learning several things I was told but certainly didn’t know until I experienced them myself. Those included:

  1. You never get everything right on the first try when it comes to writing a scientific paper
  2. Spreadsheets are an underappreciated form of art (yes I said it)
  3. A lot of data analysis is actually just learning how to use software
  4. ArcGIS is a sentient program that feeds off the frustration of innocent and naïve users.
  5. Finding a good mentor is like receiving a gift that just keeps on giving

This all lead to this previous weekend where I gave a 15 minute presentation of my project’s current results at the Northwest Student Society of Marine Mammals conference in Seattle. Not only are conferences a lot more fun than I anticipated (scientists are cool) but the presentation itself served as my first formal introduction to the marine mammal world. It wasn’t a huge hello, more like a friendly wave, but it felt like real progress.

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A density heat map representing traveling whales in the survey area. Notice the bright green corridor in the center

Whether I end up becoming a professional marine mammal scientist is still up in the air. If you had told me last year that I would be presenting legitimate scientific results at a conference before heading off to a field season in Alaska I would have laughed in your face. But here I am. I don’t exactly know what’s in store for the future, but I’m damn excited. Here’s to another awesome year that I fully expect will challenge me in all new ways.

I’m going to make a more concerted effort this summer to bring more content to this blog as the season progresses, and you can expect another post from me in the near future.

Cheers!

Luke

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