Words that Start with S


IMG_0182It’s Summertime here at ORCAA and in case you haven’t noticed that means fieldwork.  We’ve got Amanda eavesdropping on porpoise here in Oregon, Selene is tagging whales in California (yawn, who would want to do that I ask, green with envy), Niki (while not technically in the field) is reporting to us from the turquoise Mediterranean, and our honorary labmate Leanna is in full blown seal tagging development.   I am, admittedly, not spending my summer in the field this year (probably just as well… I need some time at home with my data, my dogs and my sunflowers: read about previous summer field adventures during my M.S. here) that doesn’t mean that I’m going to disappoint you.  While my 2014 summer field season may be short, it’s just the beginning for 2014.

Solo, Southeast, Social Sounds

SL_sketch1For those of you who don’t know me, I finished my M.S. here at OSU in the Oceanography department.  I received an M.S. in Marine Resource Management with a focus on conservation.  I studied humpback whale communication in Southeast Alaska (you can read my M.S. thesis here).  I moved to Juneau in 2007 after traveling through wet sunny tropical Central America.  I thought Alaska was going to be a brief pit stop on my way to tropical living.  Little did I know that 7 years later I’d still be working in the inside passage, that it would have slowly become home to me, or that I somehow would have become a cold-weather biologist (I blame it on the whales).

So, I’m headed to Glacier Bay National Park on Monday to scope out a field site for my dissertation research.  For my dissertation I’ll be investigating the use of social sounds in humpback whales (how do social sounds fit into the general repertoire of humpback whales?) and what impact noise has on social calling behavior (Lombard effect in migratory corridors has been documented in Australian humpbacks , what might vessel noise do to calling rates on a foraging ground?). For this study I’m paired up with our own seal enthusiast Leanna Matthews (see her previous post for details on the other side of seal research), who will be looking at the impact of noise on harbor seals.  We’ll be sharing a field site, and more importantly we’ll be sharing a bottom mounted hydrophone array that we intend to use to localize vocalizing animals. Noisy-Neighbors_600px Concurrent with our acoustic deployment we’ll be making visual observations with a theodolite from a nearby elevated platform.  My job next week, is to investigate potential field sites, with elevated observing options, calm waters, seals, whales, and a sleeping location as far away from the bears as possible.  Should be easy right?

The glorious part?  I’m taking the trip Northward alone- Solo. Though I will be well tended to by GLBA biologist Christine Gabriele, if the weather holds I’ll be spending a night, or two, alone at our potential field camp.  Hiking around the island, observing whales and seals, and breathing in the cold wet Alaskan air all by my lonesome.  Call me old fashioned, but I still think that seeing an area is the best way to choose a field camp.  I’ve done my research, looked at velocity charts, bathymetry charts, and topo maps… but without seeing it, listening to it, and being there I don’t feel prepared to set our precious hydrophones on the bottom on the ocean and hope for the best.  So, solo I go.

But… like I said earlier, this short trip (a week total) is just the start my 2014 field season.


I think secretly every biologist imagines the day that something like this happens to them:

*Phone rings*

Me: Hello?

Brilliant Super Scientist (a.k.a Holger) *on phone*: Good morning! Did I wake you?

Me: No of course not (I’ve been awake for at least 15 minutes, and you don’t know I’m in my pajamas.  Who makes work phone calls before 8am?).

Brilliant Super Scientist: Good.  Do you want to go to Antarctica?

Me: Yes. Yes I do.

This actually happened. I’m going to Antarctica! This November I will head as far South as you can get.  I’ll be joining a crew of scientists on the Korean icebreaker the R/V Araon as we head southbound from New Zealand toward the Ross Sea.  My role will be the recovery  of a U.S. hydrophone that was deployed in the area last year. The hydrophone was deployed as part of an interdisciplinary project to track oceanographic and geologic (namely glaciers) conditions in the Antarctic.  The ocean is a noisy place, and lots of features biotic and abiotic contribute to the ocean soundscape. Human activity in the Southern Ocean is limited… making it an ideal place to use acoustics to study natural phenomena like ice (and whales… lets not forget that there are lots and lots of whales in Antarctica).


We will be at sea for almost a month, with a stop at one of the the Korean Research Stations at the midway point.  I don’t know all the details yet, but rest assured there will be many stories to tell.  Lastly, while this isn’t technically a “solo” expedition, I will be the only one from my lab and possibly one of the few native English speakers on the boat.  I spent the evening listening to Korean phrases, luckily I have a few months left to figure out how to say hello.

In short, it’s going to be a big field year for me.  Followed up by an intensive field season in the summers of 2015 & 2016 (with interns! I love interns!)- and all it cold weather places.  If you pair my upcoming trips with my past year of Arctic data analysis (Marvin The Martian was a Bearded Seal… remember?) then I suppose my dreams of becoming a tropical bioacoustician are out… or are they?


Stay tuned!




***all cartoons reprinted from www.michw.com an excellent blog about science, and comics***

Marvin the Martian was a Bearded Seal

You may find this difficult to believe, but now that I’ve reviewed an entire year’s worth of data from Alaska’s Beaufort Sea I can say with great confidence (and no scientific evidence) that Marvin the Martian was in fact a bearded seal. https://i2.wp.com/www.angelfire.com/pa/lkmarvin/Pictures/marvk9.gif If you don’t believe me I encourage you to listen to this sound and tell me that when he’s hanging out in his PJ’s on Mars that this isn’t exactly what’s coming out of our little Martian friend’s mouth.

While of course I’m being facetious, it is only to a point.  The scary alien sound effects that have been ingrained in pop culture are made manifest in the Arctic soundscape.  While the stoic images of starkly white sea ice may elicit feelings of cold noiselessness, underneath that sea ice it is loud.

In collaboration with the NOAA/PMEL a calibrated autonomous underwater hydrophone package (AUH) was deployed at the continental shelf break approximately 50 miles off the of the coast of Alaska in the Beaufort Sea.  Using the AUH we were able to record continuously for an entire year (as my lab mate Amanda tweeted once she was done analyzing beluga calls “I’ve officially finished analyzing 8,760 hours of Arctic #bioacoustics data”). For the acoustic buffs out there, the AUH was able to precisely record underwater ambient sound levels with 16 bits resolution (i.e., with 96 dB dynamic range) in the 10 Hz to 2,500 Hz frequency range. For the non-acoustics buffs out there this means that we could record sounds ranging from just below the low end of human hearing to about the pitch of a high whistle (think a little girl whistling Andy Griffith).

This was my first foray into Arctic acoustics, and I was properly daunted.  My experience to this point has been strictly working on acoustics collected in Southeast Alaska that had concomitant visual observations.  There were only three species my hydrophones were likely to detect- humpback whales, killer whales, and harbor seals.  In the Arctic, however, there are many species (we detected bowhead whales, killer whales, humpback whales, beluga whales, ribbon seals, ringed seals, AND bearded seals).  Furthermore the sound of the ice itself is deafening!  It whistles, whines, creaks, groans, and pops- making this critical abiotic feature a character in its own right.

Bearded_Seal-Spectrogram-croppedThe Arctic is known to be visually “other-worldly” and I cannot emphasize enough how this is made manifest acoustically.  For the spectrogram savvy this is a spectrogram of  Marvin the Martia… I mean two bearded seals. FYI- this spectrogram was generated from the afore referenced sound file. For those less familiar with a spectrogram, a spectrogram is a visual representation of sound.  Time is along the x-axis, and frequency (which we related to pitch) along the y-axis.  The colors represent energy (or as we manifest, volume).  The brighter the color the louder the sound.  By generating spectrograms it allows researchers (like the PI’s, technicians, and of course grad students) here at ORCAA to classify caller species, to classify call types, and to gain a better understanding of who is utilizing the marine habitat and when.  In the case of this Arctic data set I enlisted the advice of Arctic expert Kate Stafford at the University of Washington Applied Physics Lab to help me classify some of the more obscure files.  She generously pointed me toward an excellent new publication which enabled me to compare the spectrograms that I was generating with those from known species.

Despite the many resources (publications, lab mates, experts in the field) I was still unable to identify all of the calls to species.  Many calls were graded, others obscured by the sound of airguns (possibly more on the topic of airguns in the future), and still others vocalizations obscured by the sound of ice.  Given that the goal of the project is to monitor long-term changes and trends in the Arctic underwater ambient sound field I understand that this is a cursory first pass at an incredibly rich data set.  With as many hours as have yet to make their way into our lab I can’t help but imagine… who other than Marvin we might find there.