Animal Bioacoustics

Technology. Ecology. Noise

Animal Bioacoustics

Archives for Fieldwork

Cruising the Pacific

Although I won’t be formally joining the lab until January, my informal transition has already begun. Luckily for me, my tenure at as graduate student started off with a fieldwork cruise! In September I joined the crew of the Bell M. Shimada to assist with the deployment of one of ORCAAlab’s Ocean Noise Reference Station (NRS) moorings. The focus of my graduate research will be to analyze recordings from the NRS project, so it was  exciting to have the opportunity to help out with a deployment.

This is a map of the NRS deployments. On the Shimada I helped deploy NRS03.

This is a map of the NRS deployments. On the Shimada I helped deploy NRS03.

The Ocean Noise Reference Stations will be deployed in NOAA Marine Sanctuaries and some other US marine areas of interest. We hope that the recordings from these moorings will allow us to compare ocean soundscapes and monitor long-term changes in a new way. Currently, many different types of autonomous recording units (ARU) exist and are used by passive acoustics research groups. While this is excellent for documenting ocean noise in isolated areas, different recording technology and mooring design make it difficult to compare soundscapes. The NRS project recorders are all calibrated to the exact same specifications so we may accurately compare ambient ocean noise around the US and in NOAA sanctuary waters.

NRS03 staged on the deck.

NRS03 staged on the deck.

On this trip we were to deploy NRS station 3, off the coast of Washington State. We set sail out of Newport on a wet and windy day. This was my first journey in the Pacific ocean, and the weather certainly lived up to my expectations! Avoiding the offshore storms, we started our trip by traveling north along the coast of Oregon. Cheif scientist Jay Peterson recruited a science crew of faculty, students, and volunteers and we were all assigned watches and jobs for our week on the Shimada. Between all of us we would process water samples (via CTD), jig for squid, dip-net for jellyfish, retrieve a NOAA DART (Deep-ocean Assesment and Reporting of Tsunamis) monitoring buoy, and deploy a Noise Reference Station. Suffice to say, we had a busy week at sea!

Preparing the float for deployment.

Preparing the float for deployment (photo credit: Megan Stachura) .

Deploying the top float of NRS03.

Deploying the top float of NRS03.

I was also able to help out with some of the other projects. Here I am helping to catch jellyfish for Samantha Zeman’s project.

Trying to catch jellyfish in the dip net.

Trying to catch jellyfish in the dip net (photo credit: Megan Stachura) .

We came across a swarm of jellyfish on out way back into Newport.

We came across a swarm of jellyfish on out way back into Newport (photo credit: Megan Stachura).

It was great to have the opportunity to visit Newport before starting at OSU this winter, and I hope I get a chance to help with another deployment soon!

Talk about the weather

Oscar Wilde said that “Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

Sorry Oscar, despite my deep respect and admiration to you I will have to object this one.

Talking about the weather is lame; I seriously thought before. But I have changed my mind, since I moved to the Oregon Coast. Talking about the weather is lame at the cases that the weather is consistent, predictable and largely warm and sunny. This is not the case at the Pacific Northwest.

The variability of the weather at the Oregon Coast

The variability of the weather at the Oregon Coast

I often find myself complaining about the weather (this is my version of talking about it) since I moved here, and now it’s time to better look into it. Without my usual pout when I curse the rain, or my frown when it’s sunny but really windy. I am not grumpy in reality; I am just a bicycle commuter. That means that I don’t have the choice of a well heated, or at least a dry seat at bike-unfriendly times. I am always exposed to the weather and it affects me every single day. I have been repeatedly soaked by the North Pacific rain and blown away by the Northerly winds (we name the winds from the direction that they come from) over and over again. Immediately when I arrived here I was warned about the horizontal rain that I had never heard of before and no umbrella could keep it off me. The wind is ruthless at the North Pacific.

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The truth is that everyone is affected by the weather and has his/her own relationship with it depending on where they come from, what they are used too and how their internal thermostat is tuned, and also on their personality. If you come from Greece, the Oregon Coast will appear cold, whereas if you come from northern France (clear reference to one of my housemates) it will feel like home. If you are outgoing and social the warm sunny weather suits you and defines you. If you are more of an introvert the rain and the low temperatures will provide the right conditions for you to stay home and enjoy solitude.

Research shows that the weather and particularly the sun affect our mood. I clearly see more smiley faces in a sunny day, mine included. Studies indicate a link between low pressure and suicide. On rainy days people report lower satisfaction with their lives. Now imagine how challenging it can be to be a graduate student in a tiny town on the Oregon Coast…!

Overall, I think that the amount of energy that we receive from the huge flaming star on the sky defines who we are, and seems to be a driver of peoples cultures. I am certain that you also have noticed generic cultural differences among people that come from southern and northern regions in a global or even in a national scale. I might be judged for stereotyping but there is some truth to that.

There are 3 major factors why the weather is important for biologists-acousticians:

1. It is linked to food and everyone cares about food

The animals care about the weather! Their distribution is defined by the climate together with other parameters. The sperm whales for example, being truly cosmopolitan, are encountered in the most parts of the world’s seas from the equator to the edge of the polar ice. However they have their temperature preferences. The females like it warm and don’t go to temperatures lower than 15°C. While the groups of females and young males are thought to remain in lower latitudes year round, the macho adult males have wider physiological demands and are encountered in polar areas.

The sperm whales display a remarkable sexual dimorphism with the males being ~1.5 times longer than the females. The larger the size of the animal the more favorable is the surface-to-volume ratio. Even though they have a large surface area that they lose heat from, this area is small in relation to their heat-producing body mass. Thus the males can migrate to high latitudes, especially during summer months, to productive feeding grounds where they karaoke with my hydrophone located at the Gulf of Alaska.

A whale enjoying our field work!

Some enjoy field work more than others

Within their calls I am sure that whales talk about the weather too because highly productive spots are identified, like upwelling areas and other cool places where plenty of food is available and the animals tend to aggregate. Though, the precise process that links the environmental factors in the open ocean with the distribution and abundance of large predators is difficult to be determined and is a major goal of my research. Investigating the oceanographic parameters that affect the movements of sperm whale populations is a particularly complicated matter since they feed on deep sea creatures (bathypelagic squid) and the linkages of physical forcing (wind, temperature) with primary productivity and aggregations of prey and predators are temporally and spatially variable.

2. The sound in the ocean likes it hot

The propagation of sound in the oceans is largely affected by oceanographic variables (which are related to the weather) such as temperature, pressure and salinity. The speed that the sound travels underwater varies from area to area, season to season and different time in the day. Generally the sound speed increases when all the above variables increase. Since these variables change with the depth, the sound speed profile also changes with depth in the water column.

Temperature, Salinity and pressure ocean profiles at mid-latitudes

Temperature, Salinity and pressure ocean profiles at mid-latitudes

 

sound speed profile at mid latitudes

sound speed profile at mid latitudes

High sound velocity on the sea surface where the water gets warmed up by the sunlight decreases down to the depth where the water temperature becomes constant (~1000m) and then it starts increasing again when the pressure increase is dominant. At the transition point where the sound velocity reaches a minimum (~1000m) it is formed a sound channel where sound waves get trapped and propagate really far away. This is named as the SOFAR (SOund Fixing And Ranging) Channel and some species of whales find it to be very useful to communicate with their friends, partners, parents, cousins and aunts that are immigrants to faraway seas.

colorful figures with boats are always better

colorful figures with boats in them are always better

I use skype.

message to self: SOFAR channel

message to self: use SOFAR channel

 

 

 

 

 

Do remember this SOFAR chitchat when you decide to deploy your instrument to record whale voices and you cannot decide on the depth 😉

And to turn the talk-about-the-weather into a hot topic, consider what happens when climate change is introduced and the small talk becomes a conversation where personal ethics, political and social opinions are involved. More like loud talk now! Now that I said loud, did you wonder what is the effect of climate change to the sound propagation and consequently the whales’ communication, and you were afraid to ask?

Ocean acidification, the decrease of the pH in the seas, is a notorious climate change impact. This increase of the ocean acidity changes how sound travels underwater: the lower the pH (more acidic), the ocean absorbs less sound and the higher is the sound speed. And now you are thinking: “Voila, the whales can be heard even further now!”. However, the reality is less comforting (as usually). At the frequencies that the whales vocalize we make a whole lot of noise with shipping and naval activity, seismic exploration and other significant anthropogenic sound sources that interfere with the whales’ skype and consequent communication issues. Yep, ocean acidification makes the sound pollution in the seas into a magnified problem.

3. People love listening to the rain

Since the weather affects the ocean soundscape, then it can also be measured by the sound it makes! Rain and wind generate sound at the sea by producing bubbles during splashing at the ocean surface. These physical processes create different distribution of bubble sizes that have a different footprint on the soundscape. This way the sound from breaking waves (caused by the wind) can be distinguished from the rainfall sound and we are able to monitor the ocean surface conditions from below the surface. Huzzah, here is the solution to trying to measure wind speed and precipitation in difficult locations where the measured vicious weather elements can actually destroy the instruments that we use to measure them. The instrument that I use, the Passive Aquatic Listener (aka PAL) was originally designed by Dr. Jeffrey Nystuen  to detect and measure rainfall and wind speed at sea. Lucky me, it works great with recording marine mammals too!

Weather and bubbles talk. This is so scientific.

By this point of this post I have been unnecessarily negative with the Oregon Coast weather which to be frank is what makes this corner of the world into a magical place. The northerly winds in the summer are the reason for the upwelling  to take place and all the whales and other astounding marine life to move up this way for food. Seeing the whales from the beach or even just the balcony of your house is certainly worth suffering some cold winds. The world we live in is alive because of the winds. The wind is the breath and the heartbeat of the Earth. The rain on the other hand gives life to thriving and fairytale-like old-growth forests with splendidly diverse and abundant wildlife, fills the rivers and the lakes. Did I mention how outdoorsy I have become?

A question to you: do you also see an irony in the name “Pacific” or I am being grumpy again?

I am not grumpy at the Oregon Coast

I am not grumpy at the Oregon Coast

Here it comes, a welcome wind: the wind of change. I am moving to the valley!

The Student is the Teacher

Classes have started again here at OSU.  I know this is old news for those east coast universities that start classes in late August or early September, but here in Ye Olde Oregon fall starts late… so school starts late.  As a PhD student I’m no longer required to take classes at the university, and having just pushed the paperwork through on our National Park Service Grant I will soon be exclusively a GRA (graduate research assistant) and will no longer be required to teach courses either.  For now, however, I am both student and teacher — taking classes and teaching them.

FW255 student James tests out the directional microphone during a playback study at Finley Wildlife Refuge.

I love teaching.  Rare for many researchers I know, but for me – true.  I find it helps me to synthesize my thoughts, to approach science creatively and simply, and to consistently reference back to the basics.  In my tenure as a graduate student at OSU I’ve been privileged to both TA and instruct classes in basic biology, ecology, intro to anatomy, physiology and the disease, marine biology, marine mammal science, marine habitats, and (my all time favorite) field sampling.  FW255 — field sampling — is a required course for all of our Fisheries and Wildlife undergraduate students; I’ve been a GTA (graduate teaching assistant) under the brilliant and compassionate guidance of biological oceanographer and community ecologist Dr. Doug Reese for four quarters.  The course gives students the opportunity (under the instructors’ guidance) to design and execute field studies at the Finley Wildlife Refuge.  Courses range from comparing predator habitat use, to investigating the impacts of beaver dams on water clarity, to chronicling avian community structure.  I know. Our students are impressive, creative, young minds.

When your classroom looks like this teaching is heavenly.

When your classroom looks like this… teaching is heavenly

For my part I see participating in this course as an opportunity to introduce undergraduate students to acoustic ecology.  In my tenure I’ve guided students through studies that seek to aquatically detect amphibian species, investigate the impact of diel vs. nocturnal raptors on songbird communities, and studies that use acoustics (playbacks and recordings in this case) to test for territorial responses of red-winged blackbirds to encroaching yellow-headed blackbirds. Currently we’re starting up two playback studies; one study uses acoustic playbacks to investigate the impact of raptors on waterfowl, the other which will asses behavioral responses of elk to breeding calls (assuming we can find the elk — backup plan includes tracking elk and using trail cams.  No student left behind here).

While there’s a lot to love about teaching this class (I spend two days a week hiking through a wildlife refuge looking for animals, I can pay my rent each month), there are a few things that really strike me as I start up my fourth quarter interacting with out students in the field.  First, I have a lot to learn.  Whenever I start to feel like I understand something in its entirety, be it about ecology or about bioacoustics, a student asks me a question I don’t know the answer to.  I then go home, look it up, and learn something for the both of us.  It is simultaneously refreshing, inspiring, and humbling.  Good qualities for any PhD student to embody.

Second, teaching is valuable.  While I believe that my research has, and will continue to have an impact of the world around me, when I teach I can see the impact.  My students start the quarter not knowing how to do something (“What is a quadrat?”), perhaps lacking direction (a.k.a. don’t know how to operate a GPS), and are sometimes a little short in the inspiration department (“What study do you think I should do, Michelle?”), but when then leave?  By the time my students hand in their final papers — a full scale research paper, intro, methods, results, & discussions, stats and all — I can see that they have changed (“We used a one square meter quadrat to investigate insect biodiversity between the upland forest and the agricultural lowland riparian zone”). Further, the relationships that I see unfolding in our class between the students and their groups, and the students and Doug and myself, are proof to me that doing science is a powerful tonic for a healthy life.  Not everyone loves teaching, not everyone gets it, but for me (at least for now) it’s nourishing to put big picture impacts into real world perspective.

So yes, I am a teacher.  Yes, I am a student. The teacher is a student & the students are the teachers.

But enough with philosophy (Niki’s really much better at that than I am).  While 99% of the time I love teaching… no one can deny that this is also true.  Cross your fingers and I may just graduate some day.

-Michelle-

Work Hard, Play Hard

Work Hard

If you’ve been keeping up with all the goings on of ORCAA students this summer, you might think our lives as grad students are full of glamorous field work. I’m sorry to report that there is more to being a grad student then picturesque moments with charismatic study species in beautiful locations. We spend the majority of our time in front of a computer, and much of that time is spent writing. I used to find the idea of writing a thesis quite overwhelming, and sort of dreaded it. But writing is how we, as scientists communicate with our peers and with the public; it’s the most fundamental way we make our research mean something! So I decided I better get used to it, and get better at it ASAP.

This summer I was lucky enough to spend an entire week learning about writing. I took the special Thesis Writing class taught by Dr. Vicki Tolar Burton of the Writing Department here at OSU. This class wasn’t just about sentence structure or grammar (affect vs effect, anyone?), but was all about figuring out how I operate as a writer and developing writing-habits and productivity tools so I can sit down to write and, well, actually write! We wrote all day for 5 days – no cell phone, no email, no errands – then met for 2 hours each evening for peer review and discussion. I was surprisingly exhausted by the end, but I finished the class with a more positive confidence about writing. I not only gained some valuable writing habits, but more importantly I learned how to try new tools and evaluate their effectiveness for me personally so I can continue to develop as a productive writer.

writingclass

Happy students on our last day of class. We don’t look that tired do we?

My favorite part of the class was discovering my five Character Strengths and learning how I can use them to find success as a graduate student, in writing and otherwise. My top five described me perfectly, and although I first thought they seemed like weaknesses when it came to writing, by the end I was able to see how I can use them in the best way possible. You can find your own here; it’s worth registering.

Play “but also counts as work” Hard

So after my week of writing I was ready to get back to the fun stuff (someday writing might be fun…). Some folks from Hydronalix and NOAA came out to Newport to train Holger, Alex and I to drive and care for one of ORCAA’s newest toys: the EMILY. The EMILY is a totally awesome remote-controlled boat I suspect was built just for scientists like us who aren’t ready to be adults quite yet. They are currently used by beach lifeguards as rescue buoys and there are plans to send them kamikaze-style into hurricanes to collect storm data. ORCAA has plans to tow a hydrophone behind it and listen for ultra high frequency cetaceans (eg harbor porpoise) off Newport’s coast where NNMREC tests wave energy devices. EMILY needed some modifications for the conditions here in Oregon (too much seagrass!!) but we got her up and running and only had to carry out a few rescue missions with the skiff. I’m looking forward to getting some more time with these little torpedos!

These pictures may look familiar if you follow us on Twitter @ORCAAlab.

Getting My Feet Wet

Hello Acoustics Aficionados!

Getting to know Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve!  I was grateful for my Helly Hanson rain gear.  This temperate rain forest stops for no one.  A welcome relief given Oregon's hot dry summer

Getting to know Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve! I was grateful for my Helly Hanson rain gear. This temperate rain forest stops for no one. A welcome relief given Oregon’s hot dry summer

A few weeks ago I wrote to you about my upcoming trip to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve and my big “Solo” adventure into the great Alaskan Wilderness.  Well I’m happy to report the trip was an enormous success and — like so many endeavors in science — all of my “solo” work was accomplished through collaboration.

The purpose of the trip was threefold (1) familiarize myself with Glacier Bay and the surrounding community, (2) identify a viable field site that would enable Leanna and I to meet our dissertation goals, and (3) to build and maintain relationships (with the area and with the people).  In short, my goal was all about getting my feet wet in the world of Glacier Bay research, which as it turned out was an extremely easy to accomplish literally and figuratively — Southeast Alaska is very very wet.

Xtra-Tuffs.  Don't leave home without them.  Further, it's how airport employees know you'll be spending the night in the SeaTac Airport, and that may gain you a little peace and quiet overnight.

Xtra-Tuffs. Don’t leave home without them. Further, it’s how airport employees know you’ll be spending the night in the SeaTac Airport, and that may gain you a little peace and quiet overnight.

The nearest airport to Glacier Bay is in the diminuative village of Gustavus (small town, big character).  Living in Juneau off and on for years I’d heard a lot about this tiny place — slow bicycle races and town-wide pancake breakfasts on the Fourth of July, a community garden that would make most Alaskans blush.  With a population that ranges from 350-600 (with an influx of seasonal workers in the summer) Gustavus isn’t exactly what you’d call a city, even by Alaskan standards… and it’s not so easy to get there.

I traveled via shuttle from Corvallis to PDX (nothing new here) and hopped a flight to SeaTac Airport where I settled in for a cozy overnight on an airport bench.  It felt very familiar.  Traveling to and from Southeast Alaska (for less than a small fortune) requires patience, a little bit of traveler’s tenacity, and typically an overnight in Seattle.  Sipping an evening tea and looking around the airport I was not the only one with Xtra-Tuffs on bunking down for the night… there were quite a few of us headed home.

It's a bit remote, but the trip to Gustavus is beautiful!

It’s a bit remote, but the trip to Gustavus is beautiful!

A 6-hour layover in Juneau was just enough time for coffee with University of Alaska- Fairbanks PhD student and humpback whale biologist Suzie Teerlink, who filled me in on some of the details of her citizen science initiatives, whale watch cooperative efforts, and some of the in’s and out’s of her Juneau fluke ID project. My first foray into humpback whale research was working with Suzie on some of these projects in their infancy, and was exciting to see how much they’d grown!  We wrapped up our reunion with a quick hike before heading over to Wings of Alaska and boarding the 6-seater Cessna 207 turboprop aircraft that would safely transport me over over the mountains and fjords and set me down in Gustavus, AK. There I was warmly greeted by the Park whale biologist (and co-PI on our project) Chris Gabriele.

Over the next few days I had the chance to meet a number of the Park Staff (fisheries biologists, bear biologists, research technicians, administrators and more!), and importantly Chris and I had the opportunity to talk (face-to-face) about humpback whale non-song vocalizations — also called social sounds — produced in Southeast Alaska.  Chris and her colleague Lauren Wild of the Sitka Sound Science Center have a new study coming out in the Journal of the Canadian Acoustics Associations on the acoustic properties and usage patterns of the humpback whale “whup” call.  The call (which can be heard here), which is a putative contact call, plays a large role in my research past and present.  I hope to build off of the work they began at the Park to understand more about how humpback whale use this and other vocalizations, as well as how vessel noise may change vocal behavior (including producing the “whup” call) or limit acoustic communication space.  More details on that, and the first chapter of my dissertation, in my next blog post.

Our field site requires an elevated viewing platform, visual proximity to both whales and seals, low current, and as much logistical ease as possible (i.e. is there water?  Is this dense bear/moose territory?)

Our field site requires an elevated viewing platform, visual proximity to both whales and seals, low current, and as much logistical ease as possible (i.e. is there water? Is this dense bear/moose territory?)

Back to the trip, I would be remiss if I led you to believe that we spent all of our time talking (remember goals 1 & 2!).  While initially we didn’t think we’d have access to a boat (hence my initial decision to camp on the island for a few days), much to my excitement the Park research boat R/V Capelin came available.  My second day in the Park was spent on the water scouting for field sites, measuring bottom depths, marking waypoints for locations of interest, and kayaking through non-motorized waterways to scope out potential field sites.  I’m happy to report that we found one!  After eliminating what looked to be a lovely cliff (with lots of blind spots and bear scat), and a good hike around Bartlet Cove where the Park’s current hydrophone is deployed (and where vessels transit daily), it was the north east tip of Strawberry Island that made the final cut.  It might not look like much in the photos (did I mention that Glacier Bay is part of a rain forest?), but I think it’s exactly the spot we’re looking for.

It doesn't look like much here, but come summer 2015 we'll be tracking whales and counting seals right here!

It doesn’t look like much here, but come summer 2015 we’ll be tracking whales and counting seals right here!

With a field site decided (Goal 2, check!) one of the last things I was hoping to accomplish on my trip was to familiarize myself with the area, both terrestrial and aquatic. I was fortunate to spend another day on the water with Chris during one of her many whale surveys.  It was a great opportunity to view whale behavior in the Park, which I’d anticipated would be different than the behavior I’d observed in Juneau or in Frederick Sound (and qualitatively, it was different); but it also gave me the chance to see more of the Park wildlife (otters! so many otters!) and get a feel for how operations work there.  Part of getting familiar with an area involves knowing how to have the least negative impact both ecologically and culturally.

A Tlingit Canoe sits on the shores of Bartlett Cove

A Tlingit Canoe sits on the shores of Bartlett Cove

I took a camper orientation which gave me some good tips on how to minimize my impact on the island, but I also spent some time walking through the exhibits and chatting with Park employees, trying to get a feel for both the scientific community at the Park and the rich cultural heritage of the native people in the area.  Long before Glacier Bay became a national park it was the ancestral home to the Huna Tlingit people.  Near the end of the Little Ice age the glaciers (of which there are MANY) surged forward and the Tlingit were forced to abandon their settlements in the bay and move across Icy Straight to establish a new village.  To the Huna Tlingit, Glacier Bay remains their home.  In Barlett Cove (where the Park headquarters and the Glacier Bay Lodge are located) the presence of the Tlingit culture is palpable.  A Tlingit canoe is on display and current plans are underway for a Tlingit Tribal House.

In what I thought was a poignant manifestation of the culture of science alongside the culture of people, on the same path as the canoe is a structure housing the recently re-articulated skeleton of a humpback whale named Snow, who was struck by a vessel in the Park in 2007. Snow’s bones were buried, cleaned, sent to Maine for articulation and organization, and then finally returned to the Park for the final installation.  In a “Alaska’s such a small place” sort of way, one of my first field technicians, Linsday Neilson, was on the articulation team.  The skeleton was complete by the time I arrived, but I did manage to catch her for a long overdue hug on the dock.

The recently articulated skeleton of a humpback whale names "Snow". Snow was struck by a cruise ship in the Park and after 7 years has been returned to the community.

The recently articulated skeleton of a humpback whale names “Snow”. Snow was struck by a cruise ship in the Park and after 7 years has been returned to the community.

The John Hopkins Glacier in all her glory!

My last day in the Park I headed out early (5am early) and was fortunate enough to catch a ride on the small cruise ship the Baranof Dream which was headed up-bay toward the glaciers.  I spent the day on the boat as a tourist admiring the spectacular scenery and mingling with the passengers.  I spent the following two days as the “marine-biologist in residence”, giving talks about our research in the Park, pointing out wildlife, and harkening back to my days as a naturalist in Juneau (the killer whales were certainly a highlight too).

IMG_0505After a few days on the boat, I disembarked in my hometown Juneau, Alaska, exhausted, happy, inspired, a little damp and ready to go home….

 

 

 

But c’mon this is Alaska, you never get out that easy!!! Despite my efforts to leave straight away I ended up with an extra day in Juneau, and while I won’t go into the details of how the extra 36 hours went (that’ll have to be another blog post) you can see from the photo that it turned out pretty well.  Until next time!

-Michelle Fournet

Juneau Girl at Heart

Juneau Girl at Heart

***Follow my monthly blog posts here, or check out my personal blog mfournet.wordpress.com for a comprehensive look at my research world***

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Aegean Sea

(A story that follows the adventures of Niki Diogou, the first person that hitchhiked at the Aegean Sea to record dolphin “voices” before somebody else does it)

Since it has been suggested that the idea of leaving the oceans (and then coming down from the trees) was not a wise thing to do, I decided to return to our distant ancestor’s water element for this summer. I spent 2 weeks of late

scubaevolution

Let’s go back

July and early August at the remnant of the ancient Sea Tethys, where also happens to be my motherland. Tethys Sea, prior to its closure into the Mediterranean Sea, it was the one of the 2 world oceans during the Earth’s early life, when geography class would had been so much simpler (history too) with Pangaea being a unique super-continent. Greece was covered by the

pangaea

The super-continent and the Oceans before they broke up

Tethys and nowadays there are fossils at the Aegean islands to prove this intimacy. The Tethys Sea was named by Eduard Suess  (don’t get confused, this is a different Dr. Suess ) after the Greek goddess Tethys. She was the daughter of Uranus (Sky) and Gaia (Earth), both sister and wife of Oceanus (there are no taboos if you are a god).

After praying to all the Greek sea gods that I could remember for an opportunity to collect the data I needed for my 3rd thesis chapter, the opportunity arose. Well to be accurate, didn’t really arise itself. I did push it a bit to come up…

The history of every major marine research has passed through 3 recognizable stages, those of: Survival, Enquiry and Sophistication. Otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases. For instance the first phase is characterized by the question “how can I get funding”. The second, by the question “why do I do this research”, and the third “where in the world is the seawater warmer and clearer”.

To answer the first question I wrote this post.

To answer the second question, I wrote my previous blog.

And for the third ultimate question about the meaning of life, universe and absolutely everything, eeeh I meant the sampling site, the ultimate answer: Greece!

Concerning the second question, I will give you a summary of my field work purpose. Though, Douglas Adams  has already expressed the importance of my research:

Man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons. The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish”.

To avoid this sort of misunderstandings, bio-acousticians have been feverishly working on decoding the dolphins’ vocalizations.
First step towards this direction is telling the voices of different species apart.

Different species of cetaceans are known to produce different types of sounds, resulting from various factors such as morphology, genetics, ecology, sociality, and culture. For example, the calls that sperm whales, humpbacks and common dolphins produce are significantly different from each other in so many ways that are clearly distinguishable by an expert ear (and eye that inspects the spectrograms). This fact makes the lives of the bio-acousticians easier because it helps us to identify different species of whales and dolphins by just listening to them.

Things though are more complicated than this. It has been shown that within the same species, some cetaceans tend to produce different sounds when they live in different areas. So the sperm whales in the Pacific produce codas (a type of vocalization indicative of sociality and communication) that are different to the ones of the Mediterranean sperm whales. Similar is the case for pods of killer whales that use different habitats and target different prey. Likewise, different geographic populations of dolphins that belong in the same species have different call characteristics. It is like speaking dialects or simply having an accent. The differences seem to be greater when the geographical distance increases.

The geographic variations of cetacean sounds are usually divided microgeographically and macrogeographically. For instance the striped dolphins in the Mediterranean Sea produce different whistles than the ones in the Atlantic. Also the striped dolphins that live in the western Med sound differently than the ones that dwell in the eastern side. Applying the same logic, the ones that inhabit the Aegean Sea will have a different “accent” than the Ionian Sea habitants. Past studies have revealed the existence of variations in the whistle acoustic structure of a striped dolphin within the different regions of the Mediterranean Sea. However the Aegean Sea is still an acoustically pristine place. The dolphins we encounter there (common, striped, bottlenose, and risso) have not been acoustically recorded (during visual encounters) and classified. YET!

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Maps always help

Being a communicative creature myself, I feel the need of these dolphins in the Aegean to be understood. 🙂

And the same time I will use this information to identify different dolphin species in my N. Aegean acoustic dataset. 😉

I return to the first survival question.  If you have read my previous post you will probably remember my public invitation for funding to achieve the acoustic sampling in the area of my interest. In case you are not fortunate enough to study and work on the field with the charismatic megafauna, I should enlighten you into the specific  requirements of cetacean research: HIGH BUDGET! Cetacean research is particularly expensive. Money for renting a boat, gas money for the boat, money for the boat crew (a captain at least is required) and money for the acoustic instrumentation.

Because the times are hard and funding appears dimly or not at all in the horizon, I had to recruit some old skills of mine to make this happen. Hitchhiking skills (contacts also help, so get your selves out to these conferences)!

I first thumbed a ride when I was doing my undergraduate at the island of Lesvos, in Greece.  With my friends we would hitchhike to the university which was slightly further from downtown. Too far to walk when you are already late for the morning lecture, too close to wait for the bus that has a very irregular schedule, too expensive for taxi while being a student, and just the right distance to be given a lift! That is when my hitchhiker’s career commenced. Now that I have reached a Ph.D level and I only possess a bicycle, my hitchhiking skills have equally improved and can be utilized for science. In this case, the thumb got replaced by emails, phone calls and meetings.

Not too far from the area that I have my hydrophone deployed and I get part of my acoustic data; there is the island of Alonissos. T

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Blue: where Niki’s Dolphin Quest took place

here, it is founded the first Marine Protected Area in Greece that happens also to be the biggest in Europe. The marine area around Alonissos Island, together with 6 more islands, 22 islets and rocky outcrops is one of the few remaining habitats of the Mediterranean monk seal; the only seal specie in Med. In the past, the monk seal was very common all along the Mediterranean coasts.

Nowadays, it is on e of the world’s most endangered marine mammals and

half of its current population lives in Greece. For this reason in 1992, the National Marine Park of Alonissos, Northern Sporades was established and is dedicated to the protection of this rare species. There are laws a

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Too cute to go extinct

nd regulations that limit certain anthropogenic activities that could interfere with the animals’ welfare and the population’s survival. To impose these regulations and ensure the good management of the reserve, the guards of the Marine Park patrol daily the marine protected area. And this is where my thumb comes up. The lovely people that work for the Marine Park accepted me on their daily patrols, allowed me to get on their boat and look for dolphins while they were looking for any illegal activity.

At work with the National Marine Park of Northern Sporades' team

At work with the National Marine Park of Northern Sporades’ team

So I bought a big hat, I got my dipping hydrophone, swimming suit as my uniform and my Dolphin Quest began!

First day on the boat was mind blowing! Traveling with 35 miles/hour, stop every now and then to exotic locations, blue caves, a long break to rest the engine and the guards, have some drinks and swim  in turquoise water coves. Marvelous sites that few have had the chance to visit.

And you will rightfully ask: did you find the dolphins?

No. But it was a good way to break the ice!

The following days were much more effective. I explained that for the purposes of my research we would have to go slower. As a hitchhiker I hesitated to reinforce my own rules to my hosts but soon our zodiac was going with 15 miles/hour and had 2 extra visual observers on board scanning the horizon for dorsal fins and splashes.

Still though, no dolphins in sight.

You see, the ocean is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to ocean. Searching for dolphins there is not an easy job. It is fun but not easy. It can take unpredictable amount of time until you get to see them. And I had only a few days before my flight back to USA…

Fortunately dolphins are curious creatures and if the boat is not too noisy they will swing by for a bit to check it out and hopefully play with its wake. Just like this. Eeeeeh, I wish.

A couple of days went by without any dolphin luck. And the thump comes out again for extra rides. I needed more time in the sea.

Lucky me, the same time period, the NGO MOm, the Hellenic Society for the Study

and Protection of the Monk seal  who has been monitoring the monk seal population and promoting the establishment of a Marine Park for almost the last 30 years also operates in the same area. The last 2 years Mom has been running the Northern Aegean Dolphin Project . A team of volunteers and their lovely project leader, also called Niki, perform daily visual transect surveys to study the population and ecology of the dolphins in the Marine Park region. I

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The MOm team and I, happy after an exciting sighting

hitched a ride with them too. Success from our very first cruise! A monk

seal sighting first thing in the morning and a big group of striped dolphins that we were able to stalk for a while. Stalk and eavesdrop on their conversations! This raised my expectations.

Stalking a groups of striped dolphins

Stalking a groups of striped dolphins

My days passed with me jumping from the one vessel to the other exploring extensively the N. Aegean Sea. But without enough dolphin sightings. And while I was trying to compromise with the idea of having only striped dolphins’ recordings and thinking of the shift I would give to my research, disappointingly looking for any dolphins, the common dolphins appeared and gave me hope again! Fortunately, trustworthy hope. Later on the same day a mixed group of common and bottlenose dolphins was having a long dinner close to our boat. After recording them for long time, I did not resist jumping in to the water. There were far enough to not be interrupted by my presence but close enough to hear them while I had my head underwater. I was shaking with excitement. Dream comes true. Check.

My field trip ended with recordings from 3 different dolphin species, 2 monk seal encounters, countless seabirds, and 3 illegal spear-gun divers. The sea CSI in action!

The only problem was that I had to go. Too soon I think. But would there ever be a right time to leave this heavenly place?

Take me back!

Take me back!

And now I am back in Newport, my skin has still some tan left and all the Greek memories are still fresh with strong salty flavor. My suggestion is the following:

Do you want to implement research but you don’t have funds to do it? DON’T PANIC. There are ways and alternatives. Consider the hitchhiking method.  It is an inexpensive way to do your sampling and it essentially means collaborating, meeting people, working together, sharing and having a common direction. I assure you, it’s the journey not the destination that matters.

My gratitude to the National Marine Park of Northern Sporades and MOm, the Northern Aegean Dolphin Project, for their hospitality and help. Definitely worth a visit and I am already craving my return!

So long and thanks for all the dolphins!

Words that Start with S

Summertime

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.

South

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).

Noisesources

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***

Tag On!

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Tagged blue whale off the coast of Southern California. Taken under NMFS permit #14534 by J. Calambokidis.

Today’s blog comes from aboard the ‘R/V’ Truth (well technically I’m at Starbucks now, yay wi-fi). I’m down in Southern California for two weeks working on the SOCAL-BRS project. This is a multi-year effort to study the behavior of marine mammals in the Southern California Bight, specifically the reactions of these protected species to specific sounds including naval sonar. All this will help regulatory agencies better understand the risks and effects of sound exposure to marine mammals so they can make more informed decisions. I’m here as an associate scientist with Southall Environmental Associates, Inc, but this project is a huge collaboration. I get to work with folks from Cascadia Research Collective, the Friedlaender Lab at OSU’s Marine Mammal InstituteMoss Landing Marine Laboratory’s Vertebrate Ecology Lab, the  Goldbogen Lab at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station, NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, Navy marine mammal research personnel, and of course the amazing crew from Truth Aquatics (our boat charter) out of Santa Barbara.

A tagging boat dropping off some gear.

A tagging boat dropping off some gear.

BRS stands for Behavioral Response Study. My master’s research is all on testing the potential use of a new kind of tag for these types of studies, so I’m very lucky to be participating in such a project for my third field season.  Currently, these types of studies use tags that combine fine scale  behavioral sensors and passive acoustic recorders (in our case, DTAGs developed by folks at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute) to monitor potential changes in an individual animal’s behavior in response to a controlled sound exposure projected from a boat. This project is really important for investigating exactly how marine mammals are affected by anthropogenic noise such as naval sonar.

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The whole database set up….so many wires!

WILD in the midst of a busy afternoon: boat tracks, instrument deployments, and animal sightings!

WILD in the midst of a busy afternoon is filled with boat tracks, instrument deployments, and animal sightings!

I sort of have a bunch of jobs on the boat. My main duties are as database network manager and operation of WILD (Whale Identification and Logging Database) software that allows us to combine location data from our three research vessels, animal sightings from our visual observers, and instrument deployment from our various teams. I serve as an assistant for Chief Scientist Brandon Southall, helping him coordinate the different science teams and directing the captain when Brandon is out on one of the small boats. I help with radio telemetry, visual observations, and try my best not to get sunburnt. Oh…and this year we have a smoothie bar! So I moonlight as smoothie barista due to my incredible smoothie-making skills.

One of the perks: a sunrise over Catalina Island

One of the perks: a sunrise over Catalina Island

There is some downtime while we are on the search for whales (great time for catching up on scholarly reading!) mixed with crazy hectic long days when we’ve got multiple tags out and successful playback sequences. I just wanted to share some pictures of the daily grind, and daily gifts, for those of you who are land locked.

Check out all those links above to learn more – especially the official SOCAL-BRS’ blog.

Another great sunrise

Another great sunrise

Home for the next two weeks.

Home for the next two weeks.

Blue whale flukes

Blue whale flukes. Taken under NMFS permit #14534 by J. Calambokidis.

 

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