Animal Bioacoustics

Technology. Ecology. Noise

Animal Bioacoustics



Acoustic Spyglass Field Team 2016

Research of this scale cannot be conducted in a vacuum. I am not capable of running a theodolite, a total station, a hydrophone, a data computer, and an iPad simultaneously, no matter how good a scientist I may be. To this end field biology is by necessity collaborative. Bringing a team into the field is unbelievably rewarding (and challenging), but the nature of studying charismatic megafauna in a place like Alaska means that expectations must be managed.

My master’s advisor Dr. Andy Szabo of the Alaska Whale Foundation, who imparted on me many words of wisdom as we’d sit waiting for the weather to break so that data could be collected, once told me that the science that was the least exciting to collect was the most valuable to have. I’d remind myself of this as I’d strain to locate a whale from my lighthouse perch that was in fact foraging four miles away, or as I sat with my soggy headphones in a 3-meter skiff in the pouring rain waiting for a whale to call. I’d remind myself that the beauty of using these methods (land based observations and passive acoustic monitoring) was that I was in no way changing the behavior of the whales.


The view of the sunset from our beach as we end a long day of surveying.


While we are here to study the whales in the ocean, it is often the contrast between land and sea that holds our attention. The view from Strawberry Island at sunset.

These are the sorts of stories I told the Acoustic Spyglass field team prior to disembarkation into the field. We learned how to spot blows, because we may be too far away to identify the backs of the whales, we learned how to use a theodolite to finely measure location and behavior from miles away, without ever interacting with the animal. I like to think that I ingrained in my team a sense of humility when thinking about the reality of these whales existing not for us, but despite us. We were prepared to watch, and listen, quietly from a distance.

But the whales came to us.


The dorsal fin of a humpback whale as it was foraging in the intertidal zone surrounding our Strawberry Island field camp


Me just before midnight unbelieving of just how close to shore these two whales were foraging (photo: D. Culp)

In the nine summers that I’ve been coming to Alaska to work with whales I’ve never been as close to a humpback whale as I’ve been, repeatedly, here in Glacier Bay while standing on shore. We are woken up to the explosive breath of humpback whales foraging outside of our tents, we rinse our dishes under the mist of humpback whale exhalations, sitting on the beach writing this blog post I’m not more than fifty yards away from a pair of humpback whales cruising through the intertidal zone. In fact, one blew so loudly a moment ago, that it startled Kate as she made her way across the rocks to begin a survey.

It’s four A.M. and someone is shaking my tent; David tells me that I have to get out of bed there are three whales in our intertidal zone, and one just beyond breaching. It’s ten P.M. and Luke and Kate and I are a puddled mess on the floor of Kate’s tent, moments away from being fast asleep, when David yells from the beach. There’s a whale lunge feeding right off of the shore, and then another; so close that you could count their baleen. Yesterday we cancelled our surveys for fog, again. Sitting disappointed on the beach we watch four whales scattered between the peninsula where we conduct our surveys and the point directly south of us, all of them within 50 yards of the beach – and then one breaches. Years on the water in Alaska and the closest I’ve ever been to a breaching whale was standing ankle deep in the intertidal zone. We have animals so close to the shore with such frequency that Tom coined the term “Drive By”, and the whales do in fact drive by multiple times each day.


Tom surprised by a nearby humpback as he rinses dinner dishes in the intertidal. (Photo: D.Culp)


Humpback whales in Glacier Bay regularly forage in the intertidal zone. Anecdotally we’re finding increased ‘near-coastal’ whales during peak high and peak low tides. Senior thesis project anyone?

I never expected this. I expected tiny teakettle spouts across the ocean (and we have no shortage of that), but I never expected to grow so accustomed to whales on our beach that I’d assume we would see at least one up close everyday. It is a great gift to stand on this shore in awe of these creatures, and content myself with that same knowledge that got me through my master’s degree, that this interaction (which appears to be a one-sided one… whether the whales even know we’re here is unlikely) is not harming these animals or changing their behavior, yet they are still close enough that I can see their muscles flex under
their own locomotion.

Kate and I on the shores of Strawberry Island with one of Glacier Bay's 'regular' humpback whales.

Kate and I on the shores of Strawberry Island with one of Glacier Bay’s ‘regular’ humpback whales.

It is an even greater gift to be able to share this experience with my team, who came to Alaska never having seen a humpback whale. There is a saying about Alaska that I used to quote everyday when I worked on the boats in Juneau, it’s a version of a John Muir quote about coming to Alaska, that goes “for the purpose of sightseeing, if you are old please come. But if you’re young, stay away. For the beauty and the grandeur of a place so huge could ruin you, and it never bodes well in life to see the finest first.”

I fear my team may be ruined.

Luke and yet another of our coastal whales.  Life in Glacier Bay is spectacular.

Luke and yet another of our coastal whales. Life in Glacier Bay is spectacular.

The Wind of Climate Change

Not everyone likes changes and not all changes are likeable.

Several people that I know cannot stand routine and are always seeking opportunities that will alter and disrupt their everyday lives. I confess to be a committed representative of this group. On the other hand, I know of people that despise changes, find peace in routines and love their comfort zone. Some of my very favorite people in the world belong in this group.

Admittedly, in both cases, changes either include the promising potential of a better situation than the current, or threaten to cause decline, pain and in some cases disaster. The risk of a change varies in a wide spectrum depending on each case, and naturally, some people/organisms are more favorable or resilient to risks than others are.

Affected by the impact of the latest politico-socio-economical changes to the Greek people, and inspired by Samara’s older post on climate change and the effects on human communities, I decided to write about the impacts of climate change on the marine environment and particularly its organisms. Since a song tells a better story, bear with me for the lyrics I wrote and follow later on this post.

The North Pacific is the area that this post focuses on (it is also my main study area) and is experiencing intense environmental changes with evident consequences to both the marine and terrestrial ecosystems. U. S. temperatures have increased between 1.3 and 1.9 degrees, mostly since 1970 and this change is affecting everyone. Agriculture and water management suffer from extreme droughts and increased flooding; human health and relocations face the increasing issue of climate change migration; energy demands increase and fossil fuel supplies decrease, encouraging resource wars; forests suffer longer wildfire seasons; marine ecosystems respond with the animals expanding their distribution north or experiencing massive die offs.


The Californian year round warm climate has been my personal subject of envy the last three years while soaking under the Oregonian mist/rain. Even though the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, in this literal case (where fence=Oregon-California border) the opposite is true. Higher rates and longer droughts are affecting dramatically our southern neighbors with corresponding financial consequences.

Were you wondering why lately the Californian huge cars do not shine as they used to? Why Californians have to let their signature emerald yawns go brown? The state is going through the driest period of its history. Cactus and rock gardens now sound like a great idea. Talking about ideas, the San Francisco’s Department of the Environment recently staged an “Ugliest Yard” competition to encourage more water saving.

uglyiest yard

The winner of the “ugliest yard” competition wins a full yard makeover featuring drought tolerant native plants.

Even though studies are inconclusive about the drought been caused by climate change, the drought’s effects are probably more evident and severe because of global warming increasing temperatures on land.

Nevertheless, the trouble does not stay only on land.

Unusually high seawater temperatures at the coast of California are changing the behaviors of different marine species. Whole fish communities strand dead on the shore and so do thousands of seal pups.


Dead fish stranded in Monterey Bay (Courtesy: Before its News)

Dead fish stranded in Monterey Bay (Courtesy: Before its News)

Recent toxic algal blooms at the Monterey Bay caused impressive numbers of fish to die and dead anchovies covered big areas of the coast. Even though similar events are regularly recorded during summer months, this year’s events appears to be the most intense and severe ever recorded. Climate change is inculpated for increased frequency and severity of such phenomena. Higher temperatures and less mixing of the ocean water masses, traps nutrient rich water and toxic algae in a narrow coastal zone and induces the occurrence of algal toxic blooms. Sea birds, fish, and marine mammals, consume the toxic algae and the food chain is immediately impacted. Man is part of the food chain and for this reason big part of the West Coast shellfish fisheries has closed for safety precautions. Washington, for first time, had to close the coast to Dungeness crab harvesting. Among many, you can imagine the financial cost of such a result.

Undoubtedly, the Pacific marine ecosystem is suffering from unusual weather records. The number of sea lion pups found dead on the California coast is continuously increasing, with about 2000 of them having washed up the last 6 months. The pups starve to death or die in their premature effort to look for food on their own. Their moms have to leave them for long periods to travel to distant cooler and more productive waters to forage. Often they do not obtain enough energy from foraging, for either self-maintenance or lactation, and they struggle to support their pup.

Seal pups to be rehabilitated (Credit: Marine Mammal Center,

Sad seal pup faces at rehab (Credit: Marine Mammal Center,

On the North, Arctic air temperatures are increasing at twice the rate of the rest of the world with consequent increase of the sea temperature. The Arctic ice sheet and glaciers are melting faster than ever, affecting different marine organisms and particularly mammal species. A typical dramatic example is the one of the polar bears who are on the edge of extinction since the edge of the ice where they forage is constantly withdrawing and that seriously diminishes their ability to find food. The polar bears belong to the ‘‘ice-obligate’’ species that rely on sea ice as a platform for resting, breeding, and/or hunting. Thus, reductions in sea ice remove their hunting and resting platforms.

A baby effect causes adult troubles

Studies suggest that El Nino (means “the baby” in Spanish and refers to baby Jesus because in South America it typically occurs around Christmas) events are intensified and become more frequent because of the global warming. El Nino forms by the high-pressure system in the western Pacific and the lower pressure system in the eastern part. This pressure gradient and the weakening trade winds (the winds that travel from the east to the west along the tropics) cause a pool of warm water to expand eastwards to the west coast of the Americas. In turn, these high sea surface temperatures cause decrease in primary productivity, chlorophyll, plankton and fish communities, since warm water tends to carry less oxygen and is less “fertile” ground for the ocean life. The El Nino that occurred in 1998 is characterized as “the climatic event of the 20th century” with severe effects on the ecosystems and human communities.

The song

The Wind of Climate Change is track #1andOnly on the album Moment of Worry. Inspired by the song Wind of Change by the band Scorpions and appeared in their album Moment of Glory.

Interestingly the original song became a hit in January 1991 when the Soviet Union was going through some historic changes…

Listen to the original song while you read my lyrics. Do not miss my imaginative rhyming!


The Wind  of Climate Change – Lyrics

I hear the sea lions bark

Down to Santa Barbara

Contemplating the effects of climate change

Eyes stop being dry

When seal pups don’t survive

Affected by climate-driven change


The ocean is warming

Did you hear about the krill

Whales struggle to feed, through trophic levels

El Nino is not a flare

Is challenging this era

Weakening the winds of trade (remember 1998)


Show me the time series to follow

In the absence of light

Where the sardines and the herring tend to stay, (tend to stay)

For the whales to find prey


Searching for quarry to eat

On melting ice-sheets

Polar bears will not cease to endeavor

I hear whales buzz

Down the deep ocean

Echolocating in the short range


Show me the environmental component

Of the climate change fight

For the seals cause me sorrow to strand on bays (strand on bays)

Their moms flee

The trophic cascade occurs

From shifts in oceanographic regime

Weakened upwelling,  ecosystems being unwell

Brings on chlorophyll decline

Deepens the thermocline in spring

The anchovies at warm won’t play


Show me the environmental component,

Of the climate change fight

For the seals cause me sorrow to strand on bays (strand on bays)

Ocean is warm and strange (warm and strange)


Since we are in the merge of science and art, acoustics and visual, check out this video that captures the effects of high rated climate variability in the poles. The glaciers of Greenland, Nepal, and Alaska are depleting by the hour.


Whether we are talking about a drought in California, thousands of dead sea lion pups, skinny polar bears, record aggregations of Walruses, attributing a single event to climate change is certainly under discussion and often subject of scientific controversy. The human-caused global warming and its serious impacts however, are not.

The same time, U.S. faces a serious issue with a significant number of climate change deniers who are particularly aggressive against the climate scientists and relevant policy. To explain that, Jeffrey Kiehl (senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research) implemented a long psychological study and concluded that:

 Consumption and growth have become so central to our sense of personal identity and the fear of economic loss creates such numbing anxiety, we literally cannot imagine making the necessary changes.

His results seem to be applicable in other cases of crisis than just environmental.

Jason Box  said: “It’s unethical to bankrupt the environment of this planet”.

All the choices we make every day affect ourselves, people around us, and the environment. Whether it is choosing what type of dish detergent to use, choosing a political party, or choosing whether to drive or bike, ethics play a factor in the morality applied to these decisions.

Aristotle  and Kant talked about the value of ethics for rational and intelligent human beings.

Ethics is part of a responsible scientist’s work. At least it should be. Ethics is part of everyone’s everyday life and decisions.

Be ethical.




Busy times call for….

links to other blogs!!  Like this one: LADC-GEMM

Lately I’ve been doing some “field work” although that is not nearly as glamorous as my labmates Michelle and Samara are doing right now. I am piloting a glider in the Gulf of Mexico for a monitoring project around the area of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This is an awesome project because it is using three types of passive acoustic monitoring systems: gliders, autonomous surface vehicles (that look AWESOME) and bottom moored hydrophones. However, me piloting means staying in Oregon with a strong internet connection and doing all of that from my laptop, so I don’t have any cool pictures, or fun field stories. This deployment has been going very smoothly, compared to the test flight, knock on wood.

Anyway, Sara Heimlich, of the OSU/CIMRS Bioacoustics Lab, has been maintaining a great project website and I encourage you all to check that out for more detailed info…and cool field photos.


Diving In

It’s been two weeks since our research team met up in Gustavus Alaska to begin our 2015 field season. While Chris, Holger, and I have been working for over a year to get this up and running, our newly formed field team is reaping the benefits of hundreds of pages of proposals, permits, emails, and budgets. Now that we’ve made it to the island I can say wholeheartedly that ever word that was put to paper was worth it. Now, my four interns and myself, are trying to live up to the promises that got us here.


Introducing the crew:

Our team is made up of a diverse group of undergraduates from Oregon State University, all whom I met when I was a teaching assistant for a field sampling class. We’re a diverse bunch to say the least, with complimentary skill sets, all of which have held us up through the rocky first few weeks of the field season (the first week of any large field season is a little rocky, this one is no exception). Everyone is expected to survey for whales from our 15-foot observation tower, and to listen for whales from our kayak, but other tasks have been divvied out according to desire and ability. Tom, our resident Texan, is quick with a joke or a story if you don’t beat him to it, and took up the bulk of our photography training. The plan was to use a spotting scope to photograph whales and seals across the survey area (a plan that regretfully doesn’t seem to work); when that fell through – much to Tom “I never stop working” Plank’s chagrin – Tom happily trained everyone up on ORCAA’s dream machine camera, and has personally taken over 500 photographs to date.

Kate, native Oregonian through and through, came with instruments in tow and cooking skills to match. Aside from her keen attention to detail and organization, having another woman in science around has turned out to be more important to me than I’d originally realized. Of my fifteen previous field technicians only once was there a gentleman on the team. Similarly, our deployment team for this project was made up exclusively of women as well. It’s refreshing to have Kate on the team, not just to represent ladies in science, but to share the perspective of being a strong undergraduate woman in science.


Lucas, recently dubbed “Pioneer Man”, is working on a senior thesis under my supervision. So in addition to his daily survey duties he and I have been brainstorming the next steps in his personal project. What we hope to do is to build on the legacy of acoustics work that’s been done in this area to see if humpback whales are using sound shadows to avoid being inundated with the noise produced by passing ships. This question, which was originally posited in the late 1980’s when the impact of noise on humpbacks in Glacier Bay became a topic of great concern, was addressed with a smaller population of animals and a quieter ocean. During our next stint Lucas will kayak throughout our survey area taking recordings in various spots that we will later quantify using acoustics software to assess variation in the noise levels as a function of ships. He will then use our visual survey data to map out how humpbacks are using the spaces during periods with passing cruise ships. He’s also fond of daily swims in the frigid 38 degree ocean, and holds a personal record of 13 minutes in the water (shoulder deep). This record was beat only yesterday by Kate and myself, the pioneer women on the team (who hold a 20 minute record, but only waist deep).

Lastly we have our Whale Whisperer, David. David, who is also doing a senior thesis with me, has an unbelievable talent for spotting whales. It didn’t take long before the student outdid the teacher; he’s now able to find whales further away and faster than any of us, for which I am grateful and admittedly humbled. His electrician skills have come in similarly handy as we stumble through an enduring love-hate relationship with power supplies. David’s thesis, which investigates diel trends in humpback whale vocal behavior, is going well. Thus far David has navigated the 3:30 AM surveys without complaint as the rest of the team snooze through the early Alaskan sunrises.


Our camp is set up and well organized. I’ve had to move my tent twice, both times due to the proximity of my sleeping quarters to bear habitat. Yes. We have bears. Up until a few days ago I’d grown quite comfortable with Teddi, our neighborhood black bear. She’d been a good neighbor, only coming around the beach twice a day to gaze from afar at our camp. When I interrupted Teddi eating salmon berries a few hundred yards away from my tent, however, I decided to move further into the spruce thicket. This morning David had a close encounter with a second bear on the beach, I’ve yet to see him, but unlike Teddi (who is a shiny black bear), Pete appears to be a large cinnamon bear (or possibly a small brown bear). We haven’t encountered Pete enough to determine a routine, but he hasn’t yet visited the camp.

We’re able to hear the whales breathing from our tents at night, and at least once or twice a day they’ve been swimming about 10 yards off of the beach, usually during high tides. It’s frequent enough that the team has coined the term ‘Drive By’ to describe it. We’re now familiar enough with the sound of breathing whales that not only can we tell which direction the whales are in, but also whether or not they are on our side of the channel or the opposite.

Also on the island we have humming birds and hermit thrushes, Swainson’s thrushes and crows, a pair of nesting bald eagles, and a colony of voles. The ocean is thick with harbor porpoise, stellar sea lions, and (Leanna you’ll be so pleased) with harbor seals! 

Perhaps the best news of all? The whales are calling and the seals are roaring all around the array. We’ve yet to drop the hydrophone and hear nothing. When the hydrophone is near shore the roaring seals dominate, but when you drift mid-channel the swops and whups of whales can be heard. I couldn’t be more pleased.




There will be much more to come, including the trials and tribulations of our research (so many things that haven’t worked, so many things to carry up and down through the intertidal without breaking them), but for now I’ll leave you with the mental image of five happy, damp, researchers, watching whales from the shores of Glacier Bay. Signing off.


Your Alaskan Correspondent,


Hurry up and wait (aka fieldwork)

Between traveling to Alaska with Michelle and wrapping up spring term, this summer snuck up on me. A week after turning in my statistics final (yay!) I was on a plane headed to Boston. After a happy and relaxing weekend spent reuniting with friends on Cape Cod, I headed to Newport, RI (so many Newports!) to board the NOAA ship Henry Bigelow for an exciting stint chasing turtles by day and recording whales by night. Of course, the best-laid plans do not always work out and while all of the other typical delays seem to be under control (the boat works and the crew is healthy), the weird weather saga of southern New England continues and multi-state tornado warnings are keeping us alongside a little bit longer.


The NOAA ship Henry B. Bigelow!

The first reason we are headed out on the Bigelow is to tag sea turtles. Chief scientist, Dr. Heather Haas, and her colleagues are interested in finding out how accurate visual surveys are in tracking numbers of sea turtles. To find out, we the science crew will work together to find as many sea turtles as we can and bring them aboard to get outfitted with satellite tags. Hopefully, the tags will give us information about how much time sea turtles spend at the surface (versus at below it) and that information can be used to better approximate population sizes. But that isn’t really why I am onboard.

I am here as a passive acoustics monitor, operating the Northeast Fisheries Science Center acoustic group’s towed array. Our towed array is a series of 6 mid-frequency and 2 high-frequency hydrophones wired together and suspended in an oil filled watertight tube that we drag behind the boat to listen to marine mammals in real-time. Becuase there are multiple components in the array we can use it to record and localize animals as we travel along a track line. If you want to know more about hydrophone arrays, Michelle Weirathmueller has an excellent write-up on her blog, The Waveform Diary. Check it out here: Hydrophone arrays, FTW!


Our array set-up ready for deployment. The array is coiled on the wooden spool and tow cable is on the net reel.

On this cruise, my friend Annamaria and I will be working with the array at night when it is too dark to search for turtles. We are hoping to record beaked and sperm whales. Since we did not leave the dock today, we were lucky to have a stable platform to get set-up. Becuase a lot of electronics are required for us to an acoustic signal from an animal onto our computer screen, we usually spend the first day at sea troubleshooting…

One of my first projects of the day was to figure out why one of the two hydrophones I was trying to listen to wasn’t working correctly. As usual, the solution is to re-think our wiring set-up. Here I am looking for the connector I need.

IMG_4434 2

I was having trouble finding the right part so I decided to take a break and eat some candy dinosaurs. On the left monitor, you can see that the top half of the screen is blank…not what I wanted to see. Luckily I was eventually able to find the part I needed to fix the problem.

Thankfully we worked out a lot of technological kinks today and hopefully the weather will clear up and we will be on our way to find the turtles and whales tomorrow morning!


Modeling my survival suit during safety drills this afternoon.

Down to the wire

Acoustic Aficionados of all Walks of Life,

It’s time to go. If you’ve been following the slurry of photographs over the past two weeks you’ve now seen evidence that four autonomous underwater hydrophone packages were successfully deployed to the bottom of the ocean in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.  These hydrophones are similar in many ways to the packages that I recovered in the Ross Sea.  This projec, however,t has a few major differences; first the OBS that I was sent to recover in Antarctica was many hundreds (thousands) of feet below the surface of the ocean the four hydrophones we deployed last week sit in a ‘shallow’ 240 ft (71 m). While we will recover these instruments with the use of acoustic releases (see my earlier post on singing to the ocean floor) in the event of some sort of catastrophic instrument failure (there was a fairly large earthquake in the region last year) our hydrophones are shallow enough to grapple for our instruments, or to send an ROV for assistance.

Samara and I preparing acoustic releases.  The releases (for the record) are named Kate, Kate II, Kate III, and Kate Jr. We discovered quite by accident that all acoustic releases are female.

Samara and I preparing acoustic releases. The releases (for the record) are named Kate, Kate II, Kate III, and Kate Jr. We discovered quite by accident that all acoustic releases are female.

Also, there are four of them.  Four hydrophones are needed to acoustically triangulate sound, and thus localize vocalizing animals underwater.  Pair this with a summer’s worth of shore based visual observations (with a digiscoping photo ID component) and we’re getting closer to telling the story of how these animals are truly using sound, and what their acoustic habitat looks like on a daily basis. While my trip to Antarctica was filled with rich observations of wildlife, my role was not that of a behavioral ecologist, but as a technician.  With the Acoustic Spyglass Project I am back in my element, listening and watching.

I was lucky enough to be joined by two friends and colleagues for the deployment trip, my labmate Samara Haver and Syracuse University’s Leanna Matthews.  Leanna is the PhD student investigating the harbor seal side of things in Glacier Bay, Samara is a plain old good time, and also has experience deploying AUH’s.  The three of us made an excellent team that was completed with the addition of National Park Service whale biologist Chris Gabriele. Admittedly, I didn’t realize until midway through the trip that we had an all female research team.  It wasn’t until after the deployment — where Chris ran our support vessel (and acted as a human GPS), where I deferred to Samara as deck boss, Leanna as  expert record keeper and lifter of heavy things, and I may have single handedly lowered each 600 pound hydrophone to the ocean floor (ok, the cleats and the 500 foot of line helped too) —  it wasn’t until after all of that when we invited the captain and deckhand to be part of our long term deployment team, then I realized what a powerful group of ladies in science we were.  It was very satisfying, both to be that demographic and to have been confident and comfortable enough with our team to have not noticed.

It was a spectacular trip. I encourage you to scroll through my instagram feed to see a few of the photos that might not have made it onto the blog. Or look right to see what real women in science look like.

Before I sign off for the evening there are a few things I want to say. I leave for Alaska next Wednesday (June 10th!). I will be a little hard to contact after that. I will be updating this blog over the course of the summer as frequently as possible- but posts will be few and far between.  Our little home away from home on Strawberry Island has neither cell service nor internet (though we’ve managed to secure some electricity!). Every two weeks we leave the island to resupply, shower (much needed), and do our laundry (critical). In between grocery stores and bubble baths I’ll try and make my way to the Gustavus public library to get a few things posted. I’ll also be sure to direct photos to the blog as well so that even if I’m not able to narrate you through our adventures that at least you can glimpse what we’re up to.

My goal is also to have my students tell their side of the story, using this site as a platform. My perspective is by nature limited to my viewpoints.  I moved to Alaska in April 2007, and my relationship with this land will clearly be different from those of my students, who have neither been here nor seen humpback whales.  My imagination is vast, but I don’t think I could even begin to describe what their experiences will be like (cold, wet, buggy, unbelievably beautiful, overwhelmingly quiet). I’m hoping they’ll have the courage to tell you themselves.

So stay tuned, please spread the word to your friends and families about the Acoustic Spyglass Project, and share the blog widely. In return I promise tender stories, embarrassing moments, time lapse photography, and meaningful science — all the while peppered with those most graceful of animals that we are so fond of and whom I hope never notice that I’m watching them.

More to come.


Deploying hydrophones is hard work. Photo Credit: Leanna Mattews (sadly not pictured... since she took all the pictures).

Deploying hydrophones is hard work. Photo Credit: Leanna Mattews (sadly not pictured… since she took all the pictures).

Miracle (2015): A lesson in waiting. And teamwork.

I feel like I experienced a miracle last week.

Possibly I am throwing around the word “miracle” because I’ve got Herb Brooks on my mind (thanks to my fellow grad student and FW intramural soccer coach Matt who is obsessed with that guy). Or perhaps that is actually what happened.

Let me set the stage. Will and Otis, our two Seagliders, were deployed off the coast of Newport, for what should have been a brief, straightforward test of their passive acoustic systems before they were shipped off to the Gulf of Mexico for a project there. Of course, that would not be as exciting of a story if it all went as planned.

I can’t remember how much I’ve talked about it before (I looked it up…try here and here), but basically, the way these gliders work is they go out and dive in the ocean, listen for marine mammals, and every time they surface they call in to a basestation, offload their location and some log files, and continue on their way. Well. Otis (SG608) did exactly that. It was his first flight with us and all went smoothly, from a piloting stand point. Will (SG607) on the other hand….well, he went rogue. And I don’t mean to the brewery.

Will stopped calling in after only 5 dives. Did I tell you this was my first “solo” piloting of the gliders? Yes, I was sort of freaking out.

But what happened the next few days is not important (I blacked it out so I can’t tell you because I don’t remember).

The point is….WE FOUND HIM!!!!!!!!!!

So (1) the miracle part: Let me explain the chances of finding Will. Best case scenario we were searching in about a 1 km radius of a point we THOUGHT the glider would be diving to. Worst case, it was floating at the surface and had drifted who-knows how many miles offshore. But lets complicate things. Glider at the surface, great, easier to spot. Glider continuously diving = glider down for 1 hour 40 mins, at the surface for 20 mins. So lets say we ARE in the right place. Well then it has to be the right time, and you better spot the thing during that 20 mins and get the boat over there before it goes back down for an hour and 40 mins and pops up somewhere else in that 1 km radius. Lets add in some wind waves (We are 35 nm offshore here) and some fog. And this is the image you are looking for:

surface example


(2) the waiting part. Will was missing for 4 and a half days. That doesn’t seem like that long. But when everytime your phone beeps that you get a text message and your heart jumps thinking maybe its the glider, that is a long 108 hours. But that is a lot of what we had to do. This was exacerbated for me because I had to stay on land during the search trips. I had to be at my computer in case we heard from the glider and I could give updates on GPS locations or timing. This was a new experience for me. I’m not real good at sitting still and waiting.


(3) the teamwork part. To me, the greatest outcome of the whole thing. There is NO way we could have found Will without all hands on deck, without awesome grad students and scientists who went out to look (Laurie, Niki, Erin, Theresa, Curtis, Alex, Haru, Matt, Dave), Anatoli and Steve for answering my piloting questions, a chartered fishing boat (ok…we paid them, Sara thanks for coordinating), TWO trips out, the people at iridium for putting up with my incessant phone calls,  the dolphins that swam by the boat and provided moral support, Sharon and Holger for telling me not to freak out…I could go on. (and I’m SO SORRY if I am forgetting someone)


Global Warming = More Snow?

This winter, New Englanders watched record-breaking amounts of snow layer up outside their doors. Snow is not unusual in the Northeast region of the United States, but the transportation-halting, business-closing, structure-damaging amounts witnessed this past winter had more people than ever questioning, “what is going on?”


When we talk about global warming, nor’easters are not typically part of our mental imagery – but they should be! Although global warming is not entirely responsible for these dramatic weather events, increased global temperatures are a major part of the problem. And I do mean “warming”; the dramatic New England winter we observed this year is connected to an oceanic warming trend.

The oceans are getting warmer at an extraordinarily fast rate. So fast that climate scientists have a hard time publishing reports as quickly as changes are occurring. While it may not seem logical that warmer water causes more snow, this temperature increase is a major contributor to extreme weather.

Flooding in Scituate, MA. Photo: Jesse Costa/

Water absorbs and retains heat very well. When cool air travels over the surface of warm upper layers, the water heats the air and then evaporates. The newly warmed humid air rises and cools as it travels, forming clouds and eventually precipitation (in freezing New England this comes in the form of snow). This phenomenon, known as the “lake (or bay) effect” is part of what caused coastal New England to be slammed with blizzard conditions this winter.

Cape Cod National Seashore in early March 2015. Photo:

It is not easy to fully understand the effects and extent of increasing ocean temperatures, even for oceanographers. Under static conditions, understanding vast ocean systems is difficult; surface observations and samples from depth each only give a small glimpse as to what is going on. However, current variable conditions mean that researchers must constantly gather new data and refresh records to keep up with the effects of ocean temperature rise. Extreme weather is only one consequence of these changes; the broader results of increasing ocean temperatures are felt globally and by all species.

The trend and results of global ocean warming are widespread, but not entirely understood. However, researchers do know that as ocean temperatures increase, the myriad of associated problems will intensify; including the cycle of cold air collecting moisture from the water and dumping on land. If current patterns persist, ocean warming will continue to wreak havoc at sea – and on land.

Frozen waves on Nantucket Island, MA February 2015. Photo: J. Nimerfroh/

Frozen waves on Nantucket Island, MA February 2015. Photo: J. Nimerfroh/

My own Ithaka

The PhD as a journey.

Few things can be soothing when difficulties come up. Each person has his own remedies against hardships, stress or feelings of unworthiness. One thing is certain: difficulties ALWAYS come up to EVERYONE. Yet how people manage them can result in either improvement and success or desperation and depression.

When I go through hard times, my way out is frequently the poem below (and illegal amounts of cheese).

I know of a few people that agree on how tough it is to be a PhD student. I did not realize what I was getting myself into; how perplexed my life was about to become. I enjoy learning more than anything else, and I am passionate about the conservation of the seas and their inhabitants. So, getting into this PhD seemed ideal for me. And it is. There are times though, that I am so ramfeezled, working long days until the small hours that I don’t have enough time to stop and look at the people around me, have long inspiring conversations, enjoy life.

I know of a few people that would agree how hard it is to live abroad. Having your family 10.000 km away. Struggling to keep your friendships through skype for 3 years. Striving to maintain feelings through online quick conversations done at 10 hours of difference. At the same time, trying to understand a different language and a diverse way of thinking. Understanding the words is easy. Figuring out what lays behind them is far complicating especially when the cultural gaps are enormous and the people are particularly stoical. On top of that, learning programming languages, whale languages, acoustic properties, oceanographic programs, statistical modeling, and a long list of academic skills.

The PhD route

The PhD route

It has not been easy but it has been a magical journey. I have made new friends and learned from their mindset. I made new “families” with the spectacular people I have lived with. I got numerous scientific skills and learned about the world away from the motherland. I have seen the world’s largest trees, luscious forests, grandiose mountains, blue whales and exciting wildlife, exuberant waterfalls and rivers, the Pacific Ocean. When I faced new challenges, I also discovered a part of the world inside me that I did not know of, and out of comparison, I appreciated things that before I would take for granted. My PhD challenge has been a learning experience in so many ways, through both pleasant and negative phases.

check out the whole comic here

Definitely check out the whole comic here

When my soul is troubled and I feel small facing everything that I do not know then sometimes I want to give up. Then I read Ithaka (and have a grilled cheese sandwich) and usually recover. This poem reminds me to go for what I am passionate about without focusing on the difficulties.

Constantine Cavafy  wrote Ithaka in 1911 inspired by Odysseys and his journey to his home at the island of Ithaka. This poem is about appreciating the journey of life, and growing through the experiences gained. Life (just like the PhD) is a journey , and everyone has to face and accept its difficulties that are simply part of it. Sometimes the more the difficulties the more the opportunities to build up defenses that make one stronger. The journey that takes us to the destination is more important than the goal itself.

To attribute an acoustic sense to this post you can skip the text and watch the video where Sir Sean Connery narrates this poem.


As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

-Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard-


The PhD has been the motivation for my journey, the reason that brought me on this route, because of which I am constantly learning. The road has not been flat, straight, or sunny, but I hear that a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.

What a magnificent ride!

Don’t forget to look around

Enjoy your ride.

***This post is dedicated to my OSU adviser Holger who has literally reached his Ithaca, since he moved there already. I bet his journey was long. Metaphorically too. Now he is helping us, his students, to reach our own. Also to my ORCAA lab-mates Selene, Michelle, Danielle and Samara for being inspiring and motivating; excellent traveling comrades. Also to Jeffrey and Sharon for always being there for me when any short of hardship appears. And to the precious people I have met on the way and the ones that have always been there. You know who you are***



Soundbites for the week of May 11 – 15

Soundbites is a biweekly feature of the coolest, newest bioacoustics, soundscape, and acoustic research, in bite-size form. Plus other cool stuff having to do with sound. 

Multimodal signalling in redwing blackbirds in noisy situationsmore bird stuff this week to start off. Redwing blackbirds attract mates both acoustically (with songs) and visually (by showing off their fancy red shoulders). The visual signal was thought to be a sort of backup for the acoustic signal. In noisy conditions, these authors found that birds will change their calls but not their visual signaling, implying that the two signals are separate.

To be loud or not to be loud, that is the questionFemales of many acoustic species tend to prefer their males loud because being loud requires energy. Or so we thought! Here the authors found that singing loudly in zebra finches is constrained more by social context than it is by energy expenditure. You should click on this link if only for the diagram of the zebra finch inside a respirometry mask. It’s adorable.

Fun link of the week: you guys know I love the science side of YouTube, right? I’ve made no secret of that. So for this week’s fun link, I give you a video from Joe Hanson of It’s Okay To Be Smart about the loudest sound:

(also, look! I finally figured out how to embed videos!)

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