Sara’s Blog

Whenever people find out that I am a whale and dolphin biologist (now specializing in the acoustic behaviors of cetaceans) I immediately see their eyes light up with desire and curiosity. I know that they are imagining me in some exotic location, driving a Zodiac with my trusty companions on the high seas (always calm and tropically sunny) surrounded by schools of happy-go-lucky dolphins and breaching whales, listening to their chatter through headphones connected to a hydrophone dangling over the edge of the boat. While that has been true for some of my 35 years in ‘the biz’, I always feel badly when I tell them that much of what I have been doing for the last 14 years is stare at visual representations of acoustic data (spectrograms) scrolling across a computer screen, while sitting at a desk. It isn’t as glamorous as it seems and my days of traveling to (distant) locations for work, are now pretty much limited to the occasional meeting. These are often just one-day affairs which require a full day of travel on either side of the meeting day. My most recent trip from the shores of mid-coastal Oregon was to Houston, TX in February for the annual meeting of projects funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI).

B.P. Oil Spill Area
B.P. Oil Spill Area

GoMRI was born shortly after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, when BP committed up to $500 million over ten years to fund research on the impact of the spill on the environment and public health in the Gulf of Mexico. The goal of GoMRI is to “improve society’s ability to understand, respond to, and mitigate the impacts from oil spills”. To date, GoMRI has funded over 500 expeditions, 300 meetings and workshops, 1800 scientific presentations, 400 peer-reviewed articles and 200 outreach activities. New research consortia are funded on a regular basis.

One of my roles in a newly-formed GoMRI consortium of 4 universities (OSU, University of Louisiana, University of Southern Mississippi, University of New Orleans) and 3 tech companies (Seiche Measurements, C&C Technologies, Proteus Technologies) is to oversee outreach activities; if I’m lucky, I might also work on some of the acoustic data our OSU team collects while ‘flying’ underwater gliders as they quietly transverse an area very close to the Deep Water Horizon spill site, making scheduled recordings of the sound scape.

This consortium is known as LADC-GEMM, which stands for Littoral Acoustic Demonstration Center-Gulf Ecological Monitoring and Modeling. GEMM is the latest offshoot of LADC, which was initiated in 2001 to conduct acoustic surveys in the Gulf of Mexico. What we now want to know is: have whale and dolphin populations changed after the Deep water Horizon oil spill tragedy?


Beaked whales, dolphins and endangered sperm whales make the Gulf of Mexico their home and are significant because of their sensitivity to environmental change; globally, marine mammals often serve as ‘ecosystem sentinels’ and this also stands true for the Gulf of Mexico. Having conducted acoustic surveys in the Gulf of Mexico for over a decade, LADC is the only group that has baseline data indicating large numbers of deep-diving cetaceans were living near the Deepwater Horizon site. In 2007, LADC conducted a two-week survey in that area. In 2010, after the spill, LADC was funded by NSF, and given ship time by Greenpeace to conduct further surveys. So, now, 5 years later, LADC-GEMM is undertaking the next logical step in cetacean research near the spill site.

Let me share with you what the GoMRI website says about LADC-GEMM:

“This study will provide relationships among short- and long-term marine mammal population variations with environmental factors such as natural and human-induced disasters, weather conditions, seasonal migration, industrial operational noise, and food supply. It pairs acoustical, oceanographic, and visual data collection with mathematical predictive modeling and integrated data analyses to understand patterns in species distribution, pollutants, and human activities…Monitoring marine mammal sounds is important because they do everything acoustically, using “clicks” to communicate with each other and explore their environment…Using integrated passive acoustic monitoring, the team will record the unique sounds that the whales and dolphins make…the collected acoustic data also will contain a wealth of information about the ocean environment the whales inhabit. Their computer programs will decode this information and pair changes in marine mammal populations with environmental factors.”

During the acoustic surveys, about 200,000 readings per second will be collected. This enormous amount of data will be used to distinguish the identity and number of young adults, females and calves. From that, future population models will be developed to anticipate increases and decreases in the population that may help resource managers and responders to be better prepared for future environmental stressors and perhaps mitigate their effects. This has worldwide application for any country doing offshore oil drilling.

The GEMM project is using some very interesting-some might say avant-garde- technology for collecting acoustic data. You should really go to the GoMRI webpage for LADC-GEMM to read more about it. Our OSU research team has been recording cetaceans using a wide variety of instrumentation, from hydrophones that stay in one place for up to two years, to automated underwater gliders that can be ‘flown’ anywhere in the world from a lab at OSU. We also have stupendous software and expertise on the analysis end. It is our glider expertise that makes us uniquely qualified for the LADC-GEMM project.

Acoustic Data Collection Devices
Acoustic Data Collection Devices

As for the outreach part? Stay tuned! We will incorporate LADC-GEMM activities and findings into NOAA kiosks at science education centers, give presentations in schools and museums, participate in “science pubs” and “science cafes” and hold student competitions to build and operate small autonomous gliders that are similar to the modern technologies used in underwater acoustic research.

As for my travels for the meeting in Houston? It involved an overnight stay the night before, getting up before dawn the next day, a flight to LA with a 5 hour layover in a terminal hub, a long packed-like-sardines plane ride into Houston and a surprising long shuttle ride into the city: 24 hours of travel time, total. Then a full day of meetings, followed by a morning of meetings, then another long shuttle ride to the Houston airport, another long trip in a stuffed plane, a 6 hour layover in LA and a 3 hour car drive home: another 24 hour trip.  I did not see any of the wonders in Houston.

So you see, the work we sometimes do isn’t that Discovery Channel glamour stuff. It isn’t all sea time and great adventures upon the briney deep. The glamour of what I do is in the results of the tedium, in the big picture that results from projects like GEMM. But, I have to admit that I did have adventures in the LA airport: after 2 hours of reading papers and notes, I took an exciting shuttle ride to the terminal to kill time- on the runway, stopping at 4-way stops for enormous jets that had just landed or taxiing in line to take off.

And I did find some dolphins…

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