Whistling while you work is only acceptable if you are one of the 7 dwarves. You are too tall to be a dwarf; or the Snow White”, I can imagine Holger, my advisor, saying.

Some people are whistle sensitive
Some people are whistle sensitive

In reality Holger is too wonderful to mind if I whistle while I work or not. But I actually don’t. Which a few unfortunate people that have witnessed it will unanimously agree that it is for the common good.  Nevertheless, I get to work on whistles!

The animals that I work with are notorious whistlers! You might consider yourself skillful in whistling, an expert in whistle-flirting and dexterous in folding you tongue and sending loud whistles miles away to your friends on the other side of a soccer field, but that is just like whistling against the wind to dolphins. If you compare your selves to their whistling capabilities you will be embarrassingly defeated. (In every case, several analysts and Experts of Life support that comparing yourself to others can only make you unhappy.)

Dolphins and killer whales, which belong to the Delphinidae family, produce 3 types οf sounds:
1. Clicks used for echolocation that help them navigate, find food and capture it,
2. Burst pulses that are rapid rate clicks and serve similar purpose but with higher definition, and
3. Whistles

Types of delphinid sounds and how they look (frequency on the y axis and time on the x axis)
Types of delphinid sounds and how they look (frequency on the y axis and time on the x axis)

Dolphin whistles are generally of narrow bandwidth and frequency modulated sounds that commonly last for half to a few seconds, much longer than the individual clicks and they are of lower frequency. Their characteristic lower frequency allows them to propagate in longer distances and their function is believed to be primarily social.
Whistles are considered to be a product of the same mechanism that generates the clicks: air that goes through the nasal passages of the dolphin’s head. The odontocetes (toothed whales) don’t literally vocalize, since they don’t use vocal cords like we do. They use the air that enters their blowhole to make sound by canalizing it through passages and their melon (the fatty tissue that makes their forehead look rounded). This video: Echolocation and sound production mechanism can give you a good representation of it.The production of whistles seems to require larger volumes of air which makes them unsuitable for echolocation since air volume is reduced by hydrostatic pressure during diving and foraging. Instead, the dolphins are thought to use them for communicative purposes, to stay in touch with their gang in the vast oceans.

I am particularly interested in the whistles. Especially the dolphin whistles. As I described at my previous post, this past summer I collected a bunch of different dolphin species’ acoustic recordings from the Aegean Sea. These recordings will help me create a sound library for the dolphin populations that dwell the eastern Greek Seas, essentially a whistle-bank for the populations in that area.

In addition to the different dialects or accents that the dolphins populations have and I have previously mentioned, they also have names that the scientists call signature whistles. Specifically, the bottlenose dolphins are known to learn and recognize whistles that are unique for every individual in a group and these whistles are used to broadcast the identity and location of the animal that produced them. This characteristic is crucial for the contact between mother and offspring, for feeding and protection from predators. Most of the characteristic whistles are usually unchanged for all the lifetime of the dolphin. But occasionally, when the male dolphins leave their mom to experience the adult life in a group of  other males their distinctive whistles actually converge and become very similar!

Besides the dolphins, more animal species seem to find names meaningful. A striking example is the one of the green-rumped parrotlet that lives in Venezuela.

Touch is communication too. Even if it happens with the beaks.
Touch is communication too. Even if it happens with the beaks.

This cute little green parrot is attributed a whistle name by its parents and it gradually learns it by them. In this delightful video  you can see how the researcher discovers the learning ability of the parakeets in contrast to the genetic encoding of communication mechanisms in this species.

Birds have actually been the very first research target of bioacousticians. Even though they can fly away and escape the

Some birds can be so weird (maybe is the flying...)
Some birds can be so weird (maybe is the flying…)

claws of their scientific fate, it is still easier to study them than the marine mammals that slip away in the open ocean. A remarkable example of unusual bird vocalizations and intriguing to research specie is that one of the superb lyre bird of

South Australia! In this specie the male, in order to attract the girls, besides the elaborated dance and feather display, can also imitate the calls of more than 20 other bird species. This bird is so good at mimicking others that it can confuse even the birds that it is copying.

But the lyrebird is not only imitating other birds; it has evolved his skills beyond living organisms. A real master of mimicry! It is able to incorporate in its repertoire any sound that hears in the forest. Like that of a camera shutter, or a car siren, or chainsaws! Or the sound of the fridge door opening and closing (would be the case if my house was its habitat)…

FAD (Fridge Amnesia Disorder)

But seriously, I am not making this up! Check this jaw dropping video to see for yourselves. This bird is either desperate to reproduce or the females don’t really know what they want.

At this point I will paraphrase Snow White; whistling is a lot of work!

Some people seem to have a talent in whistling. They can whistle entire songs, or the more eccentrics can whistle the whole alphabet. They use their lips, teeth and tongue to do it, their fingers in all sorts of strange formations, their palms, and a wide range of imaginative accessories. Personally, it took me several weeks at the age of 23 to learn how to whistle.  Soon I was glad for my achievement as it turned out to be a remarkably useful skill when I got a dog. Loud, piercing and sharp… a whistle is hard to ignore. Even if you are a dog.

You might be surprised to discover that whistles are not used uniquely by animals for their communication. Since the Antiquity people used whistles to communicate in very long distances. Whistles can travel much longer than speech and can overcome ambient noise much more effectively. You might have noticed that often people that work in bars use them to signal among them.
In the natural environment, in locations where the landscape consists of deep valleys and steep ravines, whistled languages were common within some human communities. Before the 1940s, when the phone was not widely used yet, people replaced words with whistles to send messages that would overcome distance issues. Whistles have the ability to travel up about to two miles (3.2km), which is much further and with less effort than shouting. Initially these languages were invented and largely used by shepherds, and for long time they were a common way in agricultural communities at isolated villages to transmit news, events or emergencies.

Examples of these communities and their whistled languages still exist! The cases of the Village Antia in the Greek island of Evia, the Kuskoy Village “Bird Village” in Turkey, and the “Silbo” language at La Gomera at the Canary Islands in Spain, are the exceptional cases of alive whistled languages.
In this uncommon language, consonants are distinguished by changes in pitch over different intervals of time and the whistle is a substitute of the original language which gets compressed. The whistled language is not a code, has rather defined characteristics.

Evidently marine scientists are charismatic people with variable interests and acute curiosity . It appears that Cousteau was also interested in analyzing the characteristics of La Gomera’s whistled language!


Cousteau actually studied the Silbo and published an accurate description at the “New Scientist” of 1958!

Nowadays these languages are slowly becoming extinct. However, it is encouraging that in La Gomera at least, the Canary Islands’ government links the whistled language to the identity of the people and recognizes its value as part of the traditional culture in this area and try to preserve it. As a result, La Gomera is one of the few places in the world where children learn to whistle in schools!

Aristotle in the History of Animals wanted to describe what separates animals from people. What is that makes us different: is it the reason, the language or the laughter? Several recent researchers and philosophers suggest that it is the culture. But what do we define as culture. Is it the ability to learn, to mimic, the language? It turns out that both people and dolphins use certain sounds, in this case whistles, in form of language in order to communicate. The human community considers the human whistled language as a cultural heritage worth protecting and maintaining. Similarly, without me trying to attribute human qualities to the animals, cetaceans have social learning skills and cultural capacities that are advanced and worth maintaining as well. It is our doubtless responsibility to protect them.

During my childhood, my mom would wake me up every morning with whistling melodies. I surely despised it. Mainly the wake-up- in-the-morning part. The whistling part was also very disturbing, especially because it was such an effective mean to get me off the bed! Now I am particularly attracted by whistled melodies and I am a fool for songs that include them. So I prepared my favorite Top 10 of songs with whistling, with extra 2 Greek tracks. #1 on the list is my current wake-up-song. I love it! Not the wake-up part, I still cannot get over that…

Niki’s Whistling Top10
1. Truth– Alexander
2. Tire Swing– Kimya Dawson
3. Don’t Worry be happy-Bobby McFerrin
4. Home-Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
5. Tighten up– Τhe Black Keys
6. Pump up Kids-Foster for the People
7. Wind of change– Scorpions
8. The dock of the Bay– Ottis Redding
9. Twisted Nerve– Kill Bill 1 OST
10. Young Folks– Peter Bjorn and John

11. Το ποδηλατο (the bicycle)- Ελένη Βιτάλη
12. Συννεφούλα (the little cloud)- Διονύσης Σαββόπουλος
**Stay tuned in our “vocalizations” through our tweets @ORCAAlab and our facebook updates at Orcaa Lab**


…but first a name

This is what we see when we study humpback whales... but what do we hear?
This is what we see when we study humpback whales… but what do we hear?

I’ve dedicated the past 3 years to understanding non-song vocalizations, which admittedly is just a drop in the bucket. Now, as I venture into my fourth year of this relationship I have to acknowledge that I’ve moved from one chapter of my research into another. The Rapunzel Project (the whimsical name for my M.S. project) was my first foray into bio-acoustics, large scale fieldwork, and in internship development. While I wouldn’t consider myself an expert at any of these things, I’m also no longer a novice. I defended my thesis, we’re working on publications, and by and large I’ve put the Rapunzel Project to rest (I even retired the blog!).

All that being said I’m thrillingly eyeball deep in my PhD (first committee meeting: check!), and my research is actually rolling along in advance of my first field season (patting myself –very lightly – on the back). I’ve been giving talks on my research, and the blog posts are rolling out in various forms and locations. With all of this communicating about my research I became aware of something, my project didn’t have a name. Now I know that naming each project isn’t mandatory. Some people name their cars, some don’t; some people name their research, others don’t. But I have to admit writing the words “my dissertation research” over and over has grown tedious. As someone who values accessible communication as well as the role of creativity in science, I reached out to my fellow lab mates and asked for help with a name.

Calypso as she wistfully watches the sea... for humpback whales of course
Calypso as she wistfully watches the sea… for humpback whales of course

Suggestions varied wildly (“Life is the bubbles” anyone? How about a Calypso reference… so much fun). The name we settled on was astutely suggested by none other than ORCAA’s Selene Fregosi (maybe that writing workshop she wrote about helped with more than just her thesis). Without further ado let me introduce you to ORCAA’s Acoustic Spyglass: investigating the impact of vessel noise on humpback whale non-song behavior from the shores of Glacier Bay National Park.

I’m please with this name because (a) it incorporates both the visual and acoustic elements of the study, (b) because the use of a hydrophone array to localize animals is quite literally a form of “acoustic spying”, and (c) the use of a spyglass implies both antiquity and a sense of looking forward. When you pair visual observations with passive acoustic monitoring you are often looking forward (to the sea, tracking whales), but often technological constraints require that you listen retroactively after the hydrophones have been recovered. In this way I am quite literally listening to the past.

Listening to the Past

Nowhere is this more poignant than in the first chapter of the Acoustic Spyglass (see that… not “my dissertation research”), where I investigate non-song call stability at the decadal scale. I’ve acquired recordings of non-song vocalizations in North Pacific Humpbacks from the mid-1970’s through present day. I’ve been reviewing these to assess if non-song vocalizations, similar to song, change rapidly with time, or if humpbacks exhibit vocal stability. It is well known that humpback whale song changes annually, and this change is believed to be culturally mediated. Little is known, however, about how non-song vocalizations stand up to the test of time. Understanding the stability of non-song vocalizations may tell us something about call innateness, and may provide clues into how these vocalizations are used. Further, if non-song vocalizations (or specific types of non-song vocalizations) have been relatively stable for the past four decades then they may act as a metric against which to quantify change in the face of a shifting baseline (increasing ocean noise, climate change).

What’s so exciting (to me and possibly the ~twelve people who study non-song communication in humpback whales) is that based on first glance at least one call type – the SEAK Whup call – is remarkably stable over time! I’ve detected this vocalization in every data set currently in my possession. I want to be clear, that these findings are anecdotal at this point.  I’ve only just started quantifying my samples, and I have a long way to go before everything is sufficiently measured and described.  But from first glance would you agree that these spectrograms look pretty similar?

"Whup" calls, R-L: 1976, courtesy of Roger Payne; 1982 courtesy of Greg Silber and Adam Frankel; 1995 courtesy of Fred Sharpe
“Whup” calls, R-L: 1976, courtesy of Roger Payne; 1982 courtesy of Greg Silber and Adam Frankel; 1995 courtesy of Fred Sharpe

There’s something magical about listening to vocalizations that were produced in the 1970’s and hearing some of the same purrs that I’ve grown familiar with.  That the scientific community forty years later is just now beginning to investigate what these non-song vocalizations mean is a testament to the breadth of research yet to be done on Southeast Alaskan humpback whales.  Humpback whales are long-lived, with lifespans that can reach 90+  years.  This means that the whales in these historic recordings may still be vocalizing in Southeast Alaska today.  Or perhaps these recordings may be a link between a previous generation of whales and those who have only recently made it to Southeast Alaska to forage.  In either case the analysis of this long-term acoustic data set is the first step to answering some of the basic questions about how humpback whales communicate and I’m extremely excited to be listening.


~This work is extremely collaborative. Data contributions have been made my individual researchers referenced above as well as the National Park Service, and the Alaska Whale Foundation~


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

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***


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

Solo, Southeast, Social Sounds

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

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

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

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


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

*Phone rings*

Me: Hello?

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

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

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

Me: Yes. Yes I do.

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


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

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


Stay tuned!



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

bluetagged2 (2)
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.

workspace pano
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.



And the living is not necessarily easy but certainly more easily entertaining. Besides the wedding season it’s also conference season. All the lab-mates travel on the other edge of the country (USA) for summer schools, meetings, exciting field trips and pilot classes (stay tuned and Selene has some stories to tell). I made it to the other end of the Atlantic and all the way to my beloved motherland. My first time participating at the Underwater Acoustics meeting, an international conference that took place at the Island of Rhodes in Greece, just a few days after the meeting of the Acoustical Society of America that took place at Rhode Island in USA. Appears that the islands of roses (Rhodes derives from the Greek: rhodo which means rose) were acoustically active this summer. Coincidences are fun.

Four exciting projects were presented by OSU people.

Haru Matsumoto, had a presentation with the imaginative title: “Antarctic’s Siren Call: The Sound of Icebergs”. I absolutely love it when people use a cool title for their scientific projects! His talk and his project was as exciting as it sounds and it was by far my personal favorite non-bioacoustics talk of the conference. Haru showed how the sound of melting icebergs affects the noise budgets in the South Pacific Ocean. The disintegration of two large icebergs at Antarctica produced low frequency sounds, so loud that they propagated and got recorded across the equator up to 8o N, 10.000 km away from the icebergs! He measured an increase of the noise level by 6 dB and 3 dB in comparison to baseline years (when the melting icebergs were absent). If 3 and 6 dB doesn’t sound like a significant increase to you then you are probably not aware of the decibel scale. This Radiolab podcast “The Walls of Jericho” will entertain you and will explain in a simple and funny way how this scale works.

Lately we have been seriously concerned about the shipping, airguns, naval sonars and other prominent man-made noise in the ocean and how they interfere with marine life. Haru’s presentation opened a window to think how a non-anthropogenic sound source can have such an impact to the marine soundscape, and potentially impact specifically the largest baleen whales (blue and fin whales) that also vocalize at low frequencies (below 100 Hz). Even though natural, the melting of the icebergs can be effected by anthropogenic activities, in particular the human induced climate variability and global warming. No need to be more specific, feel free to consider further potential ecological implications.

Bob Dziak presented, through Haru (unfortunately Bob was not able to make the Oregon-Greece 20 hours long travel), the “Sources of long-term ambient ocean sound near the Antarctic Peninsula”. Bob’s project was one step more general and inclusive. He described the contribution of a variety of sound sources to the soundscape of the frozen South. Acoustic data were collected during 4 years using 2 hydrophone arrays and the results indicate that the main factors of sound production or “noise” (depending from which point of you look at it: the biologist’s or the geophysicist’s) around the Antarctic Peninsula are the icequakes (acoustic signal derived from fracturing of large free-floating icebergs or ocean front icesheets) and the whale calls!

The whales confuse the icequakes with ice cakes!
The whales confuse the icequakes with ice cakes!

The weather conditions are too rough for sound-measurable human activities and both the blue and fin whales seem to take advantage of this human-almost-absent corner of the world. The sound of the ice breakup and grounding is clearly the most prominent sound source in the Southern Ocean Basin but it varies seasonally. Bob’s presentation (same as Haru’s) made me switch my perception of summer and winter for a bit. In Antarctica, during the austral summer the increased temperatures result increased icequakes and the release of acoustic energy. The opposite happens during the austral winter when the icesheets form, even though the wind speed increases. The giants of the Antarctic Peninsula seem to follow the freeze-thaw cycles and their peak season matches the sea-ice-cover-minimum of the austral summer. Consequently if you want to see fin and blue whales when in the North Hemisphere is still winter, chase the summer down as south as it gets…

This conference was an excellent opportunity to reunite with ORCAA’s favorite Naysa. It had been almost a year since Naysa left Newport, after her few-months stay and collaboration with the CIMRS, and it was an indescribable pleasure to spend some warm Greek time with her and watch her awesome presentation on “Acoustics as a tool to reveal population structure of the elusive blue whale”. Naysa talked about the smallest subspecies of the largest animal on earth. The pygmy blue whale. She used 5 sites in the SE Indian and the SW Pacific Oceans to collect 3 years of acoustic data to

determine the occurrence of pygmy blue whale in these locations. Apparently th

Pygmy blue whale on it's belly
Pygmy blue whale on it’s belly

is species produces 5 regionally-specific calls: the Madagascan, Sri Lankan, Australian, New Zealand and Solomon type. Naysa used an automated method (detector) and was able to detect the “Australian” and the “New Zealand” dialects at the SE Indian and the SW Pacific Oceans respectively and her results provide evidence of a previously unknown population, the latter one! Naysa’s study is an excellent example of the numerous applications of acoustics, particularly to the population and movement patterns of marine mammal species over large spatial and temporal scales. The more I enter into the acoustics field the more excited I get about the knowledge and information that the sound solely can reveal us, especially about elusive cetaceans, like Naysa’s pygmy giant.

In the Ocean it is a common truth that what the eyes cannot see the ears can hear!

After seeing Naysa’s presentation I have one technical advice for presenters. Go simple or go home! She managed with minimum text, probably no text at all, pretty slides with most of the times just one picture, to get across her messages and keep the attention of her audience! Focus on the gist of your talk and feel confident to leave the details out giving the opportunity to people to ask for them if needed.

For my presentation we move back to the North Hemisphere and head eastwards. I presented my work at the Greek seas with the title: “Passive acoustic detections of odontocetes in the Ionian and Aegean Seas, Greece”.  Even though cetology was born in Greece (as mentioned in my first post: The philosophy of sound) 2500 years ago, little research has been done in the Greek seas since then. Mainly the Ionian Sea (west of continental Greece) has been investigated and almost exclusively during the warm summer season, while the cetacean populations in the Aegean (east of continental Greece) are largely unknown. I used 2 hydrophones during 19 and 10 months to assess the seasonal occurrence of different species in these two regions and determined the seasonality of especially the sperm whales (that I particularly love, usually dream of, and I am overall obsessed with) and the delphinids. I am proud to have performed the first long-term bio-acoustic monitoring study in Greece and looking forward to going out to the clear blue Greek waters to collect ground truth data necessary that will allow us for first time to tell apart the different dolphin species that dwell the Aegean! Any funding suggestions anyone…? If you do, you are welcome to join me at an Aegean cruise chasing dolphins!

Me and my poster!
Me and my poster!

My presentation was a poster and even though I am usually not very fond of this form of communicating my work, there is no way that I could have had a better result/impact and feedback. While I was thinking that 3h of a poster session would be dull and endless, I ended up spending more than 5h chatting about gender determination, localization of my animals with one single hydrophone (!), acquiring more acoustic data, using my spectral information for species detection, and getting inspiration from wonderful colleagues coming from Italy, Australia, China, Israel, San Diego, Boston, Pennsylvania and around the globe.

Poster take home message: if the number of posters is low  (<10), dare to submit one, especially if the number of parallel oral presentations is high (>=3).

This has been a wonderful and productive meeting!  5 days of underwater acoustics bliss. Listening and talking about the sound in polar areas (always fascinating environments), about bubbles (it might not be as etheric as it sounds but still interesting), oil and gas, renewable energy, hydrophone calibration, soundscapes, ships and noise, sonars, super-cool technologies that make me want to be an engineer, a bunch of marine sound-related stuff and of course whaaaaaaaaaales! Besides the days, the nights were equally exhilarating but in a more social way.

Science on tab
Science on tab

I met people from all around the world with whom I shared scientific ideas, PhD and work related concerns, personal perspectives and liters of raki 😉 It is always good to combine work and fun. Even better when work is fun. That is certainly true for my case and I bet for my ORCAA mates too. Lucky people!

See you all again at the next Underwater Acoustics meeting in Greece.

Preparing for some underwater acoustic experiments with fellow scientists.
Preparing for some underwater experiments with fellow scientists…

Next blog-post will include some of the Greek summer sunlight, the salty flavor of the Mediterranean and the sound of cicadas.

Happy and bright summer to y’all.



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

Sexy voices–no choiceswith a title like that, there’s no way I’m changing it. Anthropogenic noise impacts female crickets’ ability to find potential mates.

Boat noise affects dugong vocal behavioradd another species to the list of marine mammals affected by boat noise. Here, it changes their harmonics.

Anthropogenic noise is affecting humpbacks in the southwestern Atlanticthis is one of the first documentations of anthropogenic noise levels in this area of humpback habitat, and the outlook isn’t good.

Fun link of the weekFriday is Independence Day for those of us in the US, and that means fireworks. Those really big, really bright booming fireworks (my least favorite) are called salutes. As this link demonstrates, it’s harder to get a nice, precise salute that goes off when you want it to than you might otherwise expect.

For those of you who are in the US, ORCAA wishes you a very happy and safe Independence Day!