Instructions how to keep your breath longer.

This summer I spent a long time underwater. Not only for work, not just for fun. For debriefing and peace of mind. The last couple of months, swimming has been my way of being with myself and thinking freely about life, cheese, and sperm whales. While performing long dives down to a few meters of depth, I have been thinking about the sperm whales’ amazing ability to dive so deep and for so long.

Even though marine mammals breathe air, just like us, some species are able to keep their breath underwater for longer than two hours and others can go down to 3 Km deep!

How do they do it?

I do not do scuba diving anymore and I am happy that I do not have to tolerate the suffocating, funky smelling, and how-do-I-get–out-of-this wet-suit. I love keeping my eyes wide open where the seawater is clear enough to make the use of mask or goggles unnecessary. This way I feel like a natural part of the mysterious sea world. The indescribable sensation of flying underwater can only be compared with a couple other feelings. Nevertheless, I admit to struggle, like any other human, with a couple of issues.

*Not A Human

Pressure, oxygen and temperature limit my expanding politics while in this wet world.

You have certainly noticed that the deeper you go in the sea the higher the pressure. Specifically, the pressure by the water to any object is called hydrostatic and increases by 14.5 pounds per square inch (psi) (=1 atmosphere) every 10m you dive deeper. You can quickly feel this pressure in your eardrums once you are 3-4 meters deep. Can you even imagine the pressure down at 2000 m?! Let me help you. It is estimated that at that depth the weight of the water becomes as heavy as two baby elephants (~200Kg) balancing on a postage stamp. If you have ever seen the squished styrofoam cups that return from our visits to 1500m with submergence vehicles, now you know what happened to them.  It wasn’t exactly an elephant that sat on them but close…

Results from hitchhiking on a CTD.
Results from hitchhiking on a CTD.

The decrease of water temperature as I dive down is also a limitation. Luckily, all the cheese consumption I have been persistently investing on has helped me create this fine layer of fat tissue that makes me unbeatable to the cool (Mediterranean) water temperatures for long periods. Fortunately for human life, my fatty layer is thin enough, but unfortunately insufficient for whale depths.

While I move deeper into the darkness of the ocean there are more obstacles to encounter. Despite my healthy lifestyle, I am in need of oxygen less than a minute after I submerge myself. My lungs can only store a certain amount of air (probably a bit less than 5 liters) dependent on my age, physical size (consequently my lung size), and my fitness state. Even though I exercise a lot, I do not smoke, and I am tall, still my lung capacity does not allow me to stay underwater for as long as I desire. Specifically, no more than about 40 seconds. My body requires fuels for my brain and internal organs during a dive to the abyss. Or even, down to 7 meters and back.

Well it is actually not that bad, if you think that we can keep our breath for longer underwater than on air pressure. While submerged in cold water, instinctively decreases our heart rate and metabolism for saving up oxygen. Marine mammals use the same trick. The best example is the Weddell seals; during their deep dives their heart rate decreases down to four beats/minute!

"Haven't felt my heart for 15 sec. I am worried."
“Haven’t felt my heart for 15 sec. I am worried.”

Whales have managed to succeed on everything that I suck at (besides slack line).

First of all the fat. They have a thick layer of fatty tissue under their skin, called blubber. It functions as the best thermoisolating material. Keeps their body temperature from dropping dramatically when the environmental temperature falls under what they can tolerate. See, fat is good. Go on, have that piece of brie.

Sperm whales and beaked whales do not crack under great pressure, as humans literally, and often metaphorically, do. In contrast, they thrive where the conditions are unbearable for other whale species. They have adapted in the extreme conditions of the deep seas and that pays them off with food. It gives them access to the bathypelagic squid to fill their demanding bellies. It resembles an all-you can-eat buffet where you are the only client.

Any psychological boosting, power phrases, meditation, or confidence injections prove to be useless towards their achievements. What helps them instead, is primarily their flexibility. Their rib cage can fold in to avoid crushing from the high pressure. Both the rib cage and lungs collapse every time the animal dives 2 Km down and then recover when it comes back at the surface. If you thought your routine is tough, now you may reconsider.

It is easy to understand how that works by the following image.


In practice though, the sperm whale in action does not show any indications of being collapsed at great depths. Its skin and the whole body look smooth and perfectly well shaped without any evident ruptures or deformations. Yeah, there is proof of that. A lucky NOAA group incidentally captured a sperm whale on camera while sampling with an ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) at 600m depth. Check their reactions, surprised indeed.

These deep divers are known to remove the 90% of air from their body, by exhaling it before the dive, to be easier to simply sink down, dealing this way with buoyancy issues. Footage has proven that some marine mammals hardly move while they sink. They gently slide into the water, heads down, without even moving a muscle. You can imagine how much oxygen the muscles would require to move that giant tail…

For the same conserving purpose, marine mammals choose to “unplug” some of their internal organs and functions that are not vital during their long journey to the sea bottom. Who needs digestion, liver and kidneys while hunting…?!

However, they still need oxygen while down deep. They need to move around for chasing that yummy squid and their muscles require oxygen for that. Their well-hidden secret lays in their blood; they have what I call the super blood. They have a higher percentage of red blood cells where oxygen is stored, and a higher blood to body volume ratio that gives them extra storage. On top of that, there is the myoglobin. Ta-ta!

One unusual word for human, a tremendous offer for beaked whales!

Myoglobin, such a mouth filling word, is a protein in the animals’ muscles that stores oxygen and is responsible for making active muscles look red and sometimes even black. For the diving animals, myoglobin is 10 times more concentrated than in human. Too much of this protein could cause health implications to people mainly because of low viscosity, causing clogging and sticking together. A recent scientific discovery showed that in beaked whales, this crazy amount of myoglobin is functioning because it is positively charged. According to the laws of attraction (opposites attract and likes repel) the myoglobin particles manage to keep from sticking with each other and any circulation clogging is avoided.

I would be happy to announce that the sperm whales are the Kings of the Abyss. Yeah, that would give me immense satisfaction. However, beaked whales beat them to that. They get down to almost 3000 meters, about 1000m deeper than the Kings of my Heart do. They win, not only more of that elusive squid, and our admiration, but also the highest levels of myoglobin.

At these great depths, where any kind of light can only be bioluminescence produced by fish or other invertebrates, the sperm and beaked whales use their spectacular biosonars to “see”, making the deep oceans into Operas of Clicks. They are the Divas of the Deep for a reason.

If you want to learn 80 sec more about underwater fireworks (bioluminescence) don’t miss this video.

To return where I started from, I am going to take you for a swim. Not just a usual swim in the clear, turquoise, crystal calm, and safe Aegean Sea. We are going night swimming. The whole sea is dark and the whales cannot even see their own tails; we struggle to see if any swimming suits are on. The water is dark as the night. A starry night. Swimming at a beach on the western part of the island of Lesvos (home of the Department of Marine Sciences of the University of the Aegean), we feel like Divas while playing with the underwater stars. Every little movement causes the water to sparkle, and produces hundreds of tiny shiny tails just like shooting stars. Little planktonic organisms almost invisible to bare eye, produce bioluminescence when excited and make our experience exciting. Truly magical!

Until… you step on a sea urchin.


The pleasure from working during the summer is certainly underestimated.

You can ask any student from our ORCAA Lab to confirm. Michelle currently sleeps next to breathing/breaching humpbacks in Alaska; Samara was surveying on a grandiose NOAA vessel doing the infamous turtle rodeos; Selene is preparing for a Californian whale tagging survey-cutting edge marine mammal work; Danielle is enjoying the process of fulfilling and submitting a publication after having spent months with cute little singing frogs.

However, I do admit that not everyone’s summer work can be as XXX (exotic, exciting, exquisite) as a marine scientist’s / bioacoustician’s can. Fortunately, the seas and the oceans of the world remain largely unexplored waiting for us to discover during our summer expeditions.

Adventure is clearly, what a scientist is after. In my case, the adventure starts on a boat while on a dolphin/whale quest, looking for marine life, reading the weather and the surface of the sea, translating the animals’ behavior or the sounds they make, getting the right shot of the dorsal fin or the fluke. However, excitement can also be derived while in the lab, from a simple statistical analysis. There is a certain type of agony during the testing of a model and while anticipating different relationships between variables measured and observed, or estimating population sizes.

Part 1
My summer 2015 adventure takes place in the island of Zakynthos, in Greece.

Close to the (Greek) West Coast
Close to the (Greek) West Coast

Unlike last year, the Ionian Sea has been the setting for my 2015 fieldwork. The Ionian embraces the western part of Greece, is a sea that is shared with Italy, and is home to the group of islands called Eptanisa (=SevenIslands). Corfu, Lefkada, Kefalonia, Zakynthos, Paksoi, Kythira, Ithaki, are the biggest jewels laid on the clear turquoise waters of  the Ionian. Green themselves, the islands are covered with luscious pine forests and are a spectacular destination for every yachtsman (or sea-camper) that respects himself.

Zakynthos, where my story sets, is the favorite hatchery for the Mediterranean loggerhead sea turtle. More than 1200 sea turtle nests are found and monitored every summer around the beaches of Laganas Bay. The mother turtles, just like the hordes of tourists, love the long and wide, white fine-sand beaches and lay there their eggs. Since this area is of high ecological importance for this endangered species, the last 16 years, at this corner of the world it was established the National Marine Park of Zakynthos for the conservation of this living “dinosaur” species (sea turtles first appeared 180 million years ago while dinosaurs were still alive).

First fossil of a sea turtle (Archelon ischyros) 4.5 m long, found in N. Dakota, exhibited in the Yale Peabody Museum, Yale University
First fossil of a sea turtle (Archelon ischyros) 4.5 m long, found in N. Dakota, exhibited in the Yale Peabody Museum, Yale University


Oh sea turtles! They have been my very first marine-species-love (first loves never die) and I spent several years working on the conservation of these animals. It has been heart-warming to meet them again.

Besides the sea turtle population status, the Marine Park, the governmental body that manages the protected area, is interested in assessing the status of all marine life within this habitat. Thus, they funded a big study that encompasses the benthic communities, fisheries, megafauna, water quality, shore erosion and the monitoring of all the factors that determine the conservation status of a marine area.

Together with a splendid team from the University of the Aegean and the Department of Marine Science, we designed and implemented a field study to assess the conservation status of the cetacean species encountered within and around the Marine Protected Area (MPA).

Meet the team
The project manager, with whom we designed the fieldwork, is Vasilis Trygonis. Vasilis has a mighty mind and organizing skills that made the project happen against all odds. Vasilis is an engineer that can get into anything and fix everything that requires fixing. Such a pleasure to work with this inspiring mind.


Our skillful captain, Olympos Andreadis, comes from the island of Chios, a place that produces the finest Captains in the world. Olympos flew us on the waves and elegantly drove us close to the dolphins. He would also provid a surprising amount of snacks while at sea!

Captain Olympos
Captain Olympos

Sevi Kapota, our MSc student, field assistant, and dolphin enthusiast contributed with her bright character and her excellent data entry qualities. On top of her photography abilities.

Sevi and her pretty smile
Sevi and her pretty smile

The captain came with his vessel. We had a small zodiac that typically hosted four people and equipment. By equipment, I mean loads of water and snacks, sunscreens, hats, sunglasses, four different cameras, binos, GPSs, data loggers, and 2 sets of hydrophones.

We spent a week at Zakynthos. The warmest week of history. At least my history.

Our days would start while it was still night. The alarm was going off at 5 am and we were on the boat by 6 am. While the sun was not yet up the sky, burning our skin and dazzling our minds. Besides being cooler, during the early morning hours, the sea tended to be calmer and welcoming to our objectives. We had a natural and obligatory 2 pm threshold at sea. A local northwesterly wind would force us out of the water as soon as the sun was unbearable. Thank you God Poseidon!

For our visual surveys, we split the horizon in two and the visual observers shared a view of 180 degrees. During every dolphin encounter we would record in detail: the group consistency, the number of individuals and species, behavior, group direction and speed, and demographic info.

With Eva, our visual observer guest star. Last day smiles

At the same time we also practiced our auditory ability with the marvelous (and my personal very favorite) technology of dipping hydrophones. We would systematically stop the boat, turn the engines off, throw the hydrophone into the water and listen to the deep blue. Sometimes dolphin voices would reach my ears in forms of whistles and clicks. We often used this method as a trustworthy alarm that what we are seeking is not too far away.

On duty
Me on duty

In the meanwhile we were also recording the weather conditions (cloud cover, sea state, wave and swell height, wind speed, glare, etc) once per hour, or every time the weather would change, since it’s a factor that affects our ability to visually detect the animals in certain distances. On top of that, we implemented a fine scale recording of all anthropogenic pressures to the environment such as litter, fisheries and shipping activity, oil or other kind of pollution, and anything that could be a threat to marine life.

In contrast to what people had previously told us we had several sightings and acoustic recordings of big groups of dolphins. Striped dolphins seem to surround the deeper offshore MPA. Also they surrounded our boat dozens of times to show off their acrobatic skills and their radiant elegance. Every sighting was a joy for the eye and the soul and enriched our knowledge for the cetacean presence in that area.

One of our aquatic new friends
One of our aquatic new friends

Besides the boat surveys we deployed two bottom moored hydrophones in distinct habitats within the MPA. These hydrophones will be continuously recording for a few months and we hope that the acoustic data will give us a better idea of the variability of the dolphins’ presence around the specific locations. Fingers crossed for the equipment to wait for us where we deployed it!

During one of the deployments, while exploring the underwater topography, a loggerhead sea turtle swam with us checking out our interference with her home. She approved of the hydrophone and swam away on her jellyfish-quest!

Part 2
Now the fieldwork is paused, until probably September, and I am stranded at the island of Serifos visiting my family and rethinking heat waves. I am finding the best office I could ever have without walls suffocating me. Sand on my feet, sea in my eyes, and deafening cicadas filling my ears. The ultimate inspiration for my research, my work and my professional motivations.

Summer office
Summer office

One does not come to the sea for niceness. One comes for life.

Happy sea days (summer)!



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.




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)


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***



 (What marine mammals have to do with gas exploration and how can you help?)

Biking is cool for so many reasons.






Besides all the personal benefits, mainly related to health advantages and financial savings, there is also an immense ecological value to it. Since bikes run on fat (of the person that rides them) instead of oil, it has zero emissions of CO2 to the atmosphere, hence reduces one’s carbon footprint to the planet. In addition, it directly diminishes the road kills and helps save the animals. Interestingly, the choice of being on two wheels than four it does not only protect the four-legged friends of ours but also the no-legged, big brained, wet and mysterious marine friends of ours: the whales! Feel free to find this slightly overstretched but bear with me and I will unfold this connection for you.

Biking works without consuming fossil fuels and for this reason it can affect procedures and the market of oil and gas operations. In contrast to what some people believe, our everyday choices and behaviors can actually change/save the world.

You are more influential than you think

If you care, you can actively contribute to fossil fuel consumption and affect the correspondent impacts. Besides the joy of biking, this is the focus of this post: you save money on fuel and save the earth from having its intestines removed.

Oil makes the world go round

It has been estimated that about 130 billion tons of crude oil have been extracted from the ground since commercial drilling began (1870). According to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, there are still 1.3 trillion barrels (1 barrel~160 liters) of oil reserve left in the world’s major fields (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, The United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Iran) which at present rates of consumption should last about 40 years. Humanity has managed to use in just about 150 years a resource that took probably up to millions of years to form! About half of this amount has been consumed in the last 25 years.

Wait a minute, how old are you. Hmmm, did you do it?

Needless to say that the oil deposits are not distributed homogeneously around the world. Also remember that are not consumed equally by everyone either. The world’s 2/3 of the remaining oil deposits are, as you correctly guessed, in the Middle East. The United States has only 4% of the world reserves but consumes over 25% of the oil consumed worldwide and ends up importing more than half of its supplies.

At this point exactly, I am being antsy for political comments and discussion, but since this is not the appropriate platform, I will limit myself to let you think about the sacrifices that a person (usually without realizing) or a government (always consciously but trying to mask it) are willing to make to get access to the oily wells.

#1 (and the only one discussed here) sacrifice: the ecosystem

The carbon emissions by burning petroleum is contributing to the greenhouse effect that affects our climate that in turn has gone bonkers. Intense and extreme weather conditions seem to occur and new historic records of high or low temperatures are being broken almost every year in many parts of the world, including Alaska and the East Coast of United States correspondingly.

Our greed for black gold has taken the geoscientists and the oil companies to the oceans. In the USA, Alaska has been the target for oil exploration, where a vicious circle is taking place. Since the industrialization and the burning potato of climate change occurred, the ice is melting with higher rates, the glaciers’ volume decreases, and land or part of the ocean that before were inaccessible are now exposed. What an opportunity has risen! We can now drill for more oil to burn, emit more CO2 and enhance the rapid ice melting.

Do we want to ride this carousel?

In addition to the oil industry horror that took place in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico before, the most current USA oil hunt has now taken oil companies to the Atlantic. I will explain more about this in a bit.

It is clear that the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska (1989) and the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico (2010) were accidents during the extraction and the transportation of the oil. The impacts were obvious to everyone with dramatic images of black seas, tarred beaches, sea birds covered in thick oil, and dead baby dolphins stranded on the coasts that blackened everyone’s heart.


Before even the pumping of oil from the Earth’s guts begins, other risks for the environment are underlying that are not obvious to everyone and are hard to identify.

The oil is buried deep below the ground and the ocean floor. How do you find something so well hidden? The geoscientists’ secret weapon is called airgun and it is exactly what its name says: a gun that shoots air.

Are the guns of air innocent as they sound?

The seismic airguns used for oil and gas exploration are NOT the same as the ones that we add soap and water and make bubbles filled with air, wouldn’t that be nice? Instead, they blast compressed air, waves of energy, in to the ocean floor to use the echo and take an image of what it is beneath it. Each layer within the Earth reflects a portion of the wave’s energy back and allows the rest to refract through. These reflected energy waves are recorded and their differences in arriving time can tell us about the different materials in the ground where the sound has different speed. The general principle is based on the technique of echolocation that bats, dolphins and sperm whales use. They send waves of sound that bounce off objects, go back to their ears and give an acoustic picture that can be as high definition and detailed as an x-ray.

For the seismic exploration as is called, hydrophones are used as the ears that listen and record the echo of the sound. Similar hydrophones to what I use to listen and record the voices of the whales.

Boats tow large arrays of airguns that shoot energy waves strong enough to penetrate the sea bottom and travel miles into it. These airguns can be so loud that resemble dynamite explosions, are repeated about every 10 seconds for whole days and often periods of months.

How to take underground “photographs”


Now imagine yourself living in a town that is bombed all day every day for months.

A deaf whale is a dead whale

The oceans are “worlds of sound” and marine mammals count on sound and their acoustic as well as vocal abilities to communicate with each other, find mates, locate food and navigate. Can you imagine the impact of these explosions to their lives?

Depending on their proximity to the operating airguns, whales can be physically harmed, deafened, or can alter their behavior, leave the area and move miles away to avoid the noise or temporarily lose their ability to hear. This intense noise can mask acoustic signals that come from other animals and hence interfere with adult breeding calls, or degrade anti-predator responses. Mothers and calves use sound to communicate underwater hence such loud noise can increase the risk of calves being separated from their mothers with lethal effects. The sounds from the airguns are loud enough to disrupt activities of blue and other endangered marine mammal species essential to foraging and reproduction over vast ocean areas. Over time, airgun noise can cause chronic behavioral and physiological stress, just like intense noise pollution can cause to people, that can suppress reproduction and increase mortality and morbidity. Not good.

Make a change

Currently, there has been a reaction to the USA federal government for having released a map with the areas where oil companies want to look (hear) for oil. Regulations for surveying in the Atlantic were finalized last summer, while this January a proposed plan for offshore drilling was released. It is a humongous area on the East coast and includes the habitat for a variety of marine mammals, including the 500 remaining critically endangered Northern Right Whales. Thanks Obama!

Even if seismic can mask the voices of whales they cannot shut down our voices.

Do you want to help?

You can be part of the social media campaign designed at getting out the facts about seismic exploration and urge the Obama administration to reverse the decision to allow seismic surveys for oil and gas in the Atlantic.

For more info you can read here the  letter to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management expressing concern over the introduction of seismic oil and gas exploration along the U.S. mid-Atlantic and south Atlantic coasts (sent on 3/5/2015.) and here the letter to President Obama urging him to wait on new science before permitting the use of seismic airguns in the Atlantic Ocean (sent on 2/20/2014.)

Here is what you could do to be part of this:

  • Print out the sign and fill in your name and affiliation/position.
  • Take a picture of yourself holding the sign. It reads:

“Seismic airgun exploration for oil and gas puts marine life at risk of serious harm.”

Send the photo to:

Should be something like this:

Make some sound without speaking

It is not just USA being thirsty for oil though. I am recently working on the Environmental Baseline Study for two locations in the Ionian Sea in Greece that got approved for oil exploration and drilling. Ionian Sea is a significant habitat for eight marine mammal species with critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable species among them. The sperm whale, monk seal, common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and beaked whales are intensively using this area and are particularly sensitive to noise. My responsibility at this point is to make sure that the current presence of these species is carefully recorded before the exploration and operations start so that potential impacts can be evaluated after that.

The same time I have been working on the Strategic Environmental Impact Assessment for the construction of offshore wind farm in 11 locations in Greece. Alternative and renewable energy resources are certainly the direction we should globally be looking towards. However, it is interesting to know that potential negative impacts can also occur to marine organisms during their construction and operation. For this reason, the mitigation measures are of great importance and I expect them to be taken into account.

One more reason that we love biking is that it is quite as a squirrel. Imagine how much more peaceful this world would be with more bikes and less cars. This paradise exists in the micro-cosmos of OSU campus. We are lucky people the Corvallis people. If it can happen here, it can happen everywhere.

Your turn Athens.

superman picture add cape?
Be your own hero


I once had a near-life experience but it was long time ago and it now appears dimly in my memory. It was a feeling of weightlessness. On a Friday evening, I joined our department’s Ηappy Ηour. I remember a bright light at the top of the Pool table. The ability to see my own hand holding a drink, meet up with friends and loved ones who once were partners in crime in long night Flip-cup tournaments now surrounding me with an unanswered question in their eyes: “Where have you been?”.

This is the story of a graduate student’s (me) experience living life while doing a PhD.

Some of these near-life experiences can be positive. You feel like being in heaven embraced by your community and friends; a warm feeling that you were never gone and isolated in the office for weeks.

Other after-work experiences can often be a torture. They get to remind you what is happening out of your box and that the world is still turning while you are reading exciting papers on how eddy kinetic energy affects the presence of sperm whales. Several cases of fights with all sorts of demons have been documented by different PhD students.

Because hard work often pays off after time, while laziness always pays off now
Because hard work often pays off after time, while laziness always pays off now

During these near-life experiences, people often hear voices calling them. “Come with us”, they often say. “It’s Eric’s birthday today”, “free drinks at Dan’s goodbye party”, or “let’s go to Mexico” (sometimes it’s your own voice). And you attempt to follow the voices that take you down to dark hallways, to places with loud music or to open sunny spaces with beautiful mountains, luscious forests and sandy beaches. You follow them for so long that it almost terrifies you when the sound of your advisor’s email notification returns you “gently” to the familiar and safe work environment.

While the scientific community is unanimously still skeptical of the PhD students’ recounts of ski-weekends and friendly dinners with high wine flow, others support these near-life experiences to be proof of a healthy workstyle.

Proof of real-life experience
Proof of real life experience

And even though this perpetual debate continues, one thing is certain: graduate students can fulfill a proposal with a hangover. And the hangover is usually the proof that students are not making this near-life stories up.

Exactly what I meant by hangover. Replace “book” with “paper”.

After their experience, students commonly find themselves transported back to the lab, being filled with guilt and last minute inspiration to finish THE paper. That one that offers strong indications that will haunt you for the rest of your life.

Soon after, what follows these awakening experiences is the deep belief and commitment to something sacred and superior. The Physical Exercise! Many have discovered the miraculous effects of endorphins to their mental stability during graduate life.


However, the question still remains: To sleep or not to sleep?

Between proposal writing, classes, working on your own research and other projects, reading papers and writing a thesis, doesn’t seem to be enough space for more activities. Some necessities like food and sleep have proved to help all forms of human beings or human doings to sustain oneself and flourish.

To do is to be (Nietzshe), To be is to do (Kant), Do be do be do (Sinatra)
To do is to be (Nietzshe), To be is to do (Kant), Do be do be do (Sinatra)

Nutrition can be covered in a well scheduled way. If you don’t mind eating the same food for 5 days, there is no way that you cannot find one evening to make the dish of the week. Just be equipped with five times the quantity of the ingredients you would use for a day’s dinner.

Note to self: I miss my mom.

Note to all: Pasta and legume dishes keep better than fish and salads .

On the other hand sleep is controversial. Some say that the minimum to survive will be enough to get you through graduate school. Others will support that you need enough to properly rest and be productive and good sleep is the key to success. My personal truth lays somewhere in the middle with most weekdays being filled with pints of tea (the amount of times that I get up to fill my tea cup can account for an average person’s daily work out), and during the weekends the bed becomes my best friend that I need to catch up with.

The philosophical mood of the author doesn’t end here.

Don't stop reading now, almost done.
Don’t stop reading now, almost done.

During graduate school there are certain times that I question the reasons why I do what I do and go through this pain. The same way that I question excessive body piercing and early morning (like it is still dark outside) jogging.

In reality I know very well why I do my PhD and suffer long working days and nights. It is my love for my subject of study and my passion for conservation together with my unsatisfied thirst for knowledge and inquiring nature that motivate me. But the denial comes every now and then, mainly when I bump into Matlab dead-ends.

The reasons behind all our actions are somehow related to the pursuit of happiness. Is it about love, success, money, or something else? It is a different story for each person. Each one has a different perception of what brings/is happiness. Similarly, different communities have diverse definitions of success, that often tend to affect personal beliefs. In a western society money seems to be largely the usual driving force. But fortunately this is not a universal given. Bhutan gives a different official definition of the term success.

Are you ready for this?!  

Bhutan has replaced gross domestic product (GDP) with the Gross National Happiness (GHN). It means that the spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of its citizens and the natural environment are used as a measure of success (read more about it here). Mind blowing. Earth shaking. Freaking awesome. Now let me check the climatology of Bhutan… Hmmm, mostly warm and sunny. That’s the place!

I have been recently diagnosed with the disease of being busy (on top of that nasty cold that I caught at the ski trip). Disease as not being in ease.

A characteristic symptom of this disorder is always replying “I am so busy” when people simply ask “hey, how are you doing?”. I also find everyone else replying the exact same thing when I ask them. I swear it is contagious. Being stressed has been quoted by the World Health Organization to be the epidemic of the 21st century. The easier  the communication becomes through technology and social media, the less time we have to essentially communicate with people during face-to-face situations. The same time, the busier we become the bigger is the need for an empty space, a pause.Like the pause in a song that gives it resonance and shape.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “This is going to be a very busy day. I won’t be able to meditate for an hour.” He continued, “I’ll have to meditate for two.”

Following Mahatma’s example, I am attempting to acquire PhD and life balance. And clearly, this is how this post resulted. Balance is difficult to acquire. Especially if you are a tall person and the center of gravity is higher.

In my effort to improve my balance, both literally (obtain physical balance and built in attention and focus) and metaphorically (maintain mental health throughout my PhD), I took up Acro yoga. Acro requires a lot of balance.

Now, I can hesitantly admit a timid success. At least with the literal form of the balance I was going for.

The star (not me, the pose is called like that)
The star (not me, the pose is called that)









Small victories.

***Never give up***

As Niki mentioned in her post earlier this week, Niki, Danielle, and I gave a presentation at Hatfield Marine Science Center this week as part of the Monday Tech Talk Series. On the first Monday of the month, someone from the community shares their knowledge on a new bit of technology they use/feel is important, and the talk is a relaxed discussion type setting so the audience can ask questions and learn more about if that technology would be useful in their work. I’m a big fan of these talks so was happy to be able to give one.

Talking, talking, talking. Thanks Bruce Mate (OSU/MMI) for the photo!!
Talking, talking, talking. Thanks Bruce Mate (OSU/MMI) for the photo!!

Our lab signed up to talk about social media, because, we think we are pretty good at it (not a #humblebrag, just an actual #brag)! You are reading our blog aren’t you? And you may have followed a link to it from our Twitter or Facebook page? I wanted to use this week’s blog post to share our presentation and some of the discussion it sparked, for those of you who couldn’t attend (*cough cough* Sharon).

What exactly is social media?

A lot of people think of it as teenagers buried in their phones and computers, taking selfies, tweeting about Alex from Target. But it has become much more than that! The official definition from the reliable source, Wikipedia, is:

Social media are computer-mediated tools that allow people to create, share or exchange information, ideas, and pictures/videos in virtual communities and networks.”

The point is, social media allows people to share information, over long distances, and very quickly, enabling them to reach lots of different people they may not know directly.

Science – Social Media Connection


That is where science and social media can come together. A huge part of our job as scientists is to communicate our science – to share what we find with colleagues, students, the general public, whoever is interested (or maybe not)! Social media is an outlet to share publications, glimpses into field work, what is happening at conferences, resources that may be helpful, events happening, conservation concerns, I could go on and on. To paraphrase Danielle at the end of our presentation – social media allows people to see scientists as real people, doing cool important stuff, who love what they do, not robots hidden away in a lab somewhere. We get excited about learning, about day-to-day new discoveries, and we have struggles, where things go wrong and we have to start over (or lock our keys in our car).

Types of Social Media

We covered four main types of social media, because those are the four our lab uses, and I posted the corresponding slides below. We wanted to highlight the differences between the different types, because that is the somewhat tricky thing about social media, each outlet serves a different purpose. Each has its pros and cons, and each should be used in a way that best takes advantages of the pros and minimizes the cons.

The audience asked “well which is best?” And I really didn’t have a single answer. Here’s the general consensus:


The website provides an official portal to the lab. Official information, links to all other social media, it comes up when search through OSU and has contact info for the lab. We don’t update it that often. It’s got long term blurbs about people an research.

The blog provides a more personal look into life in the lab. Each of the 5 grad students post once a month (we rotate through) and Danielle posts a fun Soundbites section ever Wednesday. These posts are longer, have pictures, and can be about anything we want…my parents and grandparents follow it to see what I’m actually doing, its sort of like an email to lots of people who care.



Twitter is our quick communication. It keeps us connected with collaborators, colleagues, “fans” (followers) and we have to condense what we want to say into 160 characters, or a picture. We can “retweet” things from other labs we follow, to share exciting papers, or new field work. This is a quick way to connect, but its over the short term.

Facebook is again a more personal way to communicate. It reaches out the same way as twitter in some sense, but posts can be longer, pictures are easier to browse, and we can connect with people through events, and more (see Niki’s post for more detail!!)

Other types of social media exist, such as Instagram, Google+, LinkedIn, and the science-specific ResearchGate. We are less familiar with these so didn’t discuss as much, but they are out there and maybe we will be on them in the future.

Discussion Points

I feel like this blog is getting on a little bit. Describing social media in science could probably be an entire series of posts, but I wanted to just give a brief intro here. I thought I’d wrap up with some of the great discussion questions we got during the presentation (we didn’t get to the end of the slides because of the great interest!!)  We don’t have all the answers, but please feel free to ask questions in the comments below and one of us will chime in (that’s the point of this interconnetivity isn’t it??)

How much time should we be spending on this as scientists? Is this taking away from our research?

What about the issue of misrepresentation of your research? (misquotes go misquoted go misquoted)

Where do you start?

Do you think it improves your writing?

What is the value in being able to condense your research to 160 characters? Should that be what we strive for in titles? Should a tweet of your abstract now be included?

Oh, and on a final note…

What the heck is a hastag (#hastag)??

For you scientists out there, think of it like a keyword, the keywords you would put on a paper. By putting the # in front of a word or phrase, it becomes searchable, and then connects your post (on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc) to other posts with the same hashtag.

#SciComm is a great one to start with to tell your followers you are communicating your science!

*Disclaimer: Niki and Danielle, I’m sorry if I didn’t do this post justice… I feel like I didn’t, but it’s hard to describe a discussion in a blog post!! Feel free to augment!!


All you wanted to know about Facebook and science and you were afraid to ask.

Most of us agree that communication is important. It is vital in every aspect of our lives and in everything that we do. It is the reason that most human belong in the category of social animals. For this reason sharing becomes important; sharing experiences and information. It has been mentioned before: this sharing is the foundation of culture.

Science is part of the information and experience that is ought to be shared. The term Science derives from the latin (yup,it hurts that is not a Greek reference this time): scientia  that means “knowledge”. And what is the point of knowledge if it is not communicated? Writing, itself has been invented for the more efficient transmission of knowledge that allows less spread of falsehoods and enforces memory.

Successful science is not only good results with powerful correlations and desired p-values. Significant part of the success is related to the impact that can have to the community. And the first step towards that impact is making it available to people.

Sharing our research results with fellow scientists helps to improve it, discuss future steps and enhances the knowledge on which other scientists will base their own research. That happens usually through conferences and publishing peer reviewed articles. It isn’t of any less importance to share it with the rest of the world. Until not very long time ago, the way to do this was through the news, documentaries, books and newspapers. Some scientists get a lot more of this type of exposure than others. Nowadays, everyone can give publicity to his/her scientific research and share it with family, friends, “friends” and more.

The ability to communicate and share information has been switched to another dimension since the internet and the social media have taken off. Social networks offer easiness in socializing in long distances and in the long term, and that has transformed this platform into an integral part of most people’s lives. I don’t argue that this media has also altered irreversibly the way we interact with each other; for good or bad.


But this is a subject for another blog or even a whole social sciences’ conference.


Social networking animals

Connections and networking are useful, especially if you are an early career scientist. And that is what Facebook is about. Using it to make people aware of science seems to be a good idea considering its impact. Numbers talk for themselves: 1/7th of the world population has a Facebook profile. In this fraction we don’t even account for China having it censored (I know what you are thinking: what do Chinese use to procrastinate and waste time?). This number can even be compared to the Catholic Church members!

Do the math:

  • World population: 7.291,658,406 billion
  • Facebook users: 1.35 billion and 757 million daily users (fake profiles: 81.000.000)
  • Catholic Church: 1.2 billion members
  • China’s population: 1.4 billion.
Virtuality: you can find everything you are looking for
Virtuality: you can find everything/one you are looking for

This network has changed so much human communication that in tech culture the year 2015 is translated as the year 11 a.F.; with “a.F” standing for “after Facebook” (it was funded in 2004). It has undoubtedly spawned a big variety of nasty and unpleasant habits but we largely agree that it is an effective platform for long distance communication.

...and short distance texting
…and short distance texting

I don’t blame you if you are skeptical about the relationship of science and Facebook but there are certainly advantages in using it for this purpose. A good example is the Facebook page IFLS  described as the lighter and funny side of science that has almost 20 million followers! There are plenty of similar profiles with millions of users around the world that get people interested into science. And this is the first main advantage of Facebook. It is global (besides China, North Korea and Tajikistan) and it allows international connections not just among friends and family members but also among colleagues and former lab members. It is particularly helpful for scientists since they tend to travel a lot (good reason to be one). Even the non-scientific Facebook contacts can be useful since you never know who is connected to whom. I have been a few times contacted through Facebook for work offers even by non-scientists friends. Information about new publications is immediately shared since researchers often, if not always, post their new publication as soon as it is accepted and often when it is just submitted. It is also a convenient way to follow updates and conversations if you are introverted since you don’t have to physically step into groups of people.

Almost all universities and research institutes have Facebook pages and that can be used for former or potential employers. Our ORCAA lab maintains a Facebook account. We use it for all sorts of updates that are related to bioacoustics and graduate student life and it is a direct and easy mean for people to contact us by sending us a message. New publications from our lab members are posted, as well as information related to conferences or meetings. However, the main reason we utilize it is for sharing our blog posts. Exactly, we post on Facebook to tell you that we blogged!


Pop Science

Since we concluded that Facebook can be useful for scientific purposes, here are a couple of tips on how to increase the impact of your posts.

I am sure that from personal use you will have noticed that the timing of your posts matters. It has been shown (there are figures below to confirm) that the most productive time to post on Facebook and get the most interaction (likes and shares) is during the weekends, especially on Saturdays and on a daily base just before and after lunch time. Too many posts are not a good thing; oversharing/overposting can have the opposite from desired results. Specifically one post every two days is highly recommended. When not to post? On Fridays. People are already away from their screens celebrating the entrance of the weekend. No worries, you will get them again on Saturday.

Wait for the right time
A post is not scientific enough if it doesn’t include figures

Now the question is what to post. It is important to translate your science in the most amusing and approachable way possible. Humor always helps; try to use quotes, jokes and fun facts. Everyone likes and remembers fun facts. ZeFrank is the King of fun facts and his True Facts (watch this link) series is legendary. I am surprised he doesn’t have an episode on sperm whales, they provide abundant “fun fact” material!

Pictures, photos and videos are worth a thousand words and an easy way to get messages across. Tagging people is a way to encourage interaction but do it with relevant to your post “friends”. Same is the case with questions; they raise interaction. To connect the scientist and his work with a non-scientific audience, to get people interested and involved is the goal. The challenge is to not vitiate your results or your methods in the process of simplifying them so they can be accessible. Just change the wooden, stiff scientific language into a more fun and personal expression.

You don’t have to be a professional science journalist. It would help but it’s not necessary. Writing never gets easy anyways. At least that’s what Elizabeth Kolbert said yesterday at the presentation she gave at OSU. She is the author of the book 6th extinction  and she writes a lot! Her comment caused an empathetic feeling to a lot of students in the auditorium. Including me.


*This post is based on the Tech Talk that Selene, Danielle and me gave last Monday at the Hatfield Marine Science Center with the title “#SciComm”. Selene will be posting a more comprehensive text on the use of different social media in communicating science*


…A question that sometimes occurs when I tell people that I study the sounds of the whales. Still, my very close non-scientists friends do think that I try to talk to dolphins. This might not be accurate since my research equipment and purpose of my study do not allow anything like this, but essentially I do try to spy on their “conversations”.

Meet Dory, a (fictional but funny) colleague of mine

One of the functions of sound in dolphins and whales is communication. Communication is a keyword in bioacoustics and is defined as being “the transmission of a signal from one organism to another such that the sender benefits from the response of the recipient”. There are different purposes that it serves living organisms and different ways to express it.

A primary purpose of communication is to attract and repel. Plants use chemical signals that get transmitted through the air or their roots, people use the smell of pheromones to attract each other, and skunks use the same signal to repel. Dogs and foxes use face and body gestures to express submission and aggression. Elephants use touch interlinking their trunks as a means of close communication. Especially for attracting mates, vision (peacock elaborated feathers) and sound (bird songs) are both very useful.


Do you get the message?
Do you get the message?

Though the most common well-known animal communication signal heard by humans is the bird song, there are all sorts of animals that rely on their hearing and vocal ability to succeed and survive. Whales, the modern giants, appear to be experts in the art of sound communication with different species each having their own sounds. They use these sounds to navigate, locate and capture prey, communicate about the environment and the availability of food or predators, and to attract mates or repel competitors.

Whale chat #alltheycareforisfoodandromance
Whale chat #alltheycareforisfoodandromance

Such acoustic signals may be (a) instinctive that is genetically programmed or (b) learned from others through social learning.

Social learning is the information moving through communication from one organism to another. This information then passing on is what we call culture. Without this transfer there would be no life, no evolution, no biology. Culture is why we have the Parthenon, the South Park, boy bands and the MIT. What you read, like this blog, that you may pass it on is culture.

Random example of culture: the Parthenon
Random example of culture: the Parthenon

Cultural transmission, the social learning from conspecifics is believed to occur in a number of groups of animals, including primates, cetaceans and birds, elephants and bats. Cultural traits can be passed through different paths.

Cultural transmission can be done vertically: from parents to offspring, obliquely: from the previous generation via non related individuals to younger individuals, or horizontally: between unrelated individuals from similar age classes or within generations.

cultural transmission
3 families of sperm whales and how they get their culture transmitted

Of the several types of social learning which have been recognized, imitation is particularly significant for the propagation of culture. Humans can imitate new sounds and learn how to use them correctly in social situations. This is called vocal learning which is considered to be one of the foundations of language.

My favorite example of imitation in the animal kingdom is the lyrebird of S. Australia, which has an unbelievable capacity for mimicry. During the breeding season in South Australia, the male lyrebirds spend six hours a day calling, doing their best to attract the ladies. They have the most complex syrinx (vocal organ in birds), and they make a remarkable use of it!

I know I am repeating myself since I have posted a video of the lyrebird before  but this time the famous mime has enriched its repertoire with more sounds that will make you wonder how and why… Check out the lyrebird’s latest hits here.

Next I would like you to meet Luna, another excellent mime; Luna is a male orphan killer whale. Luna has been all alone since the age of two, living off the coast of Vancouver Island, Canada. There, in 2001, Luna became popular for getting in close proximity to people, interacting with local boaters and perfectly mimicking boat noises. A tragic result of this interaction was the tragic death of Luna in 2006 due to a tugboat collision!

Culture, through social learning, has been studied and papers have been published mainly in only four species of cetaceans: (1) the humpback whale, (2) the sperm whale, (3) the killer whale, and (4) the bottlenose dolphin.

Humpback: the Diva

Humpbacks are the most popular singers of probably all the non-human mammals. They have even released CDs with their songs ! When we think of whale songs the humpback is what we have in mind. They represent the best understood horizontal culture of cetaceans.

The males produce series of vocalizations that form songs used in sexual selection (through mate attraction and/or male social sorting). Their songs are very complex and can be heard mainly in breeding grounds and whales can hear them up to 10 km (about 6 miles) away. Whales sing the same song for hours and hours. Populations within an ocean basin have similar songs with this similarity dependent on geographical distance between populations.

Humpbacks can change their song after hearing other songs. A terrific example takes place in the southern ocean where the songs are horizontally transmitted from eastern Australia in the west across the region to French Polynesia in the east. The songs have been documented radiating repeatedly across the region from west to east, usually over a period of two years. The result: soon the song that was recorded on the east region is now fully replaced by the west region hit. This seems to me to be really similar to our music culture transmission.


Killer whales: The Intellectuals

The Sea Pandas (as some marketing teams have proposed renaming killer whales to help promote their conservation) are highly social.

The cheeky ones
The cheeky ones

The populations off the west coast of Canada have been studied for decades and are divided in different ‘‘types’’: the residents, transients and offshores. These 3 different types have diverse feeding preferences and subsequent vocalizations. The residents feed on fish and are highly vocal, the transients feed on marine mammals and are much quieter to not reveal their presence to their prey that has good hearing abilities. The offshores are also highly vocal and feed on sharks and rays.

Extroverted vs. Introverted (Resident vs. Transient)

Killer whales that are separated by great geographical distances have completely different dialects. An analysis of Icelandic and Norwegian killer whale pods revealed that the Icelandic population made 24 different calls and the Norwegian whales made 23 different calls, but the two populations did not share any of the same calls.

Besides dialects, killer whales have been shown to learn vocalizations from other species. Yes, they speak foreign languages! At a water facility, where they socialized with bottlenose dolphins, they changed the types of sounds they made to resemble those of their neighbors.

If I was not so enthusiastic about the sperm whales, killer whales would definitely receive most of my scientific admiration. They have evolved outstanding sophisticated hunting techniques and their vocal behavior is impressive, being specific to certain groups and passed across generations. Killer whales are great examples of cultural organisms.

Keeping these animals in captivity sounds like  even less of a good idea now, right?

Bottlenose dolphins: the Eponymous

Bottlenose dolphins are well known for their signature whistles. They have stereotypical signatures attributed to each individual that work as their name. This helps to maintain contact between mom and calf or between individuals in a group. Each bottlenose dolphin has its own unique whistle and it uses it to broadcast their location and identity to others.

3 different whistles from different individuals. Hard to call a dolphin by its name...
3 different whistles from different individuals. Hard to call a dolphin by its name…

Most of the characteristic whistles are usually fixed for all the lifetime of the dolphin. However in some cases, when a male dolphin leaves mom and joins with other males to form an alliance (which might last for decade), their distinctive whistles converge and become very similar. So the longer they stay together the more similar their whistles become. Based on the same reasoning, I can’t understand why my English accent is still the same after three years living in USA!

Sperm whales: the Bignose

Sperm whales are among the loudest animals on Earth, and my favorite (not sure if I have already mentioned my preference). They owe this to their huge nose which functions as a massive click producer. They also have the biggest brain. They produce a variety of loud and distinctive types of clicks for different functions. One of these types of vocalizations is called coda. It is stereotypical patterns of clicks resembling Morse code, and frequently serves social purposes. Codas are usually heard when the group of animals rest or socialize at the surface of the ocean. Similar codas used by one group may help maintain group cohesion after its members are done feeding.

Chilling after dinner

It is thought that each sperm whale has its own individually distinctive coda pattern and it has been reported that groups within one geographic area tend to have more similar codas than groups from further away. The “five regular” call is one of the few codas that all sperm whale groups around the globe use in their regional dialects; while the “plus one” type seems to be specific to Mediterranean inhabitants. These vocal behaviors are transmitted vertically, and loosing members of the population may seriously impact the transmission of this cultural trait that carries important information content vital for the survival of the population.

The "regular 5" and the "plus one" codas
The “regular 5” and the “plus one” codas



We don’t need to watch Interstellar to search for life in different solar systems and unknown worlds. Like Anne Stevenson said: “the sea is as near as we come to another world”.  The ocean is vast largely undiscovered. We can consider the open sea an intriguing new wet universe. In interstellar, communication or miscommunication played an important role and turned out to be vital for rescuing the world. Father and daughter that could not directly speak to each other used binary code to transmit their messages through different dimensions. The cetaceans also transmit their messages through codes that we try to identify and understand. It is vital for their world to be able to use these sounds to communicate. You can correctly guess that we are using their home for our anthropocentric purposes and we are being very noisy neighbors, polluting their ocean and impacting their survival. This can be changed… If you are looking for New Years resolutions…

Like in the movie, it’s not Them that will help us save the world. No external factors are required, all the power is in us!


Happy, quiet and peaceful holidays to y’all!!

This post was inspired by the presentation that me and Selene gave on Saturday 12/13/2014 for the Oregon Chapter of the American Cetacean Society entitled: “Do you speak whale?”.