One of the special things about studying marine megafauna is how completely and unequivocally devoted their fans are. Judging from the popularity of Roger Payne’s best selling 1970 LP “Song of the Humpback Whale”, I think it’s fair to rank humpback whales among rock idols like David Bowie, Mick Jagger, and Madonna in terms of popularity. I feel quite confident, however, that the number of students willing to dedicate their careers to spying on and eavesdropping on whales, is higher than those that are actually interested in professionally shadowing Cher for months at a time.
Whales are a part of our human culture; this is unequivocal. The traditions of Inupiat whalers are passed between generations, skills are shared among whaling teams, and successful bowhead whale hunts are the inspiration for song, story, and festival. Historically, the oil of whales has shaped course of human history. The first street lights to brighten the dark streets of London burned whale oil; the city saw an almost immediate drop in crime as a result. Spermaceti literally greased the wheels of the industrial revolution, not to mention the gaskets on US spaceships. Our human history, — our human culture — has been shaped by the body of whales.
The cost was enormous.
Industrial whaling was responsible for the largest removal of biomass from the world’s oceans… ever. Great whale species were hunted to the brink of extinction, or in some cases past the brink of extinction, to fuel the market for oil and other whale products.
While arguably the loss of life at this scale for any species would be considered a tragedy, there was a concomitant loss of something that makes the epoch of industrial whaling somehow more poignant: cetacean culture.
Whales and dolphins have culture. While this phrase makes some cultural anthropologists cringe, and has certainly sparked its fair share of debate, this phrase is generally accepted among behavioral ecologists and marine mammal biologists. But what does it mean? Technically and in terms of conservation?
Culture can be defined as shared behavior propagated through social learning. In humans an example of this can be culturally specific foods. For example my grandmother taught my mother how to make seafood gumbo. My mother in turn taught me how to make gumbo. The act of making gumbo is a shared behavior that was learned; making gumbo it is part of our culture.
Humpback whales don’t cook, they do eat. In the same way that methods of cooking vary between human populations, methods of hunting vary between humpback whale populations. In Southeast Alaska humpback whales use feeding calls in combination with bubble blowing to herd herring toward the surface of the ocean and then *gulp*. No other population of humpbacks in the world, that we know of, pair this call with this behavior. It appears to be a learned behavior; culture.
Similarly, in the North Atlantic humpback whales slap their flukes to herd fish in a behavior known as lobelia feeding. Based on years of observations, and the hard work of a bright you grad student, we learned that this foraging technique was spread culturally throughout the population. Which means to say that individuals learned it from each other. Significantly, humpback whales also learn where to forage. They gain information from their mothers during their first year of life that tells them where to migrate to, good spots on foraging grounds to find and catch a meal, and what is good to eat. This is where conservation comes in.
During the height of industrial whaling large portions of whale populations were extirpated. When those whales were removed from the system, their traditions died with them. For some baleen whales that loss of cultural knowledge has led to the abandonment of fertile foraging grounds, and in other populations it has led to high fidelity to poor foraging grounds without the knowledge of any alternatives.
So understanding culture in whales matters. It matters because it helps us to understand their adaption to population recoveries, it allows us to track their plasticity and resilience, to understand how and why one whale population differs from another, and maybe it allows us another way to relate to these animals. More personally, perhaps by understanding the importance of culture in whales we can begin to value the importance of culture in our own world, in our own country, in our own lives. Something, I would argue, that we might need right now.
Last week I got to spend a week offshore, participating in the last field season (what?!) of the SOCAL-BRS project. This was a bittersweet week, to say the least. I’ve been involved with this project since before I even started grad school (see here and here for my blogs on it the last two years). It’s a long-term project (2010-2017) so I’m not sure I ever realized I wouldn’t be spending a week or two every summer, offshore of Southern California doing awesome whale tagging and behavioral response research. But, here I am, back at home, and that’s it! We still have a year of analysis left (already counting down to the analysis meeting in December!) so more science is still to come. But this week was a great time to reminisce and reflect how things have changed for myself and others on the project.
First off, there are at least 5 BRS babies. Never saw that coming! Everyone is a bit more sun damaged (despite our best efforts) and a bit more grey. I went from being a nervous, naive, some-what-lost-soul trying to find my way in the acoustics world to a full blown bioacoustician (is it ok to call myself that?). Although this research is not directly related to my PhD….it is in a system I work in regularly, with collaborators I love working with, can learn so much from, and want to keep working with, so it’s a week well spent.
That SOCAL Magic
While I had an amazing few weeks of field work for my own PhD research earlier this summer, this past week provided something a little different. It served as a reminder of the wonder, the inherent magic, that comes from working with animals out on the water.
I saw more marine wildlife in one week then I have ever seen in my life. I saw no less than 12 species (blue, fin, humpback, sperm and killer whales, common (x2 species), bottlenose, and Risso’s dolphins, California sea lions, elephant seals, and harbor seals) of marine mammals. And I not only got a glimpse of them, but got to enjoy them. From watching blue whales up close from the RHIBs, to seeing common dolphins sprint away from killer whales, to hearing bottlenose dolphins whistling while bow riding. Each day reminded me why I LOVE what I do. (Oh, and maybe I was simply less stressed because my entire dissertation didn’t depend on if I could get the stupid QUEphone to work the way I wanted it to…)
Don’t get me wrong, I love sitting in the lab. Discovering new calls, answering questions through detailed analyses, and playing with shiny new yellow AUVs. But I also just love being outside, and enjoying that offshore world. No cell service, seeing Risso’s buzzes come through in real time on the towed array, catching my limit of rockfish in the evenings, hearing the elephant seals calling on the Channel Islands.
I guess the simple point of this blog is to share that contentment, and again that wonder, that I enjoy while thinking back on the last week. Till the next adventure….
My broken heart limped off of Strawberry Island a few weeks ago on a day when the fog was too thick to permit my sentimental heart watch the island fade into the distance. But while our field season on the island had come to an end, my field work for the summer was not quite complete.
My work in Glacier Bay studying humpback whale acoustics is partially based on my previous work conducted from the Five Finger Lighthouse. I’m interested in comparing the two regions (both the soundscapes and the behaviors of the whales themselves), as we have historic population and acoustics information from both regions dating back to the late 1980’s (Thank you Malme and Miles! Thank you Scott Baker!). To get the ball rolling on this comparison I made my way to the Five Finger Lighthouse for a short 10 day foray into “late season acoustic behavior”.
I don’t have anything definitive to report, except that the team of volunteers who have been working on maintaining my favorite historic structure have been hard at work, and that the whales were abundant beyond my wildest dreams. If Glacier Bay is indicative of high quality interactions with individual humpback whales (remember Cervantes), than Frederick Sound is a strong argument for quantity over quality. In this, my tenth summer spent with Alaskan humpbacks, I finally broke the record for highest concentration of animals in a single area. Don’t believe me? Watch the short clip below and see a glimpse of the 40+animals milling around the region. Once you’re done watching, listen to the sound file to get an idea of what these animals were saying when this video was filmed. In my humble opinion, it is in this pairing of sight and sound that we begin to understand.
(These videos and recordings were collected under a research permit and with zoom lenses. Endangered or not it is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to approach a humpback whale within 100 yards, to alter the behavior of an animal, or to recklessly operate a vessel — even a kayak– in the presence of humpback whales).
Going to bed (and by bed I mean tent) on the island is easy. It is often rainy and cold; recently the days have been growing shorter revealing black starless nights that challenge my trust of these old woods, and when the weather is clear enough to work our days can be long. But occasionally as we are tucking ourselves into our sleeping bags at night something happens that’s worth getting up for.
This was the case a week or so ago when the exhales of one whale (SEAK-1899, a.k.a. “Nacho”, a.k.a. “Cervantes”) persisted for so long, and with such intensity, that we left our tents and made our way in the fading sunlight out to the beach to see what was going on. As it turned out Cervantes was feeding in our intertidal; take a peek.
Cervantes visits us often these days. This isn’t unusual for for Glacier Bay whales, which exhibit strong maternal site fidelity to the Park (for a really interesting scientific read on local recruitment of humpback whales in Glacier Bay and check our Sophie Pierszalowski’s master’s thesis here), but it is new for our field team here on Strawberry Island. The ability to recognize and interact with an individual humpback whale in such close proximity requires patience, attention and time. While our team last year grew capable of discriminating between individuals whales (a requirement for focal following a whale that’s a mile and a half away), the ability to recognize an individual whale with certainty every time one sees it requires repeated interactions. For humans who are a measly 1.75 meters tall, these interactions are imprinted for efficiently if they occur at close range.
Individuality matters. Increasing evidence for personality in animals confirms what pet owners for decades have intuitively known – animals have unique dispositions. Not all whale are created equal, and to understand how the population as a whole may respond to changes in the environment, necessitates sampling a wide swath of individuals. For example, if we follow Cervantes around from birth until death we may conclude that all humpback whale forage intertidally (likely not the case), that all whales annually migrate (also not entirely true) and that all humpback whales blow bubbles at their prey (which would be interesting… but unlikely). Further, what if Cervantes proved to be an anomalous whale? Not wholly on the “average” spectrum for whale behavior. Cervantes is of unknown sex; it is tempting to infer that an adult whale of unknown sex who has never had a calf must be male (this is in fact what our field team inferred). The possibility, however, fully exists that Cervantes may be a late bloomer who will calve in the future and against what we anticipate given the average age of first calving, prove herself to be a lady whale after all. If Cervantes was the only animal we studied, we might infer an age of first calving for humpback whales that wasn’t accurate for the majority. So if we want to understand whales instead of understanding whale we have to look at many individuals.
Why then are these repeated interactions with Cervantes so valuable? They are valuable scientifically in that we have the ability to investigate individual variation by linking behaviors with a known animal. More importantly for our team right now, however, these interactions are valuable to us personally. Living in the presence of giants inspires a person; knowing the giants’ name and saying good morning to him everyday, in my humble experience, moves a person beyond awe and into action. As overused as the Jacque Cousteau quote is, one cannot deny that people protect what they love. Cervantes’ ability to exist in such close proximity to our camp give us permission to love these animals, this shoreline, and this ocean just a little more strongly. This is a gift, and I am grateful.
*This post is dedicated to my mom, who taught me how to read and how to listen*
When I was a small child my mother read a book called “The Talking Earth” out loud to my sister and I. As an adult I can’t quite remember the details, but it was about a Seminole girl alone in the woods interacting with plants, animals, wind and water in an effort to regain her faith in the power of nature. I vaguely remember her saving an abandoned otter pup and nursing it back to health and something lovely about a panther. What I poignantly recall, however, is a passage in the book about listening to the language of the earth as she nurses the otter; the beating hearts and warm bodies of mammals, the beating wings of the birds, and the sounds of rain and wind that collectively gives all animals a way of understanding the world. Book inspired a lot of thoughts in me as a child.
Now, I spend a lot of time thinking about one species, as it communicates with other animals of the same species, underwater, in the Beardslee Island Complex, in Glacier Bay Alaska. I dream about humpback whales calling in these waters at night (and often as I nap between shifts throughout our long days). But living on this island does something very kind for me, it speaks about more than just the whales. So a few days ago I stood alone on the beach at 4:07 am preparing to survey for whales and as the sun rose I took a few moments to listen to what the earth had to say to me.
The tide was shifting; I could see the water converging at our survey point. The clouds were rolling in on a southwest wind, and the fog was preparing to slowly take over the coastline in front of me. The loons called to each other in the pink turquoise rising sun. The family of oystercatchers that we watched last year gave one another their high cackling good morning call. The gulls squabbled, the sea lions yawned angry yawns. The earth woke up in pastel glory. When I was experiencing my first Alaskan winter I wrote that the Alaskan sun doesn’t burn, it blushes. This particular morning at 4am, the sun blushed and I was there to experience it.
It was a lovely moment for me. One of the few moments on the island when I was truly afforded solitude. Fieldwork is a strange bedfellow- the six of us are isolated on this island, yet we are never out of earshot of one another. I joke that we are isolated, together- and at 4am if given the chance to sleep in, our team will take it (and deserve it). Why I stayed up to survey myself? I’m not sure. Maybe I needed the space. Maybe when I woke up to check the weather it was too beautiful to go back to bed, and too foggy to be worth rousing my snuggling crew.
I’ve been going back and forth to that moment in my mind and it reminds me again of the book, The Talking Earth that my mother read to me as a child. It isn’t just about sound of the earth that I found remarkable, though certainly sound is what resonates with me, it is about the subtle signals that the earth gives all those who inhabit it, humans included. It requires an attentiveness to hear the messages in nature, and therefore a desire to listen in the first place. Subtly is a divinely natural quality.
I realize in writing this that this is important to me because it’s how I try to run my field team. With grace and intention, routine and subtlety, with the expectation of the best of my crew, and with consistent communication. Sometimes I succeed, often I fail, but it is in this emulation of nature’s voice that I think we can both collect the best data possible (you can go back here to learn more about the technical rigors of our field collection), while absorbing the many lessons that come from simply observing a place for as long as we are privileged to observe the waters of Strawberry Island.
The scientist in me doesn’t sleep through these sorts of introspections. My job, among many in science, is to try and take these intangibles and make them tangible. My job as a creative human is to do this without losing the essence of what makes these observations incredible. So I won’t deny that in my grand sunrise moment I grinned a little knowing that all of the glorious things I was listening to were being recorded by a two tiny terrestrial recorders that were lent to me by the Cornell Lab or Ornithology (thanks to my advisor Holger and BRP!). When I’m not in the field I’ll post some clips of the Talking Earth here in Glacier Bay, I’d encourage you to close your eyes and imagine being here. Here is a photo from my 4am sunrise to get you started.
Most of my time with bioacoustics, thus far, has been with playing sounds – my master’s work with an active acoustic tag – or with identifying odontocete, or toothed whale species, in glider data (typically known as high- or mid-frequency vocalizations).
For my PhD, I’ll be expanding what I know about whale acoustics and looking at baleen whales from glider and float data as well. I started into this the last few weeks and it has been fun, but definitely feels like a step back in time trying to look up literature and see what exactly I am hearing in the data – I’m not used to working with low-frequency sounds.
What do I mean with low- vs high-frequency sounds? These labels are based on human hearing (of course). Humans (babies!) can typically hear from 20 Hz (hertz) to 20 kHz (kilohertz…hertz*1000; 20 kHz = 20,000 Hz). As we get older we start to lose hearing on the higher end. But marine mammals vocalize both below and above our hearing range. The low/high delineation is “generally” accepted at 1 kHz, and typically baleen whales vocalize below this, and toothed whales vocalized above this. But remember, this is just USUALLY. There are always special cases that don’t follow the trend, and its all relative terms when calling things low and high.
This figure from Mellinger et al. 2007 is a great way of see where certain species typically vocalize. (Click he figure to link to the PDF of the paper and zoom in)
Looking at sounds
So since some whales make sounds below my hearing range, and some make sounds above, how do I hear them for analysis? Well first of usually I am identifying sounds by looking at them, at a spectrogram (we’ve posted those before right?).
Then sometimes I need to listen AND look to identify what the sound is, or gather more info about it. Wonderfully there is a work around. For really LOW sounds, you can play them faster, and then that increases the perceived frequency, so you can hear it. Vice versa, for really HIGH sounds, you can play them at half speed, which changes the perceived frequency, and then you can hear them. Does anyone remember Yakbaks? Speeding up your voice makes you sound like a chipmunk, slowing it down makes you sound like…a whale?
The marine forecast is calling for 25-knot winds and 5-foot seas in Glacier Bay National Park today. Yesterday, when we were tightening the last nylocks on our hydrophone landers, and working out the last details of our array deployment, folks were pretty keen to remind us that the weather was going to kick up. I decided not to be nervous, what’s the point.
Today in the rain and the fog we put four instruments, that our team has literally pour blood sweat and tears into, into the ocean for a second year. Aside from one overactive buoy on the final drop (I turned to Chris and said, “My only concern is about that buoy.” I should have listened to my gut sooner), our day went smoothly and quickly – despite the persistent drizzle and fog dancing on deck. Our efficient little team completed the deployment by 10:45am. Plenty of time for a quick visit to Strawberry Island, and a boat ride home, all before the weather hit. Unlike last year, where we hooted and hollered our victory, this year the boat ride back was subdued. I didn’t dance a victory dance, I sighed a blissful sigh of relief.
Want to know something though? The best part of today wasn’t getting the hydrophones in the water (though long term, I’m certain that’s what I’ll be most grateful for), the best part was seeing the harbor porpoise sipping air off the port side of our deployment vessel, watching the bull sea lion growl with his huge mouth agape, and spotting the seals and birds diving after the same schools of small fish. I love our hydrophones – don’t get me wrong. I’ve slept with them next to my bed at night, kissed their housings, and whispered sweet nothings to them. I love them most, however, because they give me the motivation, the inspiration, and the permission to be outside here in Glacier Bay.
The National Park Service is having its centennial anniversary this year. It has been one hundred years since the intrinsic value of our wild places was recognized, and protected for no other reason than to ensure its persistence. Being a part of this legacy is something that I can’t quite put words too. Joining the ranks of my mentors, past and present, and contributing to what we know about and how we interact with the natural world with forever be one of my greatest achievements. I’m fortunate enough to stand in the footsteps of giants; for me, however, those footsteps were carved out by the journey of glaciers moving through this landscape well before I was born. Footsteps that have become the ocean home to the animals that I love, and the backdrop to the science that I create.
Technology enables me to listen to a world I otherwise cannot hear, but it is the sound of the ocean butting up against the islands that brought me to acoustics in the first place. We human tool users are ingenious in finding ways to solve problems and answer questions. Places like Glacier Bay, however, are essential for inspiring the questions in the first place.
One hundred years. That’s not a trivial tenure. How many times over the past 100 years have you visited a National Park? If you’ve never been, let this be the year that you find your park. I’ve certainly found mine.
The ORCAA Lab recently returned from the Society for Marine Mammalogy’s (SMM) Biennial Meeting in San Francisco. It was a whirlwind to say the least. Of the 2,600+ marine mammal scientists, professionals, and students in attendance I’d be pretty surprised if more than 10 or 15 escaped the week’s activity without feeling exhausted. This was my first SMM conference and I found myself feeling uncharacteristically nervous.
All of the graduate students in our lab were slated to give either a talk (Myself, Selene, and Samara) or a poster (Niki). We were part of a much larger contingent of researchers from Oregon State (both NOAA and the Marine Mammal Institute) and in such had ample encouragement and feedback on our research and presentations; but this didn’t seem to curb my butterflies.
My talk “Temporal stability of North Pacific humpback whale non-song vocalizations at the decadal scale” is the culmination of the first chapter of my PhD dissertation, and while the title might not convey the scope of what I’m trying to understand about animal communication I knew that I had 12 minutes at this conference to do just that. This talk was my first chance to stand up in front of a room of my peers and tell them something true that I had discovered.
Unequivocoal truth is hard to identify in science. As the questions that we ask grown more complicated, and the body of known scientific literature grows, the ‘simple’ phenomena left for discovery become harder and harder to find. In my dissertation I ask the question: what impact does large vessel noise have on humpback whale acoustic behavior? That is not a simple question. Further, it doesn’t begin to encompass whether that impact if negative, positive, or insignificant. My hope, is that as I sift through the steps to collect the data, ask the question, and analyze the results that I’ll have not only the quantitative skill set to tease out the truth, but the ecological acumen to interpret it in a meaningful way.
But I digress.
Before I can dive into these complicated questions I wanted to ask a simple one. Are non-song calls stable over time? Over the past eight years I’ve had the good fortune of collaborating with an increasing number of marine mammalogists. From these collaborations (and my own field work) I was able to compile a data set of non-song vocalizations in Southeast Alaska that span from 1976 to 2015. Using some simple methods (looking, listening), and some slightly more complicated statistical methods (see my previous publication here) I was able to say definitively that, yes, these calls are stable over time.
Further, I was able to demonstrate that they are stable in different ways. While nearly all described call types were detected across the data set some calls were infrequently used but highly stereotyped, in that their acoustic parameters (pitch, duration, bandwidth, etc.) changed very little over time. Other calls were highly variable, but persistent; meaning that while there was more variability in the acoustic parameters (i.e. some were higher in pitch, or had wider bandwidths) the call type was extremely common throughout all four decades of the study. I proposed that this difference – persistence versus stereotypy – may imply something different about the function of the call.
One of the elements of this study that I love, is its simplicity. While certainly the study is rigorous – many thousands of hours of recordings were sifted through, calls measured and extracted, and a three-part classification method was used to reduce observer bias in determining call types – the study in its most basic form is about listening for something consistent over time… and finding it.
One of my first ecology professors are the University of Alaska once told me, good science should be elegant. I don’t know if my study fits this criteria or not but at the very least it was well received at the conference. Admittedly, this may be in part to a fairly substantial technical snafu that forced me to make a somewhat ridiculous public speaking choice on the day of the talk. On my third slide I have a series of recordings of non-song vocalizations that I intended to play for the audience. When I tapped the ‘play’ button of the first sound… nothing happened. So I swallowed my pride and my humility opened my mouth and imitated the four sounds; the fourth sound is a feeding call that you can listen to below.( I’m closing my eyes and reliving the pounding heart experience of producing this sound to an audience of 200 of my most impressive peers… remember those butterflies I mentioned earlier?).
By the time I’d finished, the audience was clapping (I think there may have been a few hoots out there as well), and my already rosy cheeks were a deep shade of red. But the show must go on (I was only in the introduction after all). I finished my talk with time for questions and applause. I was rewarded with multiple collaboration meetings, a few good laughs (Ocean Alliance’s Andy Rogan even bought me a beer), and an award from the Society itself… for best doctoral presentation.
(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.
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.
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.”
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.
First, let me apologize for being a little late with this post. I generally post the second Friday of every month; It’s Tuesday. One of the reasons I’m late is because I flew back to my hometown in Birmingham, Alabama as an invited teacher at the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School. I had the privilege of running three lessons on whale communication for students ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade. Admittedly they kept me on my toes! Spending time with children is exciting and inspiring.
We did a number of activities to demonstrate how marine mammals use sound to communicate. Students were given a small shaker containing one of four materials (hazelnuts, tacks, aduki beans, or rice) and they had to use their ears alone to find their “pods”. We had fin whales, humpback whales, killer whales, and beluga whales. Each pod was then given a ribbon the length of their whale to stretch out across the activity room. Even I was impressed with how big a fin whale really is.
For the older groups we talked about the relationship between size and pitch (frequency), learned how to read spectrograms, and I introduced the concept of masking and noise pollution by playing a series of whale calls and adding vessel noise. For the kindergartners and first graders, however, it seemed more appropriate to introduce the concept of sound in the ocean with a story. I re-purposed a true story about a killer whale from Puget Sound named Springer who was separated from, and later reunited with her pod. In real life recordings were made of Springer’s vocalizations to help identify which pod she belonged to. In the story below, Springer uses her family whistle to try and re-connect, and she meets a number of other whales along the way. On each page I was able to play recordings of the animals in the pictures, so my young students could hear the actual voices of the animals. Enjoy!
This is Springer. She is a killer whale calf. She was named Springer because she is a very active calf and springs about in the water.
Springer, like all killer whales, lives with her mother and relatives. All of the killer whales in her pod make similar sounds called whistles. Can you whistle like a killer whale? We-ooo.
One day, Springer was seperated from her family. She went into the ocean to find them. The first animal she met was a fin whale. She whistled “we-ooo”. The fin whale sang back “oomp-oomp”. “That’s not my family’s whistle”, Springer thought, and she said goodbye.
The next animal she met was a sperm whale. She whistled “we-ooo”. The sperm whale clicked back “tick-tick-buzzz”. “That’s not my family’s whistle”, Springer thought, and she said goodbye.
The next animals she met were a pod of beluga whales. She whistled “we-ooo”. The beluga whales chirped back “we-eer”. “That’s not my family’s whistle”, Springer thought, and she said goodbye.
The next animal she met was a humpback whale. She whistled “we-ooo”. The humpback purred back “purrr”. “That’s not my family’s whistle”, Springer thought, and she said goodbye.
With all of the songs, clicks, chirps, and purrs the ocean was a very noisy place! If only one of those noises was her family’s whistle! Then, far in the distance Springer heard someone call “we-ooo”.
Springer swam as fast as she could and there was her family. Springer knew she had found them because as soon as she got close her mother whale called out “we-ooo”. “We-ooo”, Springer responded, and she has stayed with her family ever since.