Keeping up with the HALO project: Recovering Rockhopper acoustic recording units and eavesdropping on Northern right whale dolphins

Marissa Garcia, PhD Student, Cornell University, Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics

It was a June morning on the Pacific Ocean, and the R/V Pacific Storm had come to a halt on its journey back to shore. The night before, the Holistic Assessment of Living marine resources off Oregon (HALO) project team had disembarked from Newport and began the long transit to NH 65, a site 65 nautical miles offshore along the Newport Hydrographic line (NH line). Ever since the 1960s, researchers have been conducting oceanographic studies along the NH line; the HALO project seeks to add the biological dimension to these historical data collections.

We were on a mission to recover our first set of Rockhoppers that we had deployed in October 2021, just nine months earlier. The Rockhopper is an underwater passive acoustic recording unit developed by K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics at Cornell University. Earlier versions of underwater recorders were optimized to record baleen whales. By contrast, the Rockhopper is designed to record both baleen whales and dolphins on longer and deeper deployments, making it apt for research endeavors such as the HALO project. Three units, deployed at NH 25, 45, and 65, continuously recorded the soundscape of the Oregon waters for six months. In June, we were headed out to sea to recover these three units, collect the acoustic data, and deploy three new units.

Figure 1: The HALO project routinely surveys the trackline spanning between NH 25 and NH 65 on the NH line. Credit: Leigh Torres.

With the ship paused, our first task was to recover the Rockhopper we had deployed at NH 65. This Rockhopper deployment at NH 65 was our deepest successful deployment to date, moored at nearly 3,000 m.

So, how does one recover an underwater recording unit that is nearly 3,000 m below the surface? When the Rockhopper was deployed, it was anchored to the seafloor with a 60 kg cast iron anchor. It seems improbable that an underwater recording unit — anchored by such heavy weights — can eventually rise to the surface, but this capability is made possible through a piece of attached equipment called the acoustic release. By sending a signal of a numbered code from a box on the boat deck through the water column to the Rockhopper, the bottom of the acoustic release will begin to spin and detach from the weights. The weights are then left on the seafloor, as the Rockhopper slowly rises to the surface, now unhindered by the weights. Since these weights are composed of iron, they will naturally erode, without additional pollution contributed to the ecosystem. At NH 65, it took approximately an hour for the Rockhopper to reach the surface.

Figure 2: A diagram of the Rockhopper mooring. Of particular importance to this blog post is the acoustic release (Edgtech PORT MFE release) and the 60 kg anchor (Source: Klinck et al., 2020).

The next challenge is finding the Rockhopper bobbing amongst the waves in the vast ocean — much like searching for a needle in a haystack. The color of the Rockhopper helps aid in this quest. It’s imperative anyone out on the boat deck wears a life jacket; if someone goes overboard while wearing a life-jacket, on-board passengers can more easily spot a bright orange spot in an otherwise blue-green ocean with white caps. The design of the Rockhopper functions similarly; the unit is contained in a bright orange hard hat, helping researchers on-board to more easily spot the device, especially in an ocean often characterized by high sea state.

We also use a Yagi antenna to listen for the VHF (Very High Frequency) signal of the recovery gear, a signal the Rockhopper emits once it’s surfaced above the waterline. Pointing the antenna toward the ocean, we can detect the signal, which will become stronger when we point antenna in the direction of the Rockhopper; once we hear that strong signal, we can recommend to the boat captain to start moving the vessel in that direction.

Figure 3: Derek Jaskula, a member of the field operations team at the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics, points the Yagi antenna to detect the signal from the surfaced Rockhopper. Credit: Marissa Garcia.

At that point, all eyes are on the water, binoculars scanning the horizon for the orange. All ears are eager for the exciting news: “I see the Rockhopper!”

Once that announcement is made, the vessel carefully inches toward the Rockhopper until it is just next to the vessel’s side. Using a hook, the Rockhopper is pulled upward and back onto the deck.

What we weren’t expecting, however, during this recovery was to have our boat surrounded by two dolphin species: Pacific white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens) and Northern right whale dolphins (Lissodelphis borealis).

One HALO team member shouted, “I see Northern right whale dolphins!”

Charged with excitement, I quickly climbed up the crow’s nest to get a birds-eye look at the ocean bubbling around us with surfacing dolphins. Surely enough, I spotted the characteristic stripe of the Pacific-white sided dolphins zooming beneath the surface, in streaks of white. But what I was even more eager to see were the Northern right whale dolphins, flipping themselves out of the water, unveiling their bright white undersides. Because they lack dorsal fins, we on-board colloquially refer to Northern right whale dolphins as “sea slugs” to describe their appearance as they surface.

Figure 4: The Northern right whale dolphin (Lissodelphis borealis) surfaces during a HALO cruise. Source: HALO Project Team Member. Permit: NOAA/NMFS permit #21678.

In my analysis of the HALO project data for my PhD, I am interested in using acoustics to describe how the distribution of dolphins and toothed whales in Oregon waters varies across space and time. One species I am especially fascinated to study in-depth is the Northern right whale dolphin. To my knowledge, only three papers to date have attempted to describe their acoustics — two of which were published in the 1970s, and the most recent of which was published fifteen years ago (Fish & Turl, 1976; Leatherwood & Walker, 1979; Rankin et al., 2007).

Leatherwood & Walker (1979) proposed that Northern right whale dolphins produced two categories of whistles: a high frequency whistle that turned into burst-pulse vocalizations, and low frequency whistles. However, Rankin et al. (2007) proposed that Northern right whale dolphins may not actually produce whistles, based on two lines of evidence. First, Rankin et al. (2007) combined visual and acoustic survey, and all vocalizations recorded were localized via beamforming methods to verify that recorded vocalizations were produced by the visually observed dolphins. The visual surveying component is key to validating the vocalizations of the species, which also hints that the HALO project’s multi-surveying approach (acoustic and visual) could help arrive at similar results. Second, the Rankin et al. (2007) explored the taxonomy of the Northern right whale dolphin to verify which vocalizations the species is likely to produce based on the vocal repertoire of its close relatives. The right whale dolphin is closely related to dolphins in the genus Lagenorhynchus — which includes white-sided dolphins — and Cephalorhynchus — which includes Hector’s dolphin. The vocal repertoire of these relatives don’t produce whistles, and instead predominantly produced pulsed sounds or clicks (Dawson, 1991; Herman & Tavolga, 1980). Northern right whale dolphins primarily produce echolocation clicks trains and burst-pulses. Although Rankin et al. (2007) claims that the Northern right whale dolphin does not produce whistles, stereotyped burst-pulse series may be unique to individuals, just as dolphin species use stereotyped signature whistles, or they may be relationally shared just as discrete calls of killer whales are.

Figure 5: The Northern right whale dolphin (Lissodelphis borealis) produces burst-pulses. There exists variation in series of burst-pulses. The units marked by (a) and (b) ultimately get replaced by the unit marked by (c). (Source: Rankin et al., 2007).

We have just finished processing the first round of acoustic data for the HALO project, and it is ready now for analysis. Already previewing an hour of data on the Rockhopper by NH 25, we identified potential Northern right whale dolphin recordings . So far, we have only visually observed Northern right whale dolphins nearby Rockhopper units placed at sites NH 65 and NH 45, so it was surprising to acoustically detect this species on the most inshore unit at NH 25. I look forward to demystifying the mystery of Northern right whale dolphin vocalizations as our research on the HALO project continues!

Figure 6: Potential Northern right whale dolphin vocalizations recorded at the Rockhopper deployed at NH 25.

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Dawson, S. (1991). Clicks and Communication: The Behavioural and Social Contexts of Hector’s Dolphin Vocalizations. Ethology, 88(4), 265–276.

Fish, J. F. & Turl, C. W. (1976). Acoustic Source Levels of Four Species of Small Whales.

Herman, L. M., and Tavolga, W. N. (1980). “The communication systems of cetaceans,” in Cetacean behavior: Mechanisms and functions, edited by L. M. Herman (Wiley, New York), 149–209.

Klinck, H., Winiarski, D., Mack, R. C., Tessaglia-Hymes, C. T., Ponirakis, D. W., Dugan, P. J., Jones, C., & Matsumoto, H. (2020). The Rockhopper: a compact and extensible marine autonomous passive acoustic recording system. Global Oceans 2020: Singapore – U.S. Gulf Coast, 1–7.

Leatherwood, S., and Walker, W. A. (1979). “The northern right whale dolphin Lissodelphis borealis Peale in the eastern North Pacific,” in Behavior of marine animals, Vol. 3: Cetaceans, edited by H. E. Winn and B. L. Olla (Plenum, New York), 85–141.

Rankin, S., Oswald, J., Barlow, J., & Lammers, M. (2007). Patterned burst-pulse vocalizations of the northern right whale dolphin, Lissodelphis borealis. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 121(2), 1213–1218.

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