By Marissa Garcia, PhD Student, Cornell University, Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics
In October 1972, the tides turned for U.S. environmental politics: the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) was passed. Its creation ushered in a new flavor of conservation and management. With phrases like “optimum sustainable population” baked into its statutory language, it marked among the first times that ecosystem-based management — an approach which directly calls upon knowledge of ecology to inform action — was required by law (Ray and Potter 2022). Transitioning from reductionist, species-siloed policies, the MMPA instead placed the interdependency of species at the core of ecosystem function and management.
Beyond deepening the role of science on Capitol Hill, the MMPA’s greatest influence may have been spurred by the language that prohibited “the taking and importation of marine mammals” (16 U.S.C. 1361). Because the word “taking” is multivalent, it carries on its back many interpretations. “Taking” a marine mammal is not limited to intentionally hunting or killing them, or even accidental bycatch. “Taking” also includes carelessly operating a boat when a marine mammal is present, feeding a marine mammal in the wild, or tagging a marine mammal without the appropriate scientific permit. “Taking” a marine mammal can also extend to the fatal consequences caused by noise pollution — not intent, but incident (16 U.S.C. 1362).
The latter circumstances remain reverberant for the U.S. Navy. To comply with the MMPA, they are granted “incidental, but not intentional, taking of small numbers of marine mammals….[when] engag[ing] in a specified activity (other than commercial fishing)” (87 FR 33113). So, if the sonar activities required for national security exercises adversely impact marine mammals, the Navy has a bit of leeway but is still expected to minimize this impact. To further mitigate this potential harm, the Navy thus invests heavily in marine mammal research. (If you are interested in learning more about how the Navy has influenced the trajectory of oceanographic research more broadly, you may find this book interesting.)
Beaked whales are an example of a marine mammal we know much about due to the MMPA’s call for research when incidental take occurs. Three decades ago, many beaked whales stranded ashore following a series of U.S. Navy sonar exercises. Since then, the Navy has flooded research dollars toward better understanding beaked whale hearing, vocal behavior, and movements (e.g., Klinck et al. 2012). Through these efforts, a deluge of research charged with developing effective tools to acoustically monitor and conserve beaked whales has emerged.
These studies have laid the foundation for my Ph.D. research, which is dedicated to the Holistic Assessment of Living marine resources off Oregon (HALO) project. Through both visual and acoustic surveys, the HALO project’s mission is to understand how changes in ocean conditions — driven by global climate change — influence living marine resources in Oregon waters.
In my research specifically, I aim to learn more about beaked whales off the Oregon coast. Beaked whales represent nearly a fourth of cetacean species alive today, with at least 21 species recorded to date (Roman et al. 2013). Even so, 90% of beaked whales are considered data deficient: we lack enough information about them to confidently describe the state of their populations or decide upon effective conservation action.
Much remains to be learned about beaked whales, and I aim to do so by eavesdropping on them. By referring to the “acoustic repertoire” of beaked whales — that is, their vocalizations and corresponding behaviors — I aim to tease out their vocalizations from the broader ocean soundscape and understand how their presence in Oregon waters varies over time.
Beaked whales are notoriously cryptic, elusive to many visual survey efforts like those aboard HALO cruises. In fact, some species have only been identified via carcasses that have washed ashore (Moore and Barlow 2013). Acoustic studies have elucidated ecological information (beaked whales forage at night at seamounts summits; Johnston et al. 2008) and have also introduced promising population-level monitoring efforts (beaked whales have been acoustically detected in areas with a historical scarcity of sightings; Kowarski et al. 2018). Their deep-diving nature often renders them inconspicuous, and they forage at depths between 1,000 and 2,000 m, on dives as long as 90 minutes (Moore and Barlow 2013; Klinck et al. 2012). Their echolocation clicks are produced at frequencies within the hearing range of killer whales, and previous studies have suggested that Blainville’s beaked whales are only vocally active during deep foraging dives and not at the surface, possibly to prevent being acoustically detected by predatory killer whales. Researchers refer to this phenomenon as “acoustic crypsis,” or when vocally-active marine mammals are strategically silent to avoid being found by potential predators (Aguilar de Soto et al. 2012).
We expect to see evidence of Blainville’s beaked whales in Oregon waters, as well as Baird’s, Cuvier’s, Stejneger’s, Hubb’s, and other beaked whale species. Species-specific echolocation clicks were comprehensively described a decade ago in Baumann-Pickering et al. 2013 (Figure 1). While this study laid the groundwork for species-level beaked whale acoustic detection, much more work is still needed to describe their acoustic repertoire with higher resolution detail. For example, though Hubb’s beaked whales live in Oregon waters, their vocal behavior remains scantly defined.
The HALO project seeks to add a biological dimension to the historical oceanographic studies conducted along the Newport Hydrographic (NH) line ever since the 1960s (Figure 2). Rockhopper acoustic recording units are deployed at sites NH 25, NH 45, and NH 65. The Rockhopper located at site NH 65 is actively recording on the seafloor about 2,800 m below the surface. Because beaked whales tend to be most vocally active at these deep depths, we will first dive into the acoustic data on NH 65, our deepest unit, in hopes of finding beaked whale recordings there.
Beaked whales’ acoustic repertoire can be broadly split into four primary categories: burst pulses (aka “search clicks”), whistles, buzz clicks, and rasps. Beaked whale search clicks, which are regarded as burst pulses when produced in succession, have distinct qualities: their upswept frequency modulation (meaning the frequency gets higher within the click), their long duration especially when compared to other delphinid clicks, and a consistent interpulse interval which is the time of silence between signals (Baumann-Pickering et al. 2013). Acoustic analysts can identify different species based on how the frequency changes in different burst pulse sequences (Baumann-Pickering et al. 2013; Figure 1). For this reason, when I conduct my HALO analyses, I intend to automatically detect beaked whale species using burst pulses, as they are the best documented beaked whale signal, with unique signatures for each species.
In the landscape of beaked whale acoustics, the acoustic repertoire of Blainville’s beaked whales (Mesoplodon densirostris) — a species of focus in my HALO analyses — is especially well defined. Blainville’s beaked whale whistles have been recorded up to 900 m deep, representing the deepest whistle recorded for any marine mammal to date in the literature (Aguilar de Soto et al. 2012). While Blainville’s beaked whales only spend 40% of their time at depths below 170 m, two key vocalizations occur at these depths: whistles and rasps. While they remain surprisingly silent near the surface, beaked whales produce whistles and rasps at depths up to 900 m. The beaked whales dive together in synchrony, and right before they separate from each other, they produce the most whistles and rasps, further indicating that these vocalizations are used to enhance foraging success (Aguilar de Soto et al. 2006). As beaked whales transition to foraging on their own, they predominantly produce frequently modulated clicks and buzzes. Beaked whales produce buzzes in the final stages of prey capture to receive up-to-date information about their prey’s location. The buzzes’ high repetition enables the whale to achieve 300+ updates on their intended prey’s location in the last 3 m before seizing their feast (Johnson et al. 2006; Figure 3).
All of this knowledge about beaked whale acoustics can be linked back to the MMPA, which has also achieved broader success. Since the MMPA’s implementation, marine mammal population numbers have risen across the board. For marine mammal populations with sufficient data, approximately 65% of these stocks are increasing and 17% are stable (Roman et al. 2013).
Nevertheless, perhaps much of the MMPA’s true success lies in the research it has indirectly fueled, by virtue of the required compliance of governmental bodies such as the U.S. Navy. And the response has proven to be a boon to knowledge: if the U.S. Navy has been the benefactor of marine mammal research, beaked whale acoustics has certainly been the beneficiary. We hope the beaked whale acoustic analyses stemming from the HALO Project can further this expanse of what we know.
Aguilar de Soto, N., Madsen, P. T., Tyack, P., Arranz, P., Marrero, J., Fais, A., Revelli, E., & Johnson, M. (2012). No shallow talk: Cryptic strategy in the vocal communication of Blainville’s beaked whales. Marine Mammal Science, 28(2), E75–E92. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-7692.2011.00495.x
Baumann-Pickering, S., McDonald, M. A., Simonis, A. E., Solsona Berga, A., Merkens, K. P. B., Oleson, E. M., Roch, M. A., Wiggins, S. M., Rankin, S., Yack, T. M., & Hildebrand, J. A. (2013). Species-specific beaked whale echolocation signals. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 134(3), 2293–2301. https://doi.org/10.1121/1.4817832
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Johnson, M., Madsen, P. T., Zimmer, W. M. X., de Soto, N. A., & Tyack, P. L. (2006). Foraging Blainville’s beaked whales (Mesoplodon densirostris) produce distinct click types matched to different phases of echolocation. Journal of Experimental Biology, 209(Pt 24), 5038–5050. https://doi.org/10.1242/jeb.02596
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Kowarski, K., Delarue, J., Martin, B., O’Brien, J., Meade, R., Ó Cadhla, O., & Berrow, S. (2018). Signals from the deep: Spatial and temporal acoustic occurrence of beaked whales off western Ireland. PloS One, 13(6), e0199431–e0199431. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0199431
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Roman, J., Altman, I., Dunphy-Daly, M. M., Campbell, C., Jasny, M., & Read, A. J. (2013). The Marine Mammal Protection Act at 40: status, recovery, and future of U.S. marine mammals. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1286(1), 29–49. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.12040