A new hat

A few weeks ago I went to a small luncheon in Corvallis; it was there that I received, as a gift, a new hat.  It’s a blue baseball cap with the words “Oregon Sea Grant” across the front.  As you know, baseball caps are particularly well suited to a number of uses: (1) Baseball playing, (2)  Keeping the sun out of one’s eyes , and (3) Keeping the rain off of one’s face.  Tomorrow when I head out on the ocean my brand new Oregon Sea Grant baseball cap is going to take a beating… and I won’t be playing baseball.

My name is Michelle Fournet.  I’m a PhD student in Oregon State University’s department of Fisheries and Wildlife, and a proud recipient of a 2013 Robert E. Malouf Fellowship.  My lab, the Oregon State Research Collective for Applied Acoustics, or ORCAA for short, uses sound (acoustics) to study marine organisms.  My research in particular is centered around the cetacean species that inhabit Oregon’s near coastal oceans.  The order Cetacea includes whales, dolphins, and porpoise- and we have many of them here in Oregon.  How many exactly? We’re not yet sure.

Part of my PhD research is aimed at identifying what cetacean species regularly use Oregon’ near coastal ocean, and when they seem to be here.  To answer this question I’m taking a two prong approach that, at first glance, sounds a lot simpler than it really is:  I’m going to look for them and I’m going to listen for them.

I’m conducting visual surveys along Oregon’s continental shelf with a team of observers, binoculars, float coats, and cameras.  We’re hopping on board with other labs as they take cruises to collect biological and oceanographic data out of Newport Oregon.  We perch ourselves on the bow of OSU’s R/V Elakha and spot whales, dolphins, and porpoise whenever the vessel is underway- rain or shine, wind and waves, if the boat goes out we try and get on it!  We’re using a line transect sampling protocol and hope to be incorporating photo identification into the project.  Both of these methods allow us to ultimately identify what species are present and to calculate species abundance.  If we are able to sample throughout the year we can also address questions about seasonal and diel variability, ask questions about larger scale processes, and paint a more comprehensive picture of our whale, dolphin, and porpoise communities.

This is only part of the method, however.  While looking from the bow of the boat can be a very effective method for documenting mammals, porpoises and dolphins can be difficult to spot under even the best conditions.  To compliment our visual surveys we have plans to launch multiple hydro-acoustic platforms that will record oceans sounds for analysis.  Cetaceans are highly vocal.  Baleen whale species produce some of the loudest calls on the planet, that may be capable of traveling across ocean basins.  Odontocete species utilize echolocation for navigation and foraging, and produce whistles under various social situations. However, high frequency odontocete calls may only be detected in the range of meters, and low-frequency baleen whale calls may be masked by anthropogenic or ocean noise.  What we have in the wings, is a few technologies that will help us work around these problems to get clear recordings of cetacean vocalizations.

Our hope is that the combination of the two methods will yield sufficient data to form a comprehensive understanding of who is really out there.  Why do we want to know?  Well… I’d love to tell you all about it (and I’m sure I will in my next post!).  But for now, I have a rainy  boat ride to prepare for, and I need to find my hat.