In her poem “What we want” Mary Oliver writes:
In a poem
but even more
they want something
easy to swallow—
not unlike a suddenly
in an otherwise
difficult and sometimes dissonant
even if it is only
for the moment
of hearing it.
This has become both one of my favorite poems, and my favorite concepts: the inexplicable made plain. Oliver writes of poetry, but isn’t this (shouldn’t this) be the goal of science as well?
Science is complicated; but only in so much as we strive to dissect parts of the natural world independently, and often fail to put the pieces back together again. It is in the putting back together that we ‘make plain’ the essence of nature, where we as storytellers are obligated to share with the world what we have uncovered. It is what I strive to do in my work professionally, and personally.
So, with that prelude, I invite you all to attend (virtually or in the flesh) my dissertation defense. On almost exactly the ten year anniversary of when I began studying humpback whales in Southeast Alaska I will present my doctoral dissertation. It will be technical (for me to pass it must be), but I will also make every effort to tell the story of my work once I have explained the pieces.
After? We will celebrate. I will hike with my pups (as I do most days). I will begin a new story…. but more on that to come.
It’s been some time in the making, but after months in the rain, and hours in the cold (not to mention a roller coaster of a relationship with statistics, which I’m pleased to report ended in a happy marriage) a few of our humpback whale research projects can be marked complete.
Last week we published two short manuscripts on the calling behavior of Southeast Alaskan humpback whales. Note that I said “calling-behavior”… not “social calling behavior” or “non-song calling behavior.” Now why might that be?
While the field of marine bioacoustics is vast, the number of people who have research programs dedicated to humpback whale vocalizations that aren’t song is relatively small (growing, but small). The first publication came out in the 1980’s by Dr. Greg Silber, who recorded a suite of vocalizations in groups of competitive male humpbacks on breeding grounds. Thus the term “social call” was born.
The running definition of a social call, however, has always been “a vocalizations produced independently of the structure of song”. Bearing this in mind several researchers, including myself, adopted the term “non-song vocalization”, to more specifically describe the vocalizations.
Here’s the rub… as it turns out these independent vocalizations sometimes pop-up as song units (As Bec Dunlop and Mindy Rekdahl have taught us) and as we recently discovered these vocalizations definitely aren’t always social.
In one of our new publications we describe how humpback whales in Southeast Alaska produce feeding calls, even when they are foraging alone. This call, we propose, is a prey manipulation call, and doesn’t always occur in social situations. In our second publication we demonstrate that when humpbacks in Southeast Alaska produce vocalizations in Alaska, they are doing so quietly. Which may indicate that they are intentionally restricting their audience (think whispering into someone’s ear versus yelling across the room). So while these calls almost certainly facilitate interactions between individuals humpbacks, they aren’t as widely broadcast as say… song (if Alaskan whales whisper, Hawaiian whales scream).
So what do we call these sometimes-social-sometimes-NOT-social-usually-not-song-unit-vocalizations?
I think we should refer to them as calls.
The use of the term ‘calls’ to encompass any short vocal unit that doesn’t occur in a song structure is well established in the animal communication literature (birds, frogs, primates). The term covers all manner of sins, and can be qualified (alarm call, flight call) to increase the specificity.
So, without further ado, let me introduce this borrowed lexicon into the marine mammal literature with this publication:
Let’s increase the specificity just a bit with:
When I was 21 years old and backpacking through Central America I met a man named Paul North at a dive shop. For a few precious weeks we shared an underwater community, diving among friends on the coral reefs of Utila, Honduras. We became friends, we talked theatre and fish (we were both studying playwriting at the time), swam in the wine dark sea and parted ways.
Ten years later I receive an email from Mr. North. His path and mine had converged again, this time over a shared love for science, communication, and most importantly the ocean.
Paul is now the director of a non-profit organization called Meet the Ocean ,dedicated to educating the public on the importance of the saltwaters of our planet. At the heart of the organization is a combination of storytelling and science used to combat environmental apathy. He invited me to join the team as their resident acoustic ecologist. He remembered the version of me from my early 20’s that was dedicated to telling stories, and honored the me now who has committed my life to acoustic ecology. I accepted his invitation, honoring also this new version of him.
Well, Paul and the Meet the Ocean team have just released their 8th podcast, this time focused on the Alaska Whale Foundation, where I am a Research Associate. I listened to the podcast today, and immediately wanted to share it. Not only because I’m featured (listen for a tutorial on acoustic ecology), but because it’s really nicely done. I encourage you to listen and share the podcast as well. It paints a picture (using sound) of what our organization is like, how we got here, and why what we do is so important.
If you like what you hear, please don’t hesitate to donate. Meet the Ocean is just getting off the ground, and it means a lot to us.
During my master’s degree I remember a professor saying that oceanographers’ prided themselves on sinking heavy expensive equipment to the bottom of the ocean. In my second year as a wildlife science PhD student I began my fieldwork in Glacier Bay National Park in Southeast Alaska; we dropped four 700 lb hydrophones from the decks of a 78 foot landing craft into the mighty Alaskan Pacific. They would spend over 8,000 hours listening for the sounds of humpback whales, harbor seals, and vessels. Lowering them overboard I felt a combined sense of pride and dread. Pride at having mounted such a large project, and dread imaging that (1) we may never recover these (practically) priceless instruments, and (2) that I may be mastering technology that, as an acoustic ecologist, I would never again be able to afford.
To accomplish the goals of my PhD, I needed these instruments. My advisor, Dr. Holger Klinck, and I meticulously crafted a list of needs and wants of my project. If I wanted to understand how humpback whales responded to vessel noise in Glacier Bay, these were the right tool for the job.
But throughout my graduate career I’ve been hopeful that this level of technological sophistication needed to answer my research questions might be found in a simpler (less expensive) package.
I am a believer in simplicity; the philosopher in me wonders if it is the science with the smallest footprint that has the potential for the greatest impact. Do we truly need a landing craft? Or can we use a kayak? Do we need a chase boat or is there an ideal viewing platform just up these stairs? If we dedicate our creative ecological minds, can we cultivate rigorous scientific studies that leave no trace, burn no fuel, and simultaneously help our human-selves to flourish?
I’ve just returned from Glacier Bay National Park were I can happily report that my investigation of humpback whale non-song vocal behavior is going strong. My fieldwork this year, in stark contrast to 2015 and 2016, has been unusually simple. Using two small in-air recording devices known as “Swifts”, a GPS, and a kayak I mounted an investigation into the aerial vocal behavior of North Pacific humpback whales (that’s right, sounds produced in air). The instruments were deployed on two islands in Glacier Bay National Park; my research associate and I reached the islands just before sunset.
Swift units are small, can be deployed long term in this rain forest environment, and capture a wide range of sounds. I am hoping to record the booms, trumpets, and purrs, that humpback whales produce in Alaska’s near shore environment. This study is a first step toward understanding if these sounds are vocalizations which serve a communicative function, or whether they are a byproduct of physical exertion which may inadvertently signal something about a callers activity or motivational state. Acoustic ecology is a complex field, made simpler by the use of equipment that is (1) sturdy, (2) small, (3) portable, and (4) affordable.
Similar to when we deployed our hydrophone array in 2015, I feel a sense of pride in this low-tech field season. Without the use of a motorized vessel, with very little money, and with an abundance of beauty (and health!) we began an investigation of ecological merit. Will we see a return on our efforts? That remains to be seen; I cannot, after all control the whale. I am confident, however, that we are using the right tool for the job.