The Right Tool for the Job

By Michelle Fournet. August 15, 2017
Alaskan humpbacks produce aerial sounds through their blowholes. Some sound wheezy and airy; others sound deep like a French horn.

Acoustic ecology is a complex field, made simpler by the use of equipment that is (1) sturdy, (2) small, (3) portable, and (4) affordable. 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 deck of a 78-foot landing craft into the mighty Alaskan Pacific. The hydrophones 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 imagining 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.

This was my way of saying goodbye to the hydrophones that I’d spent so many months preparing. I openly admit that I love these instruments; I do not believe they reciprocate.

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 tools for the job.

But throughout my graduate career, I’ve been hopeful that the 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?

Yes.

En route to one of the unnamed islands in Glacier Bay to deploy an acoustic recorder. This is fieldwork at its absolute finest.
One of Cornell’s Swift recorders (camouflaged) attached to a young Sitka spruce in Glacier Bay.

I’ve just returned from Glacier Bay National Park where 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 for a long duration 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 that serve a communicative function, or whether they are a byproduct of physical exertion that may inadvertently signal something about a caller’s activity or motivational state.

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.