Threshold Shift Episode IV: Whales

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Sat, 12/29/2018 - 12:00am to 3:00am
A humpback whale breaches in Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska, USA
Where we give the mic to nature and amplify Earth

Hello and welcome back to Threshold Shift on KBOO 90.7 FM Portland. I am your host Nicole Martin. A lot has happened since our September show featuring the work of recordist Bill McQuay and researcher Dr. Laurel Symes. We had a very successful KBOO 50th Anniversary live event, Hear and There: Audio Postcards from Earth, at the OMSI Planetarium featuring surround sound field recordings and starscapes that matched them. Thank you to everyone who attended and supported that project and keep your ears open for additional collaborations in the future. I know we promised the ever-elusive long-form ultrasonics of the bats and katydids for this evening's feature, but the vagaries of time and circumstance have led us down a slightly different path. Never fear! Those ultrasonics will be featured in their full glory during the March 2019 episode of Threshold Shift along with some new recordings that Bill will be collecting in Panama this coming January.

So instead tonight, we will be honoring winter and the Solstice, plumbing the depths of oceanic darkness for songs to bring to the light. Tonight we will be focusing on humpback whales: their songs, their habitats and the researchers who get to spend time with them, bobbing about the surface in their small boats, hoping to make contact with these incredible co-habitants of our planet. We'll start at the beginning, which is to say in the 1960's when  to our knowledge whale song was first recorded. I'll let Katy Payne, co-researcher with Roger Payne, tell you how it happened. The following is an excerpt of an interview with Ms. Payne conducted by NPR's Christopher Joyce and Eco Location Sound's Bill McQuay for the NPR series Close Listening: Decoding Nature Through Sound in 2015 at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. From there, we will dive directly into the original recordings made by Frank Watlington while he served with the US Navy in 1964. The full transcription of the interview segments is below the audio stream. All views expressed are personal views based on lived experience.


[Katy Payne interview where she remembers meeting Frank Watlington, where the recordings came from, whale singing behavior and the first time they heard whales sing]

[Long form Recording: 1964, Bermuda, Frank Watlington]

Again we just heard the original 1964 recordings taken by Frank Watlington of humpback whales off Bermuda. These recordings inspired researchers Roger and Katy Payne to begin collecting their own recordings of humpback whales that were then released in 1970 on an album called “Songs of the Humpback Whale.” This album went on to become perhaps “the most famous nature album in American history” according to Cary O'Dell of the Library of Congress. It was this album that helped bring a global awareness to the excesses of the international whaling industry. It became the call to arms to “Save the Whales!” and led to the 1986 global ban on whale hunting passed by the International Whaling Commission. The Payne's research has gone on to inspire numerous other marine biologists. Last week I was lucky enough to have a conversation with one, an OSU alumni and post-doctoral research fellow at Cornell University's Bioacoustics Lab, Dr. Michele Fournet. 

Nikki: I'll just go ahead and let you introduce yourself, Michelle.

Michelle: Sure. Good evening. So I am a postdoctoral research fellow with the Cornell bio acoustics research program. And I am a marine acoustic ecologist by training, which is a bit of a mouthful. So what that means is that I study the sounds of underwater habitats, and I use sound to understand how animals are interacting with each other, and how they're interacting with their environment, and how they're interacting with humans. So how we are changing the underwater soundscape and what that might do to marine organisms. And most of my research has been on marine mammals, although I also do some work with marine fish and am dabbling in a few other areas in underwater acoustics. But predominantly, I study baleen whales, and then more recently, I study pinnipeds so seals and sea lions and things like that. And I am a sub-arctic ecologist, in that most of my work occurs in Southeast Alaska. So for the past 10 years, I've spent nearly every summer in Southeast Alaska, either in Glacier Bay National Park, where I do a great deal of my research or in the Frederick Sound area from a lighthouse known as the Five Finger Lighthouse, where I run a field station or sometimes just on the shoreline sitting, hanging out in Juneau watching things like dolphins and porpoise and killer whales as they do what they do in our community. And so I'm really interested in how animals communicate and what they might be communicating about. And that's somewhat rare for, for resource managers, it's, it's very difficult to understand the behavioral ecology of marine mammals, and it's very logistically and resource intensive. So I feel quite privileged to have fallen on the side of behavioral acoustics. And then I also look very closely at how animals interact with each other underneath changing ocean conditions and look a great deal at anthropogenic noise. So noise from vessels, noise from resource extraction, just generally how humans are changing what it sounds like underwater, and how resilient animals are to those sounds. And so resilience is one of my primary regions of interest. And  I'd say humpback whales, over the past 10 years have been my focal species. So I know more about humpback whales then probably anything else in my entire life. And again, I see that as a great gift that that life has given me to be able to spend so much time with that particular species and spend so much time listening to their actual voices, both in the field and then back in the lab.

Nikki: I think many people would probably agree that that is a really great privilege. It's certainly something I would like to be able to experience myself too. Since you have been working with humpbacks, in particular, I'd kind of like to focus on them a little bit, just as a as a point of reference. I feel like part of the issues with soundscapes is so much, so often the change is very incremental. Actually it's hard for humans to perceive on a general basis. We'll kind of just wake up one day and say, "Oh, that butterfly is gone." But we just don't know when it went away, even though it had maybe been slowly going extinct for 10 years or however long. [...] So just within your own frame of reference, within that decade, are there things that stand out to you that you've noticed, maybe kind of gone like, “Oh, this is different! Either there's more of this or less of that?” What have you noticed in in your time?

Michelle: When I first moved to Southeast Alaska, I moved to Southeast Alaska in 2007, and spent a lot of time on the water and spend a lot of time interacting with whales. And there would be some boats out on the water. We were watching vessels and whatnot that would come specifically to see the humpbacks. And when I was there again, this past summer, there had been, I mean, I think there must be like a five or ten fold increase in the number of boats that are watching whales in Juneau. And on the one hand there, there's a positive, that's good. We want people to interact with these animals and want them to see animals in nature; we want them to have an appreciation for these animals. But there is something a little disturbing when you see one whale that is outnumbered by the number of boats that are watching it; that's trying to forage or trying to go, you know, go about its daily business. And so I'd say in terms of change, that's one of the biggest changes that I've seen over the past 10 years is just the number of vessels that are overlapping with animals in in when they're trying to eat in their in their foraging area. [...]
What I was interested in, in Southeast Alaska, when I saw all these boats around all of these whales, and I was trying to get a handle on how humpback whales are communicating was, what are they saying? Just what are the actual sounds that humpback whales are producing? And so we spent a few years and we cataloged the sounds. And then I had a feeling that like, following these, these sounds would probably change over time. And we should investigate that and sort of have an understanding as to how communication functions at high latitudes. What are the Alaskan whale saying? So I got recordings dating back to 1976, from Dr. Roger Payne. Roger was one of the first people in the world to record whale song with Katy Payne in the 60s. And so he was in Southeast Alaska in 1976. And he sat on this little boat and dropped his hydrophone in the pouring down rain and recorded some whales. And then in 2011, I went to that same lighthouse and I sat in the pouring down rain with a tiny hydrophone and I listened to some whales. And when I compared those recordings, I expected to find that the repertoire of humpback whales had changed over time. And as it turns out, it hadn't. They were using the same sounds in 2011 that they were using in 1976. And when I dropped hydrophones around Glacier Bay in 2015, and 2016, they were using the same sound types in that they were using in 1976. And they use both calls in the 1990s, they use those calls in 2007. And this was really interesting because it was in such strong contrast to what they're doing down on their breeding grounds where they have structured, you know, changing, culturally transmitted vocalizations. And on foraging grounds, one of the reasons why this is so cool, is because they're doing the whole lot more than breeding. And it is kind of refreshing to study animals aren't just trying to reproduce all the time. But also because what we hear in Alaskan whales is the voices of the whole demographic, we're not just listening to male whales, we're listening to females. We're listening to juvenile whales, we're listening to elderly whales, we get a whole swath of the vocal behavior of the population and the fact that they're using the same call types, even though we don't know what those call types of mean, the fact that they've persisted over generational time is an indication that they're really important; that these call types serve some sort of vital a function. And then getting back to my original question, which is, how resilient are humpback whales to noise? Well, if they're producing these calls that have something to do with their survival, then we need to make sure that they're capable of detecting them, that they can continue to communicate.

[Long-form:  Recordings off the coast of Hawai'i taken by Roger and Katy Payne in the 1980s]

We were listening to a compliation of some of the earliest recordings made by researchers Roger and Katy Payne off the coast of the Hawai'i Islands in the 1980s. Again you're listening to Threshold Shift on KBOO 90.7 FM and hearing the voice of Dr. Michele Fournet, a marine biologist with Cornell's Bioacoustic Laboratory,  focusing her research on whale behavior and vocalizations.

Michelle:  So while I expected that humpback whales would be shifting their vocalizations quite a bit,  as it turns out, it's highly possible that some of these vocalizations that they produce in foraging grounds are actually innate, and that they're born with them instead of learning them. So that was really cool. So the thing that changed is that our level of interaction with humpback whales in Alaska is increasing. And the thing that stayed the same was that humpback whales are using a lot of the same sound types to continue interacting with each other. So we interact with them differently, but they seem to be doing pretty good job of maintaining interaction among themselves. 
humpback whales have a really complex communication strategy. So when they're on their subtropical breeding grounds, male humpback whales will sing and they produce this very elaborate long, complex vocalization. It's highly structured, all the males sing the same songs, and every year the song changes. And that's one of the things that makes humpback whales really interesting to study is that they have demonstrated cultural transmission. So they learn the songs, they pass them around, and they shift every year. So all the males will sing the same song, but the song changes. where are these songs produced, and what is driving song production because they arrive on their breeding grounds and their singing, and they sing on their migratory corridor and to certain extent, they also sing on foraging grounds. So humpback whales, at least the North Pacific population, spend most of their time in Alaska, most of their time. Then they migrate down along the coast, and they go down either to Mexico or they go to Hawaii, but they'll start to sing in the fall and winter in Alaska. So if you drop a hydrophone in June or July, you'll, you might hear a humpback whale, but you're not going to hear them singing. If you drop a hydrophone in October or November, all of a sudden, you start to hear this babble, and then boom song. And that song, we're not entirely sure whether or not that's the exact format that the song is going to keep as it moves down the migratory corridor and as it moves down into the Hawaiian Islands, but one of the projects that I'm just now starting to pursue is actually song development and whether or not we can demonstrate we, I'm certain that we can demonstrate innovation in humpback whales. They innovate all the time. But sort of the harder question is, does this equal creativity? And is it instantaneous? Or do they actually develop song the same way that we might in that day sort of craft what works best together, what demonstrates my intelligence or my breath holding the most effective way? Or are male whales in Alaska testing out song on females and then responding to to how the females do or do not seem to prefer certain song types? But by tracking acoustically, by listening to whales, when they're in forging grounds and listening to them through the fall and winter, and then going down and listening some on breeding grounds, we can actually start to understand how humpback whales innovate, how they create, and what is the link between these sounds that we think are innate, that humpback whales in several populations, completely unrelated populations will produce the same sounds types, but in unrelated populations, they produce completely different songs. So what drives this sort of innovation? And does it actually start on a high latitudes? Does it actually start with the whole population? With the females involved, with the juveniles involved? Or is it really just males arrrive on breeding grounds, and boom, they start to sing?"

Nikki:  We're going to stay in the waters off Hawai'i for a little while longer so we can hear the sounds of humpback whales singing around the undersea volcano, Lo'ihi. This recording was captured by the Hawai'i Undersea Geo-Observatory which was operational between 1997-2002. It was an automated submarine volcano observatory placed at the Lo'ihi seamount off the coast of the Big Island of Hawi'i. Its summit likes at a depth of about 1000 meters and its base reaches depths of over 5000 meters (taller than Mount Rainer). We can thank Professor Daniel O'Connor for collecting these and releasing them on a now out-of-print CD back in 2003 called Na Kohola o Lo'ihi, or The Whales of Lo'ihi.This track is Mele o ke Kai Uli (Song of the Deep Dark Sea). If you have a good set of headphones or a subwoofer, now is the time to plug those in or turn that up. You will not want to miss the low end on this track. You'll be able to hear the whales singing in and around the thunderous rumbles of a new island being born.

[Long-form Recording: Mele o ke Kai Uli from Na Kohola o Lo'ihi (2003) produced by Daniel O'Connor from recordings gathered by the University of Hawai'i Manoa's HUGO project between 1997-2002]

Again we just heard Mele o ke Kai Uli from the CD Na Kohola o Lo'ihi, the sounds of an undersea volcano and humpback whales recorded by University of Hawai'i Manoa's HUGO project in 1997. We return now to Dr. Michelle Fournet.

Michelle: One of the things we do know about humpback is that, compared to humans, they're very long lived. And so humpback whales can live to be 100 years old, possibly, and likely, even older. But they mature much earlier than humans do. So if you think about their sort of social interactions, and how they view the world as adult animals, compared to a human may have a much longer sort of a mature sentience than a person does. And this scale with which they interact with their world is much broader than ours, they migrate 3000 miles every six months, they can vocalize over the scales of kilometers, 10s of kilometers, potentially hundreds of kilometers. And, and so everything when you think from the perspective of a humpback, in terms of how they perceive the world needs to be scaled up quite a bit.

Nikki: So they're definitely going to be noticing a lot of the things that people aren't. [...] I think people kind of have this concept of the ocean as just this vast expanse of infinite space. But obviously, it's very, not that. It's bounded by geography  just like everything else. And as you mentioned, the sounds in boats are very loud. And you know from a sound engineers perspective, sound travels really well underwater. And it particularly travels really well under cold water and the frequencies that really like to travel well in anything are low frequencies. So a lot of these mechanical noises, a lot of these vessel noises are all very low end and as you said they're kind of in that same area that the whales have a tendency to communicate in just because, I'm sure given their size, that's their resonating capacity. [...] So are you familiar with conversations happening in the community up there surrounding how, how do we manage this? How do we take the science and then actually craft policy or plan solution? How do we all share the space and be respectful of them, let them do their thing without overwhelming them? Because obviously if we just keep letting the boats build up, eventually the whales are going to go elsewhere, because it's just going to get too noisy and too crowded for them.

Michelle: And that's the question is, what will the response of the whales be to increased noise and where as it's kind of a double edged sword for the whales, right? Because if there's a lot of boats in an area where there's really good prey, is it better to give up communicating so you can eat or do you give eating so you can communicate? Or are there other areas that they can go that hit the sweet spot, that has food and quiet? And all of that is going to depend on on the distribution of boats throughout the region. [...] So Glacier Bay is extremely remote, and there are no roads to get you there. So you cannot drive into Glacier Bay. And most of the visitors who see it will come on cruise ships. And so big, big big boats carrying hundreds, thousands of people who will go through the I think it's 65 miles 75 mile fjord to get up to the glaciers. And then we'll turn around and come back out. And Glacier Bay has a historical population of whales. We've been watching them for a long time, we've been monitoring the population. And in the 80s and the 70s, one of the big concerns was as both come in, we're displacing the whales. We saw a precipitous decline in the number of whales in Glacier National Park. And people said, “This is unacceptable. We have to understand what's driving this decline, and we think it might be noise.” And so the Park Service adopted a long standing monitoring program to say, "Okay, how many boats can come in without blowing out the underwater soundscape?" [...] And so what I found when I did an underwater analysis of sound in this one particular part of Glacier National Park, which is, is generally a non-motorized waterway, you can't take big boats through this area. But I listened in that region for four months in 2015 and four months in 2016 and did a really large scale analysis of that underwater soundscape. And what we found was that twice a day, you get these passages of cruise ships that really are very loud, and they can contribute to the soundscape, but that the passages are discreet. And it happens when the boats go upbay to look at the glaciers and then happens when the cruise ships come back down bay to leave the fjord. And beyond that there are large swaths of time when the soundscape is dominated by natural sounds, like the roars of harbor seals, or you know the clicks and chirps of fish, or the sound of rain and wind. And the reason we get these large, punctuated periods of natural sound has to do with the fact that vessel traffic is regulated. We don't have small boats coming through this area with a high degree of regularity. And we have managed our biggest noise producers. We don't get that outside of the park, you go right outside of the park into an adjacent area and at any given time, you'll have a whole bunch of boats that might be watching a single whale. And if you go just 40 or 50 miles away down, did you know again, we have an unregulated waterways for how many boats are going to be in the water around the whales? So even though we have federal regulations that say, you know, the Marine Mammal Protection Act has guidelines which prevent us from taking boats too close the whales or staying with them too long, this doesn't change, you know, a barge that might be coming through that's hauling gear into Juneau and it's going really slow and it's really loud. Or it doesn't change, you know, the, the three to six cruise ships that pulled into the harbor every day. So there's a cumulative effect of vessel noise in areas that are unmanaged. But then we do have, at least we are attempting to create, some respites with these marine protected areas. But Glacier Bay is unique. I believe, I could be wrong here, but I believe that they are one of the only marine protected areas that has devoted so much time to managing and minimizing noise from vessels. So even though there are several other marine protected areas that have it in their mandate to monitor it the remoteness of Glacier Bay enables us to limit negative interactions in a way that's much harder, say in the Channel Islands Special Marine Sanctuary or in the Stilwell Bay National Marine Sanctuary, where in general, we just have more industry. But I, I really hope that more people will pay attention to the efforts that they're making in places like Glacier Bay. Because I do think with that kind of level of intentional management and adaptive management, management that changes based on the behavior of the whales, that we could have really high exposure to these animals, we could bring 2000 people a day who will see glaciers and interact with whales, and at the same time, we can minimize our acoustic footprint. [...] And we're not gonna get rid of people. People are a part of the ecosystem, we are not separate from our ecosystem, we are in the ecosystem. And if we talk about conservation as if people aren't allowed to be there, well, then we've done exactly that, we have's black and white, it's nature versus man. But humans are a species that interacts with their ecosystem the same way that a humpback whale species interacts with the ecosystem. And so from a management perspective, it's not about taking people out of the equation, it's learning how to build them into the equation in a way where we can, we can balance the scales. And then from from the biologists side, I'm not an engineer, I lack that skill set. But I do have the ability to assess ecosystem resilience. So if I can figure out what the threshold is, for us, interacting with whales in a way that it's not harmful to them, that then gives us a threshold that gives us away of saying, “Okay, well, then, sure, like send boats in twice a day, the whales are fine.” But we do have to understand where those thresholds live, so that we can manage our own behavior so that we can maintain these interactions. And that is such an important mandate and the whole concept of ecosystem based management, not that we are removing ourselves, but that we are finding ways to include ourselves that have positive or neutral impacts on these interactions. One of the things that we hope to do in the coming years is to play sounds of non-species specific, so of non humpback whales, play sounds to them. [...] I don't know how much you know about humpback whales and the concept of empathy. But /there has been some work that has demonstrated that humpback whales likely exhibit empathic behavior empathetic behavior. humpback whales, on several occasions worldwide had been documented intervening with killer whale attacks. So killer whales that are going after pinnipeds, VCs, or sometimes birds and humpback whales will actually put themselves in harm's way to prevent the attack from happening there. I had a really remarkable experience in Southeast Alaska where I was out on a boat watching some whales, and they were by themselves and really far away. That was fun. And, and then I moved to a different location and came across a pod of transact killer whales, who were hunting a stellar sea lions. And the humpbacks at this point, we're nowhere in sight. Not all I could see in terms of marine mammals was this female stellar sea lion in front of me, presumably female, possibly juvenile, and these four killer whales that were attempting to hunt her. And I watched this for about 10 minutes, and then the three animals that I had been watching the three humpback whales that had been miles away appeared. And those three humpback whales stayed with the stellar sea lion for well over an hour, taking turns swimming underneath the sea lion, and lifting the sea lion on their backs, out of the water and creating a barricade between the killer whales and that pinniped, that sea lion. And then the humpback whales would turn on their backs and slap, slap their pectorial fins and actively throw their their flukes and throw their bodies into the direction, in the way of the killer whales in what appeared to be a very clear attempt at at preventing the killer whales from from eating the sea lion. And ultimately the humpback whales were unsuccessful. Ultimately, the killer whales got underneath the humpbacks and managed to attack and successfully attack the sea lion. At which point the humpbacks immediately disbanded from the area. But it was a very long encounter. And there's not a strong reason why a humpback whale would put itself in harm's way for that.

[Long-form Recordings:  Chris Clark, Ocean Voices of the Artic, 1980. 1) Ringed Seal 2) Beluga Whale 3) Bowhead Whale 4) Ice 5) Songs of Bowhead Whales 6) Full Arctic Soundscape]

We just heard several selections from Chris Clark 1980 CD Ocean Voices of the Arctic, including species specific calls for Ringed Seals, Beluga and Bowhead whales, as well as the sounds of the entire Arctic soundscape from when he dropped a hydrophone through the ice. This is KBOO 90.7 FM Portland and you've tuned into Threshold Shift where we are continuing a conversation with whale researcher, Dr. Michelle Fornet of Cornell University. We'll be follow that excerpt up with some of Michelle Fournet's own research recordings taken off the coast of Alaska in 2015.

Nikki: I think people can, can maybe wrap their heads around it that way. These animals are out there living their lives, just like we are and kind of sharing space, sharing the microphone. You know, again, the whole point of this radio experiment that we're working on right now. Kind of continuing the sort of policy management side of things: there's a lot of federal proposals right now to open up the Arctic for more oil exploration. And there is a fierce debate of what the impacts are going to be. And I know that one thing that does actually get talked about a lot because of that black and white thinking, or people aren't really looking at it, or at least reporting it holistically is that one of the concrete things that happens with oil exploration is the seismic exploration where they'll take something and pound into the ocean floor repeatedly as they're, anybody would knock on a wall to find the stud. They're looking through the floor to find these oil pockets, more or less is my vague understanding of it. Yeah, but because, and I've heard the recordings, and I featured it on the website a long time ago, where you can hear these bowhead whales, where it's just maddening...for me just to listen to is this pounding, pounding, pounding your neighbors hammering downstairs constantly, constantly,

Michelle: Days on end, it will go on for days.

Nikki:  Has the work even started on something like seismic exploration?

Michelle: This is such a hard question. And the answer is yes, the work has started. And the results are pretty troubling. So air guns, which is what they use for size of exploration are among the loudest sounds the human can produce. They're extraordinarily loud and sound underwater. low frequency sound, as we've talked about, travels an enormous distance, they can propagate hundreds and potentially thousands of miles. And our understanding of the future impact on seismic on marine organisms is still in its infancy. [...] What we don't know is what the long term effects are. We don't know what the chronic effects of this kind of incredible noise is. And that is something that we we it's really, really important understanding whether or not we're causing long term deafness in marine animals, whether or not we are creating chronic stress in these marine animals, all has potentially population level consequences. If you spend your entire life stressed out, because somebody has been running a jackhammer outside of your apartment, then that is going to reduce both your will to procreate and potentially also your ability because you have these elevated stress hormones. And we know that noise creates stress in certain animals. But in terms of being able to pinpoint what impacts the seismic actually, are we we don't have it nailed down yet. And that's because it's such a complicated question. One of the things that we know and this is I think one of the things from seismic that is extremely troubling is that beyond just making whles less likely to hear for a few hours, seismic has the ability to impact the entire trophic web. So if you were to blast out a bunch of zooplankton and phytoplankton with seismic you actually reduce the bottom of the food chain, you reduce the, you know, abundance and population of plankton in the ocean. And

Nikki:  Can I, can I pause you quickly? When you say, “blast out” does that mean it's actually killing them? Um, or is it just disturbing them?

Michelle:  Yeah. So what it is, is that seismic surveys air guns cause significant mortality. So yes, they, they kill plankton. So for every time that they they put air guns into the ocean, any of these sort of small zooplankton, so the base of  the food chain for all of our major marine predators in the ocean, we reduce the abundance. So we kill big swaths and schools of tiny animals, things like krill, things like any sort of zoea--juvenile animals, larval animals,

Nikki:  Basically acting like an acoustical cannon that's probably disrupting their cells? Because those, because they're so small and the sound waves are so big that it's actually been proven that sound can kill things so that's... yeah 

Michelle: Yes. And so, when we talk about the the impact of seismic, and this is the seismic in particular this isn't just noise, this is actually with seismic survey. When you analyze it, seismic survey is reducing the abundance of the bottom of the food chain. So then the potential trophic effects of seismic haven't even begun to be unpacked yet, but they they could be monumental. If you remove the basic food chain and you get a trophic cascade, everything starts to crumble up the up the food web. And then when you add on to that. So now we have a potential for a reduction in prey species, an nd then you add on to that the exacerbated effects of stress, and then add on to that the reduction in communication space. And then you add on to that the fact that we still haven't been able to quantify the range of these effects...we don't know how far away you have to be before seismic ceases to be a stressor...means that we're really dealing with some potentially dangerous and unknown territory. [...] And so much of it is just about resource allocation. Where as a country do we choose to allocate our resources? Are we going to continue to allocate our resources so that we can extract non-renewable energy? Or do we want to devote those dollar values towards coming up with a renewable solution? And no matter where we drill in the United States, whether or not we're drilling in the Arctic, whether or not we're drilling off of the Pacific, or the fact that we just opened up new drilling leases and federal waters in the Atlantic in critical habitat for the endangered Right Whales. There are fewer than 400 North Atlantic right whales left, the reduction of a single individual in that population is a monumental loss and is biologically significant, that will be a biological reduction. And yet, the current administration has just opened up federal waters off the Atlantic coast for seismic exploration. And again, we're talking about depressed populations so that we can extract a non-renewable resource, there are a lot of alternatives that we could pursue with those resources. And a lot of engineers who are willing to pursue them. But it takes a whole cultural shift and a massive shift in public perception. And also in in just how we manage this country. [...] Protecting wild spaces right now is a really important issue. And it takes a lot of public support to do it. And so as many people as we can possibly get to hop on boat and go to Glacier Bay. Or even better get on a kayak! Show up Bartlett Cove, get in a kayak, kayak through the Beardsley islands, look at the seals, look at the whales, sit on an island and hear nothing. Just listen to birds. Listen to the wind, it's going to rain on you. That's okay. But-

Nikki:  We're from the Northwest. We're used to it.

Michelle:  Exactly, exactly! And, and so I think that that added level of protection, the Wilderness Area, coupled with being a National Park is what has helped Glacier Bay. And hopefully I mean, I know that we're not exactly in a position right now to be cultivating new wilderness areas, but I like to think that, you know, with our good sense of human ethics, that that will at some point be back on the table.

[Long-form Recording: Southeast Alaska, October 23, 2015 taken by Michelle Fournet]

That was a recording taken by Michele Fournet on October 23, 2015 in Southeast Alaska of humpback whales in their foraging grounds. You can hear a boat enter the soundscape towards the end of the track , which allows you to get a sense of how loud a simple vessel can be. 

Nikki: So, so that's one part of the question. I think that the, the pertinent part of the question is how long does it take to to do some of these studies? Because I'm assuming it's not like it's been edited for TV, you're not going to be seeing whales every time you go out. I think there's a public disconnect for people saying, “Oh, why do they need money, because every time you watch the Discovery Channel, there's just buckets of whales on whatever special that they're doing.” So, I mean, what's the reality?

Michelle: The reality is that funding is hard. It is...I wish...that funding wasn't the issue, I wish that the work that we were doing was limited just by the difficulties of logistics, because that alone would be almost prohibitive.  So the work that we do takes so much time. Again think about scale, a humpback whale can live to be 100 years old, it travels thousands of miles every year, its vocalizations travel for 10s of hundreds of miles. If I want to capture its behavior, I have to match the behavior of the animal to the scale of its existence, which means I cannot just watch a whale for 10 minutes and tell you what it's doing. And I can't just watch one whale--that has a unique disposition and a particular personality, and that has its own cultural information and humpback whales have all of those things by nature of their intelligence--so I can't just watch one whale for 10 minutes. I also cannot watch a hundred whales for 10 minutes. I have to watch a hundred whales for a very long time. And then I can begin to tease out some of the things about how this species acts, otherwise I'm just telling you how an individual acts. So now I have a long time that I need to watch a lot of animals. And I also have to go to an incredibly remote place to do it. So I need a boat that's going to take me to a lighthouse out on an island, which is only two acres big. And it's 60 miles away from the nearest town, and the nearest town doesn't have a road that goes to it. And so I have to put things on a boat to get to the town, put things on a boat to get the lighthouse so that I can sit at the lighthouse for four months and hope the whales show up. And when they get there, I have to be on the water 12 hours a day, again in the pouring rain in my tiny boat, and very carefully watching everything that these animals do to the best of my ability. And then I have to actually go back and do something meaningful with that data. So the cost alone of paying for the fuel, of renting the Lighthouse, of buying the boat,, of getting the plane ticket, shipping the goods, of building the hydrophones that can sit at, you know, 400 feet under the water in very, very cold places that aren't going to self-implode, to have the technology that sophisticated enough to capture the low frequency vocalization of this animal. All of these things are sort of Engineering Marvels, which comes with a cost. And then the, I think for marine mammal science, the other big thing is when you're, when you study marine mammals, you are often expected to take no paycheck. You're expected to survive on love alone. And while that's a wonderful sentiment, and I wish that love would pay my rent--And I do love what I do. And I am, I will sacrifice a great deal to do it. At some point, you do have to say I am a professional in my field and I need to make a salary, and I should be paid for my work. And rather than, you know, take advantage of all of my free undergraduate interns, they should probably also be paid for their good, hard work. And so it it ends up being logistically very, very complex and requires an enormous team, and a great deal of support to answer questions that exist on this ecological scale. And then let's just say that you want to study bowhead whales. Now add to that, you are going to one of the coldest, most remote locations on earth and drilling through ice to drop your hydrophone in. And you have to get really basic necessities like a coat, and an Arctic coat for the record cost about four hundred dollars. And so the logistics of the work is expensive, the engineering of the work is expensive. And the scope of inference requires a great deal of field effort. Which is, of course, why so many biologists fall in love with it to begin with, it's, it's the act of being outside, it is the act and that privilege. Like I said, at the beginning of this interview, it's the privilege of time. I have camped on the shores of Glacier Bay National Park for months at a time, there was no electricity, there's no running water, I lived in a tent. And from my tent, I could hear the breath of humpback whales when I woke up in the morning. And when I went to bed at night. I could hear them foraging in that ocean. And that gave me insight into their behavior that I never could have had if somebody handed me a spreadsheet. So the field effort is important, not just because that's how much time it takes to collect the data. But the human computer, the human mind, really is still the most powerful tool we have for understanding nature. And if I want to be able to quantify something, if I want to turn a whale foraging in the inner tidal zone, into a number on a spreadsheet that I can then run math on and publish a study on, I have to know what kind of data I should be collecting. And to do that I have to sit on a rocky shoreline in Southeast Alaska for a month or two, just listening. So the work is, is also personally intensive, it takes a great deal of attention and, and you have to be somebody that's really willing to be uncomfortable for long stretches of time. But I hope that everybody gets a chance to go and do something like that, at least once in their life, to devote sort of uninterrupted attention to something that they care about, even if it...even if it's expensive.

Nikki:  And on that note, the last thing I can think to say is, somewhere Gene Roddenberry is smiling.

[Watlington recording reprise]

Thank you again for listening to Threshold Shift on KBOO 90.7 FM Portland. Most of the recordings you heard tonight came from Michelle and Bill McQuay of Eco Location Sound. Both of whom have been very generous with their time and their archives. Looking forward into 2019 we will be featuring the full suite of ultrasonics by recordist Bill McQuay and Dr. Laurel Symes. These are ultrasonics featuring bats and katydids in Panama. I know many people are looking forward to that one. In the meantime, I am your host Nicole Martin. I want to wish you a very happy New Year, thank you for making this show what it is and thank you for supporting KBOO. And thanks, as always, for listening.






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