The Arctic is on Everybody’s Sonar Lately

Last week we attended an Acoustic Society conference in San Diego. This time I didn’t deliver a paper so it was mostly a reconnaissance trip – both to catch up with colleagues and to introduce Gwynn, our Digital Assets Manager to the field.

It is not a surprise that many of the bioacoustic papers that were presented involved the Arctic – both in terms of the acoustic ecology and habitat assessment, and in learning more about the animals in the area.

Map of polar ice melt back

Map of polar ice melt

As the “ground zero” for global warming, the Arctic is changing extremely fast. Due to accelerated melt-back of the ice-cap entire expanses of the sea are being exposed to daylight which may not have seen the sun since the late Miocene period (over five million years ago). We all know that this is distressing the Polar Bears, but it is also threatening the Ribbon, Ringed, and Bearded seals, which live exclusively on sea ice.

Sound recordings are being made documenting animal vocalizations, baseline ambient noise, and the rise in human-generated noise. New sounds are being discovered, and new impacts are being noticed.

And this is none too soon.

This last summer Shell Oil was cleared to drill three exploratory wells in the Beaufort Sea, and just last Thursday the Department of Interior released a five year offshore drilling plan that includes opening up more leases in the Arctic.

Additionally, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) will soon be releasing the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for their five year Arctic plan for public comments. Given that the petroleum industry has been pushing to get their pipes in the Arctic waters we expect that there will be much to comment on.

Ribbon Seal: Exploratorium

Ribbon Seal: Photo by Exploratorium

We have been anticipating this and spent a good amount of time this last year with Dave Aplin of WWF, Michael Jasny of NRDC, and the good folks at Bean Creativedeveloping a highly featured and interactive website focused on the impacts of offshore oil industry noise on Arctic habitats.

We’ll be launching this in the next few weeks to get everyone up to speed on the issues so that we can all provide focused and informed critiques of the NMFS plan.

Stay tuned; given the voracious appetite of the Oil Men we’ll need “all hands on deck” to protect the Arctic from their oily (and noisy) assaults.

Lunar connection on Hanalei Bay stranding nixed.

Hanalei Bay Melon headsOn the morning of July 3 2004 there was an agitated aggregation of Melon Headed whales in Hanalei Bay, Hawai’i. This event was concurrent to the RIMPAC international naval exercise  which happens every two years.

As is typical with these tragic events, the US Navy rolled up their collective sleeves and focused on how to establish that they were not responsible.

In this case they started out with the claim that the exercises were not in progress until after the event. They also sponsored an extensive modeling of the event and presented the findings at the Fall 2004 Acoustics Society meeting. (“Analysis of melon-headed whale aggregation in Hanalei Bay,” David Fromm et. al JASA 2004)

While Dr. Fromm’s presentation was interesting, it was also fraught with data gaps – such as an analysis of the frequencies and signal types used in the exercises. The study also reiterated their claim that the “embayment” happened before the Navy commenced the exercise (which was later in the day than the stranding.).

A critical element that was omitted from the study was that the warships were calibrating their sonar prior to commencing the exercises. These calibrations were coincident to the embayment of the whales.

There were a number of other troubling  assumptions that did not square with the incident – including a “lunar” connection (based on an aggregation of melon headed whales that occurred on the same day in Japan). All tolled, it was a well funded, beautifully presented model based on exculpating assumptions – and ultimately signifying very little. The paper has not been published after peer review, and remains in abstract form in the J. Acoustical Society of America.

Hallway comments from closely linked (Office of Naval Research- ONR) sponsored scientists seemed to agree that the modeling was an expensive “CYA” presentation (their words).   Your tax dollars at work…

Noise impacts from military communication sonars are much more widespread than the US Navy would like to admit. ONR is funding research on the impacts,  but their priorities seem more focused on how to prevent these embarrassing stranding events from occurring – such as spatial-temporal planning and “recoverable threshold” testing on marine mammals – rather than  determining what the mechanism is for the aggravation.

We believe that the Navy could accomplish their mission safely if they chose to examine the signal characteristics that are agonistic and then crafted communication signals that are more benign.

Toward this end we are working on a metrics system that can qualify noise by loudness as well as “roughness” – the characteristic that distinguishes the differences between alarming sounds and pleasant sounds that may be equally loud. Hopefully this ‘metric’ will provide design guidance in the tempering of mid-frequency communication sonar signals.

The referring article is in AAAS Science with a nice title “Whale Stranding: Sonar or Lunar

New Freeway planned for San Ignacio Lagoon

New Freeway planned for San Ignacio Lagoon

The Touch

The Touch

San Ignacio Lagoon is the birthplace of a remarkable chapter in the relationship between whales and humans. The lagoons along the western coast of the American Continent, from San Francisco Bay in the north to Bahía Magdalena in the south, were all once breeding and birthing areas for the Eastern Pacific Gray Whales.

Shipping activities, harbor construction, oil extraction and processing and other human enterprises chased the whales out of many of their historic haunts (such as San Francisco and San Diego bays). Currently the only remaining breeding and birthing lagoons are the lagoons of Baja California – Guerrero Negro, San Ignacio, and Bahía Magdalena.

Of course decades of commercial whaling also played into this decimation of safe habitat and almost put the gray whales out of business. It was in fact these very lagoons where some of the most voracious whaling occurred; whalers would go into the lagoons, attack the vulnerable baby whales and then capture and kill the mothers when they came to rescue their babies. This was a dangerous game for the whalers because unlike many baleen whales, the Gray Whales will attack their aggressors. One out of four whalers in the gray whale industry was either killed or maimed in these encounters – crowning the gray whale with the ominous name of “devilfish.”

Nonetheless the whaler’s strategies were so effective that by 1946 there were only a few thousand remaining whales, and commercial exploitation of the stock was no longer viable (and thus banned by the International Whaling Commission).

It was in San Ignacio Lagoon that this bloody history turned a page. In 1972, Pachico Mayoral, a fisherman in the Ejido of San Ignacio was out in his panga when a gray whale approached and began bumping and contacting the panga. Knowing the history and the dangerous behavior of these devilfish, Pachico was terrified. It seems that the devilfish tormented Pachico for hours; bumping and lifting his boat, scratching her belly on the hull, and peering over the gunwales into the boat.

It was during one of these “peering” maneuvers that Pachico gathered his courage and reached out to touch the beast. He says he felt “safe,” – that he realized that the whale ment him no harm.

When he finally returned home his family and community did not believe him. It took a few more encounters for the people to understand that within the whale’s living memory of the slaughter, these animals were forging a different relationship with the humans.

This relationship has blossomed into what is one of the most successful interspecies environmental businesses ever:  every year thousands of eco-tourists head down to the lagoons of Baja to meet the “friendly whales.”

I have been taking small groups to the lagoons over the years on what is almost a pilgrimage for some; to meet and interact with the baby whales and their mothers. These journeys are always transformative, and also just plain delightful.

We have been to both Bahía Magdalena and Laguna San Ignacio, though I have preferred the later because the bumpy dirt road across the desert has discouraged the concentrations of tourists you find in Magdalena. This lends to a more intimate experience in San Ignacio.

This will soon be changing though, because the highway department has begun construction of a paved road from the nearest town of San Ignacio to traverse the 60 km to the lagoon, and then head south to connect with the paved road at La Purisima.

The paved road will be a significant asset to the residents of the lagoon, improving access to commerce and tourism. The road will also significantly improve access to medical services for the residents of the lagoon. This road will change the relationship between the humans and the whales – and the human experience of the whale encounters – by dint of the fact that once the road is complete you can just blow out for an afternoon encounter and be back in town by evening.

Once the road connects to La Purisima, it will also become a preferred route for automotive and cargo traffic running north and south between the U.S. Mexico border and Cabo San Lucas because it bypasses the current, and fairly treacherous M-1 that runs between San Ignacio and Loreto.

This raises my concern that once the paved road becomes a main thoroughfare for heavy traffic, that seismic scale vibrations from the road will transfer low frequency noise into the lagoon and potentially compromise the habitat for the Gray whales.

In order to address this concern Ocean Conservation Research has put together a program determine the potential acoustical impacts of the road, measuring low frequency acoustical transmission characteristics of the lagoon/land interface where the road will flank the lagoon.

As with any non-profit we are spending more time gathering funds than doing the actual work. As of July 2009 we’re still shy of the complete budget, but research partner Aaron Thode has placed some hydrophones in the test area to get some benchmarks.

For a more detailed account of the project, see: San Ignacio Lagoon Freeway. Of course if you would like to support this project or participate, just contact me through

New York Times article on human/whale relationships

Baby Love

Baby Love

This week New York Times features and article ostensibly about our relationship with whales, woven around a visit by the author to the “friendly whales” of San Ignacio Lagoon.

The article (requiring a free NYT login) is here:

It also features some OCR colleagues, friends and allies such as Ranulfo Mayoral, a fantastic birder and the brother of Pancho Mayoral, the lagoon guide for our annual whale trip to Baja. NRDC Biologist Elizabeth Alter, Sperm whale expert Hal Whitehead, and San Ignacio Lagoon project partner Aaron Thode are also featured.

(see: )

The article is a longish but informative read. It speculates about why the gray whales are reaching out to humans; it discusses whales’ higher order emotional behavior and communication skills.

It also comes concurrently with an essay in Nature this week by behavioral biologist Frans de Waal[1] about “anthropodenial” – an unfounded rejection of the continuity between humans and other animals. Perhaps we are arriving at a nexus between biologists and traditional story-tellers?

If you enjoy the article and would like to visit the friendly whales, we will be heading down to San Ignacio Lagoon in March of 2010. Book early, as we can take 12, and we already have five committed.

Let me know if you want to be on the short-list by sending a request to

[1] Author of “Chimpanzee Politics” the benchmark 20 year behavioral study of the community dynamics of a captive group of chimps in the Arnhem Zoo.

Minke Whales harassed by Navy Sonar

Photo Lewis Drysdale

Photo Lewis Drysdale

Yet another unfortunate event involving whales and mid-frequency sonar; two minke whales were seen “porpoising” at high speeds in waters where military operations were taking place. Observers also heard extremely loud sonar concurrent to the sightings.

Minke whales are the smallest of the baleen whales, reaching a bit over 30 ft. in length. Porpoising is a shallow and fast skipping across the top of the water, given to porpoises and dolphins, not 11 ton baleen whales.

It is probable that these animals were keeping as close to, and above the water surface to keep their hearing either out of harms way, or near the surface where some attenuation is afforded. (This is similar to the protective strategy used by the orcas during the Haro Strait incident in 2004).

The article also mentions a decrease in population over the years, though the sonar correlation is only insinuated.

For the complete article see:

This news was sent to us by OCR Board member and Acoustic Ecologists Jim Cummings. (See: )

More sad news about our complex relationship with the sea.

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