Secrets of the Deepest Diving Whales

Latest update May 22, 2019 Started on November 9, 2018

Follow along as we study the sounds and behaviors of beaked and sperm whales, the deepest diving marine mammals. Off the coast of North and South Carolina between January and May, 2019, we'll be conducting passive acoustic surveys and attaching tags to better understand how these animals behave long after they dip below the surface and are long out of direct view.

November 9, 2018
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In The Field

Post below from Hannah Stowe on board Song of the Whale:

Maps Cruise 2 Leg 3 Tagging Half Nelson

Song of the Whale departs Beaufort for the final time on the MAPS project, there is one clear, if slightly daunting, objective in mind. Tagging. The previous two legs have provided us with favourable winds to sail transects, and as a result, the distance sampling is mostly complete. The majority of the transects were completed under sail, so should have generated a strong acoustic data set, while minimising our own noise pollution in the marine environment. However, the opportunities to tag animals have been few and far between.

Tagging offers a host of new challenges into a dynamic offshore environment. The acoustic array proves invaluable in enabling us to locate and track marine mammals, but we need a calm sea for visual observations. The sea state must be low enough to approach the animal in a slow, accurate fashion, and place the tag. Once a tag is deployed, we need to continue to track the whale, acoustically, visually and via VHF signal from the tag. Unless the tag is retrieved, we cannot download and use the data. With even the slightest roll in the ocean, the tags are notoriously difficult to spot. If all this can be successfully achieved, the Archival Acoustic Tag, or DTAG, provides extremely accurate information on how the animal is using the water column, its movement pattern and behaviour, vocalisation rates and nearby sounds the animal encounters. Essentially, the tag data provides an insight into how a marine mammal interacts with the complex, three-dimensional marine environment experienced largely through sound and at depths of over 1000 m.

It seems fortune was in our favour, as on the second day in, the sun rose over glassy seas. Our first tagging weather window. However, frustrations were raised throughout the first half of the day, as despite the ideal conditions, we had yet to encounter sperm or beaked whales, our priority species. We increased our visual effort, adding a spotter to the vessel’s crows nest as well as the A-frame. And finally, a blow! A sperm whale logging at the surface. As the tag team piled into the zodiac, it was all hands-on deck to maintain visuals on the whale, acoustically track while it was diving, maintain communications and provide bearings to the zodiac, and attain fluke shots and thermal images of the whale. While observing the dive behaviour, it became apparent that the sperm whale in question only had half a fluke, the left side missing and marked with old white scars, potentially due to a ship strike injury. This was our first encounter with the whale that would come to be known as Half Nelson. The name stuck quickly, the tag, not so much. Despite multiple approaches from the zodiac, followed by the bow of Song, a tag deployment that fell off, with the sun setting, we decided to leave Half Nelson for the evening. Our reward? A dramatic storm sky split between fiery orange and slate grey, showstopping first in its beauty, secondly in its nature as a downpour began.

It would be a full week before we saw Half Nelson again. A week of completing the final transect, of being rudely awakened by a wave over the bow while hoisting the main sail, of oh so blue seas broken by the grey backs of common dolphin mega pods and the strange lopey waving of sunfish. From the weather forecast, it became clear we would only have one tag day left before the project closed out. The objective? Pick up with sperm or beaked whales overnight, track them acoustically to be ready to tag at first light.

On the 16th of May, I awoke at first light, and was still shaking off the haze of night watch with a cup of tea as I was informed that we had indeed located a sperm whale in the early hours, and that it should be in close proximity to the vessel. Song was gently motoring through the water, sunrise tipping the seas from deepest grey to blue when I emerged on deck, to be immediately greeted with the distinctive bushy sperm whale blow, a mere 100m from our starboard bow. After a few seconds of quietly observing the ocean giant, I called blow, and the boat rapidly became a hive of activity. As the whole crew spilled out on deck, the whale dived, sending a distinctive half fluke skywards. Half Nelson. We meet again, a mere 30 miles from our initial encounter. We followed Half Nelson with a reasonable amount of ease, mainly due to the abilities of the team to acoustically track, and sighting after sighting was called from the A frame. The tension was palpable as we approached the whale, taggers on the bow. The whole process played a strange parallel to the days of whaling, a spotter calling sightings, the harpoon replaced with a tagging pole. And. The tag was on! To which Half Nelson did not seem overly bothered by, lingering on the surface momentarily before sliding into a shallow dive.

We stayed reasonably close to Half Nelson, to observe surface behaviour between dives. We see the whale breach, lob tail, and perform a succession of relatively short dives, around a 25-minute interval. Radio tracking makes locating Half Nelson at the surface a considerable amount easier, as the whale doesn’t seem to perform a particularly large first blow on surfacing. At 15.30, the tag comes off and is reasonably easily retrieved (with a sigh of internal relief from all), providing a good 7 hours’ worth of data on a deep diving whale from the mid-Atlantic. The first sperm whale tagged in this area. What is particularly interesting is that Half Nelson has seemed to spend a large amount of time at the surface during our observations, so the data from the tag will be used to fill in the gaps from the hydrophone data, as sperm whales are hardly ever detected at the surface. Tagging an animal that potentially has a historical ship strike could also provide useful insights into the long term effects of ship strikes on sperm whales behaviour and feeding patterns.

A cathartic ending to the MAPS field work, and the day closes with the glassiest of seas, a stellar sunset and a triumphant meal for the crew, as the winds begin to pick up for our return journey to Beaufort.

Photos below Tag On! MCR/MAPS Victorious Doug Nowacek with tag and a happy team - Steve DeNeef. NMFS permit 14809 Video: sperm whale party (Jake Levenson)

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Exciting update from Song of the Whale today - flying beaked whales!

While conditions are not very good out here, we were treated to a very memorable encounter today.... as we were chatting in the cockpit, three Gervais' beaked whales emerged from behind Dave's and Tiffany's heads, breaching only 50-100m from the boat! Three or maybe four males breached, sometimes in synchrony, about 20 times. Very similar to what we see with Sowerby's off Ireland: males involved, somewhat synchronous, leaving the water entirely and landing on the same side each time. Fantastic to watch!!! We're still buzzing...

Yesterday morning we encountered a humpback at first light near Cape Charles, dodging the minefield of crab traps and surface-lunge-feeding with pelicans and bottlenose dolphins in tow.

Last night as we passed over Norfolk Canyon, we had very large groups (>7) sperm whales, pilot whales, dolphin spp. minke whales and possibly even humpback and killer whales heard during listening stations.

Spectacular photographs captured by the team (under NMFS permit 14809) include:

A pair of male Gervais' beaked whales breaching alongside Song of the Whale in waters 2300m deep about 160 nautical miles east of Chesapeake Bay. Photograph by Conor Ryan (MCR/BOEM)

Despite looking like a dolphin, these whales are much larger: about 5m in length. The location of the two erupted teeth, set one third the way along the beak (from the tip) helps us identify this individual as a male Gervais' beaked whale, and not a True's (which is otherwise similar in appearance and size). Photograph by Conor Ryan (MCR/BOEM)

At times there were three whales airborne at once, leaving great big splashes as they impacted the rough seas. Photograph by Dave Haas (Duke University/MCR/BOEM)

A juvenile humpback whale feeding on forage-fishes not far from shore near Cape Charles, Chesapeake Bay, around dawn. This whale was doing a good job of avoiding the scores of crab pots in the area. Photograph by Conor Ryan (MCR/BOEM)

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The whales are playing hard to tag and the weather is playing rough.

Update from Nikki on board the Song of the Whale:

“I tip my hat to everyone on this boat because it is not for the faint of heart or for those that can't handle a little sleep deprivation.

“We have been hard at work. Yesterday we launched the boat in an attempt to tag a sperm whale. Unfortunately we lost sight of it, but it was still a good exercise to prepare for other opportunities. We also spent about 3 hours today trying to tag a few beaked whales (pretty sure they were Gervais') while also keeping a couple of sperm whales in sight should the opportunity present itself. Unfortunately we were not able to tag either as they were diving quite a bit making it difficult to be in their general vicinity when they surfaced.

“We are back on transect but will be heading into Norfolk to dodge this bad weather that is forecast for the next 3 days.”

Yup, the conditions during this second cruise series coming out of winter have been pretty challenging for the crew of Song of the Whale. Fortunately they can head back to shore when things get rough. Unfortunately, for the animals that live there, if conditions get uncomfortable or dangerous they have nowhere else to go.

Yesterday was a great day on the water, the team encountered a lone fin whale and a group of 10 Atlantic spotted dolphins. The team are hoping to encounter some priority species, the deepest diving whales - the animals we know little about because they regularly dive thousands of feet below the surface, making them difficult to study.

We know they produce specialized sounds to find prey and communicate with other individuals, and that they possess sophisticated hearing abilities – which means any man-made noise, especially noise associated with energy development or naval exercises could have disproportionate impacts on these species.

The information we are collecting from this study is vital to be able to strengthen efforts to avoid or limit the impacts these species might experience from human development.

Photos below:

Laura Murley and Dave Haas taking thermal images of a fin whale from the observation platform on Song of the Whale. Photographer Anna Clabaugh (MCR/BOEM/Duke University, NMFS permit 14809)

An adult fin whale with a young animal (presumably her calf) was encountered during visual survey 200 nautical miles southeast of Cape Hatteras in waters some 4400m deep. Photographer Anna Clabaugh (MCR/BOEM/Duke University, NMFS permit 14809)

Atlantic spotted dolphins appeared excited to catch up with Song of the Whale, racing over to bow-ride before quickly moving on. Photographer Conor Ryan (MCR/BOEM, NMFS permit 14809)

A close-up of an Atlantic spotted dolphin. Photographer Conor Ryan (MCR/BOEM, NMFS permit 14809)

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"The water spout was quite exciting" says Conor Ryan (MCR). Bit of an understatement!

The crew on SOTW have had somewhat unsettled conditions over the last few days but have made good progress. They've done 4 tracklines out of 10 and have 9 eDNA samples in the bag.

They have encountered a dozen Gervais' beaked whales (calm, but after sunset, so left them be), short finned pilot whales (good conditions, but they were being evasive and they moved on to try and find higher priority species), sperm whale (challenging conditions and it sounded on approach).

Otherwise (apart from water spouts) it has been very quiet with a surprising lack of dolphins or other megafauna in the Blake Plateau area.

Fingers crossed for calm seas and lots of chilled out cetaceans over the days to come...

Photos (NMFS Permit 14809):

During a dramatic change of wind conditions, where the wind veered 180 degrees in 5 minutes, we observed a waterspout (tornado at sea). We had to postpone our survey as it crossed our transect line, bringing with it torrential rain. Photo by Conor Ryan (MCR)

A bull short-finned pilot whale which was part of a small group containing some calves, seen in 4000m of water some 180 miles west of South Carolina. Photo by Conor Ryan (MCR)

Skipper Niall McAllister helming during a downpour. Laura Murley was closeby to provide moral support. Not even torrential rain will dampen our spirits out here! Photo by Conor Ryan (MCR)

Heavy rain bouncing off the sea during a brief thunderstorm. Photo by Conor Ryan (MCR)

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Back on the water, the MAPS team has begun the second batch of cruises where they are running transects in offshore waters east of Savannah, Georgia, listening for deep diving whales.

DTAGs at the ready, we're looking for some willing participants!

As Song of the Whale headed out, small groups of Atlantic spotted dolphin approached to bow-ride.

Photographer: Conor Ryan

Permit NMFS 14809

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Dolphins are so inquisitive!

It’s been a while between posts but the team have been super busy working on a variety of tasks like analyzing the copious amount of data from Cruise One, preparing the R/V Song of the Whale for the next cruise and sharing the project with school children from North Carolina to California and even as far as Australia!

Team Thermal have been using the time off the water to review the thermal images of sperm, minke and pilot whales collected during Cruise One. Surface temperatures of the dorsal fin and dorsal body surface are currently being analyzed using FLIR ThermaCAM Researcher software. These temperatures will be compared to water temperatures collected independently at the time of the sighting. By comparing the body surface and ambient temperatures we get a better understanding of whether the whales were conserving or dissipating body heat at the time that we encountered them at sea. Our goal for Cruise Two is to gather thermal images of tagged whales to gain insights into how their surface temperatures vary with time at depth.

Team Visual/Acoustics have validated the sightings data and corrected any errors in the survey database. These sightings are currently being processed for addition to the OBIS-SEAMAP project, an open-access online database that includes marine mammal, seabird, turtle and ray and shark observation data from across the globe, providing a rich picture of the ecology and distribution of these species. Initial attempts have been made to estimate the lengths of the sperm whale calves photographed during the first cruise using digital images; some of them were very small (approximately 4 m long) suggesting they may have only been a few days old. Initial maps have been generated from acoustic data collected in the field (for example, those areas where we heard the loud echolocation clicks of sperm whales). A more detailed analysis of the recordings is currently underway to investigate the distribution of other species, including beaked whales, that were detected by our hydrophone array during the surveys.

In addition to the analyses and maintenance work we’re doing some educational outreach activities to share the fascinating science with schools children. We’re holding boat tours where the kids can see how we collect information about these huge creatures, and how the crew lives on board. A school in Sydney, Australia, has been following the expedition through Open Explorer and we’re arranging a fun session with them over Skype in the coming weeks - stay tuned!

Attached images by MAPS and MCR (NMFS 14809) Song of the Whale has spent the last three weeks out of the water in a Georgia boat yard for scheduled maintenance and to be ready for the next set of research cruises.

Funky disco thermal images and mapping sperm whale encounters by their clicks.

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Hey Imogen! Could the UNCW SPARC Office share these images to Instagram?
In The Field

Cruise #1 is a wrap!

The MAPS project team just completed the first survey cruises. Between mid-January and the end of February, the MAPS project team got some big numbers and a few surprises.

Operating in and out of the historic port of Beaufort, NC, the MAPS cruise surveyed a total of 1958 miles (3626 km), focusing on the offshore waters, beyond the shelf break and out into waters up to 14400 feet (5000m) deep off North and South Carolina. This was the first time many of these areas have been surveyed in winter.

The North Atlantic winter weather lived up to its rough reputation but the robust yet beautifully quiet and well equipped 21m R/V Song of the Whale and brilliant crew sailed the team safely through each transect in the open ocean. Our team made the most of each day collecting data for these deep diving, endangered species, through a variety of methods, including visual and acoustic survey, tagging and eDNA sample collection.

So, what did we find? Many sperm whales, some beaked whales and, a highly endangered North Atlantic right whale!

Given we were in an area that whalers used to call the “Charleston Ground”, we weren’t surprised to encounter many sperm whales, but our observations gave us more information about the importance of this area during winter. For example, we detected a large number of echolocating individuals suggesting the importance of the region as a foraging area in winter. Sightings of multiple sperm whale groups, and acoustic detections of communication between the whales in the form of series of patterned clicks called codas, suggest importance to the social structure. And the very young calves within the social groups also suggest that this region is important to the reproductive biology of this endangered species.

Beaked whales were detected visually and acoustically in the deep waters, adding to our understanding of these acoustically sensitive species in the region. As a bonus, we were thrilled by a sighting of a highly endangered North Atlantic right whale 40 nm off the Cape Hatteras region of North Carolina – this was a critical result because while there are consistent right whale acoustic detections off the mid-Atlantic year round, there are very few visual sightings so this is important confirmation of their presence.

Tagging whales didn’t go 100% according to plan but we successfully deployed a D-tag on a sperm whale, and gathered important observational data on its diving behavior, thermal images of skin surface temperatures after dives, and a skin biopsy sample. Unfortunately, we did not retrieve the tag, but demonstrated “proof of concept” of this research method in the far offshore waters.

We gathered the first thermal images, of which we are aware, for sperm whales under various behavioral conditions, and gathered images of minke whales and pilot whales. These images will be analyzed to help us better understand the energetics of these pelagic species.

So, all up, an incredibly successful first cruise! More photos, images and information about the techniques and findings to come. Meanwhile, we’re prepping for the second cruise series – stay tuned…

Further background info available at

(Images by MCR and MAPS, NMFS Permit 14809)

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Ok, so if beaked whales are the winner of the deep diving Olympic gold medal, I’m sure you want to know who the silver and bronze medalists are? It’s true that we often overlook the silver and bronze winners, but it’s pretty darn good to be 2nd or 3rd in the world, right? Well, there’s really a tie for silver between sperm whales and elephant seals, both of which routinely dive to 1000m or more. While we don’t have elephant seals along the east coast of the US, we do have LOTS of sperm whales; sperm whales are found throughout the world’s oceans so the data we gather from them here can help us understand and protect them better in many places.

In the MAPS project, we are equipped to study sperm and beaked whales in many ways, including just sightings at the surface, acoustic detections on the hydrophone array streaming out behind the R/V Song of the Whale (which, at least for sperm whales, are waaaay more numerous than the visual detections), 3D localizations from another Song of the Whale array (which allows us to add depth of the whale to our data), biopsy samples (which give us information on the sex of the whales, possibly relatedness, and levels of toxins and hormones), and, last but not least, multi-sensor acoustic recording tags. Putting one of these tags on a whale is a bit like attaching your smart phone to them because it measures the movement of the whale much the same way that your phone knows that it is sideways, right way up, and which way it is pointed…namely with accelerometers and magnetometers! Simultaneously the tag is also recording the water depth, water temperature, and the sounds made and heard by the whale. Taking these data streams together we get a very rich picture of ‘a dive in the life’ of a whale (we actually hope to record many dives and usually do!).

The data from these tags provide several insights into the lives of these animals that are important in the context of the MAPS project. MAPS has set out to shed additional light on the lives of these cryptic offshore species, for the basic understanding of it as well as, importantly, to inform management actions so they can best be applied to protect these species without unnecessarily restricting people’s activities. So, the tag data tell us about how much time the animals spend feeding, how much time they spend in different parts of the water column, and how much time they spend vocalizing. Taking these in order: it’s important to know what their baseline feeding rates are so that we can know, for example, whether or not some human activity is affecting their ability to feed, which would of course be detrimental. Next, where they are in the water column impacts a couple things, like how easy it is for us to see them if we’re looking (e.g., if they spend 5 vs 50% of their time at the surface, we have very different expectations for how many we expect to see). Also, where they are in the water column can affect how sounds we make can impact them. Finally, when the animals vocalize, we are able to hear them and, among other things, know that they are there, using techniques we call passive acoustic monitoring (PAM). These PAM techniques are very useful because they can operate at night and in bad weather, when visual observers are ineffective. However, if the whales don’t vocalize (e.g., at certain times of their dive cycles), we won’t know they’re there. Also, one of the documented effects of human produced sound is to cause at least some species to vocalize less or not at all, so, obviously, PAM techniques are not effective in detecting animals if we are trying to listen as we are making noise!

Hopefully, this little blog shows you the utility and importance of these tagging techniques, and especially when taken with all of the other ways we’re studying cryptic species in the MAPS project we’ll be able to significantly increase our knowledge of these animals, just because they’re cool and also it makes us more effective in protecting them as our federal laws require!

Written by Dr Doug Nowacek from Duke University Marine Lab, lead scientist on board RV Song of the Whale Photos below by MAPS & MCR, NMFS Permit 14809

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Roses are red
Beaked whales are cryptics Deep diving champions Of the aquatic Olympics

Happy Valentine's day, whale lovers. Who doesn't love whales eh? The thing is, most people don't even know about the many different types of whales. Humpbacks get all the glory because they're so theatrical... But we think beaked whales, especially, don't get enough love. Probably because they are so flipping hard to study. They are the quintessential "cryptic" species.

Beaked whales, such as Cuvier's beaked whale, are much smaller than sperm whales, and therefore harder to detect at the sea surface, and they can dive for longer periods (routine deep foraging dives are 45 minutes to an hour) and to deeper depths.

Some beaked whales have been recorded to dive to almost 3000 m – that is almost two miles in depth! Talk about playing hard to get.

While at these extraordinary depths, they use echolocation (essentially animal radar) to find their prey, which are deep-water cephalopods (squids and octopuses). After their deep foraging (feeding) dives, they return to the surface, but spend little time there. Instead they undertake a series of relatively shallow dives (many of which are still deeper than most whales will ever dive!), and then embark on their next deep foraging dive. For the species that have been investigated to date, they carry out this diving behavior 24-7, making them extremely difficult to detect.

So these are some of the mysterious animals our crew are listening to and trying to spot out off the coast of North Carolina. We'll try our best to get some decent photos but these critters are notoriously camera shy! Meanwhile, here's a Cuvier's Beaked Whale, spotted just the other day. And our gorgeous crew, who spend a lot of time staring out to sea...

Photos by MAPS & MCR, NMFS Permit 14809

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The good news is we found beaked whales today, the bad news is we couldn't deploy a tag. Beaten by choppy seas and a rather persistent Gulf Stream that had us traveling backwards at three knots even under moderate revs.

Even in the best conditions these whales are really hard to find, they are “cryptic” species. This is a term scientists use for creatures that are hard to find or study. Even though they’re air-breathing mammals, they spend most of their time away from the surface, diving on a breath-hold. When they are away from the surface, they are effectively invisible to us. That might list seconds to minutes (think small active dolphins that don’t dive deeply), or for over an hour (think deep-diving sperm and beaked whales). It is this latter group, species that can disappear from the water’s surface and routinely spend long periods of time on a dive that we call “cryptic” species.

Their natural and amazing diving behaviors render them virtually invisible to us. And that behavior presents specific challenges to us, if we want to know where they are and what they are doing there, so that we do not negatively impact them. Thus, the MAPS team is gathering many types of data on these species, to strengthen efforts to avoid or limit the impacts they might experience from human activities, such as energy resource development.

Listening to the whales through Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM) really helps us get to know them better. In contrast with active acoustics, which produces sound, passive acoustics means we're just listening to what's out there. To do this, we're towing a hydrophone on a 400m cable (an array) behind the boat. The array has 6 elements, which are used to listen to different ranges of frequencies (for different types of whales) and can give us an idea of which direction these sounds are coming from. With the directional capability and the broad acoustic bandwidth, we can even make pretty good guesses as to how many sperm and beaked whales we're hearing!

Because the Song of the Whale is such a quiet vessel, it is perfect for listening to the whales. Stay tuned for some of whale sounds we’re picking up right now, and the info they are providing.

Photos below - the watching and waiting pays off with a Cuvier's beaked whale. Pics by MAPS and MCR crew, NMFS Permit 14809.

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Tag on!

Friday was an exciting day on Song Of The Whale! We successfully deployed the project’s first D-tag (a high-resolution digital acoustic recording tag) on a sperm whale - this is the first time a sperm whale has been tagged in this area to our knowledge, certainly not in winter, so their deep diving and foraging behavior in this area of the Atlantic are completely unknown. There are deep submarine canyons in the area, but are they using them? How deep are they diving? The tag data will give us a window into these unknowns.

After the tag was deployed, Laura hopped on the RHIB with the thermal camera and ventured out to collect images. Thermal images capture the surface temperatures of whales, which will help us understand the energetics of their diving and foraging behaviors. Laura was able to collect consecutive images of the tagged sperm whale after its dive – the first time such data have ever been collected on a tagged whale!

But about 6 hours later, disaster - we couldn’t find the tag!

The focal animal was seen 5h20m after the 6 hour tag had been deployed; Andrew and Zach were able to get a successful biopsy from the whale at that time but then lost sight of the animal when it fluked up for a long dive. We searched through the night to no avail; we're back on our transect now heading further offshore and we're still scanning for a signal but we think the chances of tag recovery are fairly minimal at this stage.

We're all disappointed on board as you can imagine; but we did manage to collect some good data.

In more positive news, we are seeing occasional baleen whales on our transect, and we're getting a lot of acoustic detections of sperm whales, so there is plenty of life out in the depths.

The images show the tag deployment, the tagged animal alongside another sperm whale, the tag boat working among the group of whales and a large, heavily scarred male that was at the center of the group of 16.

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Leg 1 is complete!

Pic of the very happy crew below - one day back on shore and then it's back out for Leg 2. Here's a short account of the first few days by UNCW Masters student, Laura Murley, who is participating in every leg of the research.

First days aboard Song of the Whale Using thermal images to analyze the surface temperature of cetaceans Laura Murley, UNCW

As we set sail on January 17​th​, the thermal camera remained stowed away in its pelican case below decks. One of my roles on board is to capture infrared images of the cetaceans we encounter, to better understand the thermal biology pelagic species, especially deep-divers. IR thermal images will be collected throughout each sighting using a FLIR P60 IR camera, mounted side-by-side with a video camera on a monopod.

The increasing wind speeds and heightened swells, though, meant thermal imaging would have to wait for calmer seas! The first few days aboard Song of the Whale allowed members from SOTW, UNCW, and Duke to get to know each other, to learn the survey methods and to understand the workings of the vessel.

We encountered a few cetaceans including sei whales and a minke whale and heard loud sperm whale clicks through the hydrophone. Although this first trip was relatively short, we look forward to traveling on our next set of track lines with to conduct more visual and acoustic surveys and with the hopes of capturing thermal images!


The MAPS team went back into port due to rough weather (45 kn winds and 4-5 m swells) and since the weather was looking dicey for the rest of the week they dropped off 3 crew and went back out with 7 to run hydrophones and do visual obs.

With our primary species of interest: beaked, sperm whales and kogiids, the acoustics are actually much better at detecting them than visual and normal sea conditions.

I asked Anna Clabaugh from Duke University Marine Lab, who is on SOTW, about the different jobs the team have on board. This is what she told me: ~~~ "When we had 10 people on we were running 4 types of watches during good weather when it was light out and 2 during rough seas/at night.

Port Observer (day): watching for whales, dolphins, fishing activity, rubbish on the port side

Helmsperson: makes sure we are following the right bearing, checking for other boats or other obstacles.

Data Logger: filling out effort and environment forms, listens every two minutes to the hydrophone and records what they hear

Starboard Observer (day): same as port observer just from starboard side

Right now we are combining the 4 jobs into two with helmsperson as port obs and data logger as starboard obs. At least until the weather deteriorates more. Before it took about 7 hours to run through the watches now it’s more like 5.

Everyone on the boat also cooks and cleans. Everyday rotates who's on dinner duty, dinner washup, heads, or vacuuming."

~~~ So keeping everything shipshape and Bristol fashion then…

Meanwhile for entertainment they’ve enjoyed some bow riding dolphins and listening to sperm whales on the hydrophone.

9pm EST Tuesday 22 January
Ocean swell is around 1.5m, it’s a balmy 11 degrees C and a little cloud cover. Things have quieted down a bit, meteorologically speaking, and today we received this brief message from Doug Novacek (Duke University Marine Lab):

Headed back out after a day on shore for bad weather. Weather not great offshore but going to make the most of it with acoustic transects for beaked, sperm and kogiid whales.

What’s an acoustic transect I hear you say?

Glad you asked. Basically it means sailing a line dragging hydrophones to listen to what’s going on down there. Different types of hydrophones can be calibrated to pick up clicks, whistles, mid and low frequency sounds from marine mammals. They can be used to characterize levels of noise, including whale vocalizations, ship and background noise.

Song of the Whale is a fantastic research vessel with some brilliant technology on board (and people!), we’ll be showcasing the boat on future posts here and you can also check out their site -

For now, our crew are sailing these lines, or transects, and trying to pick up the sounds of beaked, sperm and kogiid whales. The info we get from the hydrophones will help draw the picture of the abundance, behavior and distribution of these animals.

We don’t have many exciting photos to show yet but here are some of our crew and Skipper Richard McLanaghan demonstrating how to nap on a rough day.

More photos, video and whale song soon...

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And we’re off! After years of planning, on 17 January 2019, the R/V Song of the Whale (SOTW) sailed out of Beaufort, NC, to begin the first leg of the #MAPS2019 research cruises.

The plan is that SOTW will sail survey lines for 14 days in each leg - there will be three legs in total and in between the boat will come back to Beaufort for restocking and swapping crew etc. The turn around is 24 hours and away they go again.

Well that's the plan anyway! Except there’s the weather… we just heard there's some gnarly weather coming so the team are coming back to port now to avoid it. Meanwhile, here’s a message we received from the Chief Scientist on board, Dr Doug Nowacek of Duke University Marine Lab:

First update! Southernmost trackline done, most of it in the dark, lots of sperm whales through the night. Heading NE now on the second trackline, trying to get it done before we get a puff of wind, probably be off effort for ~12 hrs, then back to it. Big sighting of the day was a sei whale! sea state was ~3, good thing they have big dorsal fins!

More to come...

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Four years ago I ran an idea by a friend at work - that we could do more to understand the whales that are harder to see and hear, those deep diving species which are infrequently seen. Four years of proposals, paperwork, planning calls, and research and it's almost here.

This just got real.

Our research vessel, the R/V Song of the Whale, arrived in Beaufort, NC the other day.

Check out this story

Great Project! I wonder if you have anyone looking at fish sounds in your recordings? Few people have done so in the Atlantic.

I mean of deep water fish of course!

With a little over a month until our first research cruise departs the dock, the team has been busy getting everything together. Survey lines have been laid out and split up into 15 day legs. We're working on scheduling to ensure we have time between cruises to have open houses for people to visit us at the dock, or even virtually through streaming web tours and question and answer sessions. Meanwhile, our research vessel, Song of the Whale, just checked in from the middle of the Atlantic on their way to North Carolina. It will be a busy few weeks ahead, stay tuned!


We have a pretty special research vessel for this project. The Sailing Research Vessel (SRV) Song of the Whale. The SRV Song of the Whale is one of the only vessels in the world built especially for acoustic research on whales. Their joining the rest of our team in North Carolina later this month after finishing up a survey in the Mediterranean. Just got word they passed the Canary Islands and are on their way!

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Expedition Background

Hi there and thanks for visiting our expedition site!

I'm Jake, a Marine Biologist at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). Along with colleagues from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Duke University and Marine Conservation Research, I am working to understand the acoustic behavior of the world's deepest diving, but rarely seen, marine animals.

When you think of whales, the word cryptic doesn't really come to mind, but believe it or not, there are still species of whales that surface so infrequently, are so rarely observed and we know so little about, that we call them cryptic. The goal of the Marine Mammal Acoustic and Spatial Ecology (MAPS) project is to expand what we know about the behavior and ecology of these cryptic species that call the waters of the United States their home.

Understanding these cryptic cetacean species allows us to update what we know about their distribution in the Atlantic, improve our surveys for them in other regions of the US, and in some cases, verify or establish what we know about their acoustic behavior or cue rates (Basically how often they make sounds and during what behaviors).

Stay tuned here as we update our digital field journal along the way!


Really exciting project! Looking forward to seeing your updates !

Hi Jake, your project sounds fantastic, I look forward to hearing about your findings.

Thanks for following along!

We'd love you to come to Senegal too! :-)

This is really exciting!

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