Today, we leave you with a fascinating story from the ocean deep, where whales often emit mysterious, rhythmic sequences of sound called whale songs. There’s a lot of scientific study behind this form of communication, as Lisa Fletcher finds out in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
Lisa: Is it a language?
Mark Baumgartner: Would you consider birdsong a language? It's a way to communicate. Some languages are more complicated than others.
Mark Baumgartner is a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. He’s evolving the science of tracking whales by following the sounds of their voice.
Mark Baumgartner: Certainly a really interesting place to go with the research is, if they use sound to say, "I'm here, and this is Mark," or "I'm here, and this is Lisa." Do they have a way of communicating their identity while they're saying, "Is anyone out there?"? When animals get together, and it's not about who's out there, it's about let's interact socially, they make all kinds of sometimes interesting and crazy sounds that are delightful to listen to. Most people know humpback whale song. One of the more complicated ways whales communicate — not all whales produce song, right? Right whales don't produce song, fin whales produce a type of song, but it's just very, very simple. They just play a note, the same note, over and over and over again. Whales can probably use that information to tell how deep the water is that they're in, or what the bottom type is. Is it sandy? Is it rocky? They use this sound to not just communicate with one another, but to understand their environment.
But to use science to track the sounds of whales is actually a pretty huge endeavor. For one, the whales are in oceans that make up more than 70% of the earth’s surface. To mix species and metaphor a little, they are the proverbial big fish in an even larger pond.
Mark Baumgartner: So the acoustic technology is pretty simple in concept, and I can use an analogy to describe how it works. So, sending actual recordings of the sound is really difficult because they use up a lot of data. It's just too much data for the bandwidth that we have. And so what we do is we send back representations of sound. If you were playing the piano, and you had a magic box on the piano that, as you played, it just spit out sheet music — you could take that sheet music to any musician, and they would look at the notes on the page, and they'd say, "Oh, Lisa was playing 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' on the piano." That musician didn't have to hear you playing. He just had to look at the notes to know what you were playing. And so we have a person review this information, use their expertise to decide what species are there. And then that information about detections is disseminated.
Just where to find the location data on the whales, integrating with a cohesive navigational chart of hazards for mariners, is still in the works. But there are places, like Whale Alert, where you can see in real time.
Mark Baumgartner: This system is monitoring all the time. And when there are whales there, it tells everyone about it. And I know when we hear right whales there, there's probably a right whale in the shipping lanes, which, to me, is terrifying. It's good to just constantly remind people there are whales out there, and they're imperiled by these shipping activities. We should do something.
Lisa: I'm guessing that you are as passionate or more passionate about this now, as you were 25 or 30 years ago. What drives that?
Mark Baumgartner: Seeing the right whale population decline has made me think a lot more about what it is that we do in the ocean and how our actions impact these animals. And so I've gotten involved in a lot of different aspects of how can we reduce our influence on these animals.
In Woods Hole, Massachusetts, I’m Lisa Fletcher for Full Measure.