Soundproofist

11 | Ocean noise - with Michael Stocker

April 07, 2020 Soundproofist
Soundproofist
11 | Ocean noise - with Michael Stocker
Chapters
Soundproofist
11 | Ocean noise - with Michael Stocker
Apr 07, 2020
Soundproofist

How does human-generated noise impact the marine life in our oceans? We interview Michael Stocker, the founder and director of Ocean Conservation Research in California. He shares the history of his organization, how they measure ocean noise, how sea animals communicate, and how his organization works proactively to protect whales from needless trauma.

Show Notes Transcript

How does human-generated noise impact the marine life in our oceans? We interview Michael Stocker, the founder and director of Ocean Conservation Research in California. He shares the history of his organization, how they measure ocean noise, how sea animals communicate, and how his organization works proactively to protect whales from needless trauma.

Cary:
This is episode 11 of Soundproofist. And my name is Cary.

Phill:
And this is Phill.

Cary:
Today we’re going to talk with Michael Stocker, the founder and director of Ocean Conservation Research. Michael is an acoustician, a musician, and an environmentalist. He’s been researching and educating people about the impact of noise pollution on marine life since 1992.

Phill:
I was really looking forward to talking with Michael today. I started following his work when I came across his YouTube videos explaining the hearing systems of fish. Later I read his book “Hear Where We Are,” which is an excellent interdisciplinary overview of how humans and nonhuman animals hear in their environments. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in bioacoustics or acoustic ecology.

Cary:
When we did this interview over Skype, all of us were in lockdown because of the coronavirus. So we chatted about that too. In fact, Michael has some pretty interesting thoughts about our post-COVID future… Kinda like this:

Michael:
We’re trying to beat stress and…we’re actually in cultural shock right now. And I think people…you know, I’m coming to work but I’m not being as effective because I’m kind of muddling around in this very bizarre time we’re in. And it also gives us an opportunity here that we might be able to take because there’s some wake-up calls going on. But I mean, hopefully it’ll give us an opportunity to reset. You know, the neoliberals will want to basically put the card table back up on its feet and grab all the jigsaw puzzle pieces and put them all together like it was before. But it’s not going to happen.

Cary:
A lot of people who listen to this podcast might not really know very much about acoustics at all. And then some people do — and they’re in the industry. But I thought maybe you could just give an introduction of how you got in the field of bioacoustics. You know, what led you to what you’re doing now.

Michael:
You know, if I looked at it from where I started out sitting on a piano bench next to Mrs. Brightner when I was four years old, it would have looked like a very convoluted path. But when I look back from where I am at this point, it actually seems like a pretty straight shot. I started... everybody in our family had to learn some instrument. And my brothers were given a trombone and violin respectively, but I could knock over a glass of milk from 10 paces. So they decided to put me in front of a piano so I wouldn’t knock it over. And I studied and I loved it. It was really…you know, I became a musician through that. And I really wanted to be a biologist, a marine biologist particularly. So my mom supported that. We had aquariums all over the house and I knew the Latin names of all the fish, things like that.

Michael:
And I was really into that particular trajectory. I’ve got to high school. High school was pretty boring for me, and I was kind of looking for something exciting. And when the biology class came up, I said, “this is going to be great.” But Mr Trautner managed to make biology boring. He was such a tedious person. I said, “if biology is that, I don’t want to do it.”  So I slipped back into music and I started pursuing dance, and I got into the music industry. And I realized when I was in music industry, particularly working in recording studios and things, that the people who got paid most reliably were people who were technical, who understood electronics, acoustics, and the other kind of support stuff around the music. And who didn’t have to necessarily wear spandex. So I got into that and I studied acoustics and electronics.

Michael:
I took an engineering class actually through Eastwood School of Music. So it was still associated with music. Again, I made a reasonable career. You know, I’ve said myself and sometimes others as I was working in the industry… And I studied, I went to Cal Tech, I studied electronics and magnetics there. And kind of got pretty conversant in the language of science. And biology was still a passion of mine. And in 1992, the Navy particularly was proposing this program. It was called “Acoustic Tomography of Ocean Climates.” And while the ocean climate component of things… So what they were essentially proposing — projecting sound across ocean basins. And by projecting sound across ocean basins, there’s a correlation between the speed of sound and the density of the material it’s in. And in the case of the ocean….

Michael:
It had to do with pressure and had to do with temperature. So, you could actually measure the climate of the ocean and really, instead of having a bunch of sensors everywhere, you had one big sensor that really determines the temperature of the ocean. And that was a beautiful idea. You know, it was proposed by a guy named Walter Munk. And Walter was a brilliant oceanographer, but he was not a biologist. He was a physical oceanographer. And I saw that this is a bad idea because they’re going to put noise in the ocean, and it’s going to disrupt the communication and the environment. I mean, you can imagine having this beeping going on or this — actually probably low roaring going on every, you know, some in a matter of minutes for the rest of your life, across the ocean basin.

Michael:
So I went to the public hearings about this program. And I soon that there was two different sides of this that were... they were not able to talk to each other. There were the scientists, the physical oceanographers who understood mathematics, understood physics, understood the ocean from that standpoint. And then there were the environmentalists who were largely not conversant in science. They were passionate. They understood sympathetically or empathically what the critters in the ocean were suffering or would be suffering. And so I found a niche where I could actually communicate across that line because I understood the mathematics and I also understood the empathic biological side of it. So that’s where I landed in 1992. And then I worked with it for years. I’m still working on it at this point. I did it through the nineties, I was working on doing applied physics for a company that was doing biomimicry work, Pax Scientific, this interesting company.

Michael:
But I was also doing other time contract work. And designing recording studios and designing power supplies... was doing all these kind of technical things and doing this pro bono work when I was showing up at public hearings and writing critiques of environmental impact statements, and things like all the way up to about 2000. And then I got together with some other folks who were passionate about it, who are more organized than I was as far as public coordination organizing, the whole thing I’ve seen since communications and things like that. And so we started an organization that was looking at this issue of noise — ocean, specifically. And as we were, as I was getting into this initially, the Navy was proposing this low frequency active sonar program, which was a kind of an offshoot of the acoustic tomography, again with low frequency signals that they’re kicking across large ocean basins.

Michael:
And they were loud. And as the hearings were happening on that, there was a very tragic incident where the Navy was doing exercises in The Bahamas and it resulted in the stranding of 17 Cuvier’s beaked whales and a one Minke whale as a consequence of the noise that they were subjecting these animals to. And so all of a sudden it came up on everybody’s sonar. It’s like, “Oh my God, noise is a problem.” And that kind of kicked things into gear. And I ended up continuing to work for Pax for a little while, but I realized I needed to really focus my attention on this. So I ended up starting Ocean Conservation Research to really specifically focus on the impacts of human-generated noise, submarine hammer tech. And that was, I think in 2006.

Cary:
Yeah. I’m curious to know –have you met a lot of resistance from industry and corporate interests? And other interests that have had some resistance to your message and your attempts to preserve ocean life and protect them from unwanted, harmful noise?

Michael:
Well, for the first four or five years, the Navy was in complete denial of that and they were doing it. And I wrote a couple of papers about other animals are being impacted, not just whales and dolphins and protected animals. But also I’ve got a paper that seems to be pretty popular still. I wrote it in 2002, which talks about mollusks and other invertebrates and fish and how they’re being impacted by sound. The Navy was in denial about it until about 2004. And then I think they finally realized, because every time I told somebody what I did for a living, the first thing that came off their lips was “The Navy!” So I think they realized that mitigating for bad public opinion was more difficult and more costly than actually doing the right thing. So they began funding research. And also responding to the research and doing things like ramp up and other stuff that they were essentially decreasing.

Michael:
Cause we know you follow the Navy around for the first, you know, from 1998 through 2006-2007, there was always disasters, there was always strandings around where their operations were happening. And a lot of it had to do with the way they were using sound in the ocean or noise in the ocean. And so they started coming around. My whole shtick is not to cause people say, “well thanks for fighting the Navy.” And you don’t fight the Navy. The Navy are pugilists, that’s what they do. That’s what their DNA is. So you don’t fight them. You attempt to basically recruit them. And I did that for years and I had pals in the Navy, who…and also in the industry. It was interesting because the oil industry, as you know, they’re a force to be reckoned with.

Michael:
And there were people in the oil industry. I mean I was involved in this FACA, the Federal Advisory Committee on coming up with a paper, a white paper instructing Congress how to use the data on noise impacts in the ocean to craft policies, direct policy. And we had the Navy and industry on one side of the room and we had the environmentalists and the other side of the room. And it was just a total disaster in 2002. But I ended up becoming friendly with some of these folks on the oil and gas side, as just as pals. Cause you know, you have these conferences and they’re in New Orleans and they’re in Seattle or in places where after the conference was over, everybody kind of huddles with their own group. And I would not huddle with my own group necessarily. I’d go hang out with some of the folks from the oil industry and just be pals. And so I managed to recruit some pretty valuable inside information because these guys, they realized that I wasn’t just a flailing enviro-terrorist, they realized I was actually a guy like them. And that helped out a lot.

Cary:
With valid reasons for doing things. Are there are lot of working specialists in this particular field or are you one of the few or… do you need more?

Michael:
Well, we always need more. But marine bioacoustics… I mean one of the things that I’m missing this month is there were two conferences. One was an ocean noise conference in Barcelona that was basically coordinated by a guy, Michelle Andre, who teaches the university there. There are academics who are doing a lot of stuff and they’re a tangential group, you know, people who are with the military, with the Navy, with Star Wars and things like that. So in terms of marine bioacoustics, and I can’t name them all personally, but I think there was going to be about 300 people at this conference and a hundred of them were going to be students and 200 were going to be people who actually work in the field. So it’s not what you call a crowded field, but most of the people are academics or they work for industry.

Michael:
I just did a project with Noah…Manuel Castellote who works in the University of Washington, but he works up in Alaska. Who is looking at beluga whales, mostly what he studied. But we ended up doing a project looking, monitoring a seismic survey was happening up there. And they had made equipment and I had the nimble…the swiftness of foot to get the project going in time. So after 20 years, I know most of the people who were involved, but it’s really nice to see people, other people coming into it. I think we are the only organization that’s really specifically focused on this as our arena, our contribution to research. It’s just, you know, that’s what we do. Noise pollution in the ocean. So, you know, NRDC has folks like Michael Jasney who are working on it, other organizations, Oceania’s got, you know, Laurel Evanson, who’s focused on this. So, you know, those guys are, they’re like $30 million operations.

Cary:
Yeah, yeah.

Michael:
Small slugs here, but we’re pals, you know. We work together.

Cary:
Your trip to Mexico recently, was that related to your work or were you just taking a break?

Michael:
Uh, somewhat. I’ve been taking groups of people down to Baja, California since 2006 to visit,the friendly whales of San Ignacio lagoon. So it’s associated in as much as… I forget who it was who said, “when you wake up as an environmentalist, you want to figure out if you’re going to spend the day saving nature or savoring it.” This was a savoring thing.

Cary:
I noticed that in your book you encourage people to really listen to the soundscape around us and not just the noise but also what we think is silence. Is that something that you do in some of these group events? Sort of like learning to listen?

Michael:
I’m not really, I don’t actively do that with people. There are people who are, you know, listening groups and things like World Listening is an organization that does this. And they do soundscapes or soundwalks and things. But you know, I approach the world by ears and I’m not highly visual. It’s surprising to me that it really helps sometimes. And I remember giving a lecture at the University of Dominican … for the Dominican University here in San Rafael. And it was in the afternoon, it was a little after the lunch crash. It was like five or six in the afternoon, early evening. And I used to not do PowerPoints, I used to just speak. Because I thought it was important for people to just gather. Kind of like, even though it’s working in a situation without a microphone, so if you just speak, and people are going to be in that sensation.

Michael:
But half of the students were like falling asleep. And the other half were like jumping on the edge of their chairs. So I said “Well, that’s interesting. And if I had a picture or a film of Minnie Mouse doing the can-can up on a screen, I think the other people would be awake.” They did need visual engagement, and auditory engagement works for me. I started doing PowerPoints after that. And it works better frankly, cause you can’t get everybody on the same, you know, auditory band if they’re not accustomed to it. I mean, it’s also what people hear and don’t hear. I mean, so many times I’ve been…I did a presentation at the Oakland Museum one time. And as I was going to my car, I heard these two people in front of me who were also going to their car ,and they were saying, “Boy, I don’t believe that, naynaynay…” And what they were saying they heard was like, “I didn’t say that.” It was totally wild. So people have this narrative continuously going, which helps reinforce who and where they are. And some of them are auditory and some others are visual, and they’re always based on our own internal truths.

Cary:
Well, I think all of those things factor in — you know, cognition, people’s own personal filters, and yeah, exactly. Their own personal truth. And also what you tend to focus on. Somebody who is very sensitive to noise and the sound of gum chewing or something really bothers them …or paper crinkling or something like that. And another person might not even really notice it. And you also covered topics in your book about how different animals, different species of animals hear. And about the hearing systems of ocean life, which of course is your main thing, dealing with not disrupting these ecosystems because of how important it is for them to use these other means of hearing. How have you — I mean we’ve covered some of this in a way, — but how do you think human activity, environmental damage and commerce have impacted their environment over the long term?

Michael:
Well, I think what’s really important to understand is that the ocean is not a visual environment. You can get down in really healthy water or just turbid, because it’s got a lot of zooplankton and phytoplankton in it. And so you can’t see very far in the best of conditions, in really tropical waters. You might be able to see as far as a hundred feet underwater if you’re in shallow water. But if you get down deep, there’s no sunlight down there. Anybody who’s a diver knows you get down to 10, 15 feet, you know, all the red goes away. You just see blue and green and you get down a few hundred feet and there’s absolutely no, the only light down there is bioluminescence from the animals that are generating it. And that’s their communication system. But that is something, it’s very short distance. But you can hear sound hundreds of miles. In some cases, thousands of miles.

Michael:
I mean, there’s a really amazing graphic that I have, which is the sound of a humpback whale’s vocalization, which is heard in hydrophones around the entire Pacific, you know, literally 3000 miles away. And so these animals don’t make those sounds just to be loud. There’s a reason, there’s an adaptation that they have where they make a sound that can be heard 3000 miles away. There’s something 3000 miles away that’s important to them or important to the 3000-mile away target. So, sound is really, and that’s just one species of whale. We have Fin whales all that, the whole series of Rorquals, which are the Fin whales, Blue whales, big huge [unintelligible] whales and Sei whales, they pulse like crickets. That’s what they do all the time. You know, they’re just, boom, boom, boom… Some of the pulses, like the blue whale pulse might be 15 seconds between pulses.

Michael:
But what are they doing with that? Why are they pulsing that way? And my speculation is that they are like, crickets are synchronized, you know, they have some kind of a synchronous pulsing thing they do. And I have some evidence of this, and Minke whales, we’re trying to get a couple of projects going on here where I’ll be able actually verify this. Because we’re going to have two hydrophone arrays that will be able to determine whether or not these are synchronized pulses between adjacent individuals or if they’re random or what have you. But that’s how they use sound. I mean, and crickets, it’s nice hearing crickets “crick,” but they synchronize. Why do they synchronize? What are they doing there? So what seems to be happening with the crickets… You have all these crickets that are cricking away and they’re all synced together.

Michael:
They have an interesting neurological blanking that occurs when they’re cricking. They can’t hear anything. It blanks. So when the one single cricket is cricking, it’s not hearing itself. And if there’s another cricket nearby, it’s cricking and it hears it, it’s easier to sync to a negative target. So they all think so nobody hears it. So when all the crickets, and this is [unintelligible] any insects, when they sync like that, none of them are hearing what they’re doing or what anybody else is doing. Unless somebody encroaches on their community, their acoustic community there, and then one of them will slow down and almost say, “Oh, something’s going on over there.” So they have a community ear that basically allows them to determine the health, the boundaries, extent of what’s going on in their surroundings. And so that’s how they use sound.

Cary:
Interesting.

Michael:
It’s different than humans. It’s different than giraffes, you know, than horses. So every animal has got an adaptation to their sound, acoustic surrounding that is unique to what their species is. There are acoustical niches, different frequencies that they use. And so when you get to the ocean — which is not a visual environment — the adaptations of various animals, whether it’s fish or snapping shrimp or whales, dolphins, whatever, they all have their adaptations with really specific to what their adaptation or you know, other engagement with their surroundings is.

Cary:
And what is amazing is like, as you said, that you can actually hear in this environment like thousands of miles. I think that it could potentially be quite a cacophony. I’ve never dived, so I don’t haven’t experienced that.

Michael:
Well, humans are not well adapted to hearing under water. And one of the problems when they first started getting hydrophones in the water, I mean there was a system of surveillance, a social system that the military put out. And they have these hydrophone arrays in the Atlantic and the Pacific ocean listening for ships and things like that. But one of the problems that they had were all these noises that are damned blue whales, you know, and it just, all this noise, these animals would give, you know… And that’s …when they put that system in, they started 1957 that was probably the least amount of blue whales that were around it because of the commercial industrialized whaling. And you know, if you talk about folks who were in 1820, who were plying the waters, they’d hear all these sounds in the hull of their boats, they’d scare the bejesus out of them. There was all this weird, strange pulsing and howling and screeching. I mean, so you see these old 17th, 18th century etchings of the ocean with all these strange beasts, and that’s what they could imagine.

Cary:
Yeah.

Michael:
I wrote a paper and see that as a six that was looking at the, uh, the noise in the ocean prior to industrialize wailing and if you know, if the numbers are correct. So that worked with, because there’s no way to really determine accurate. There’s nobody was putting hydrophones in the water. Um, that’s, the ocean was noisier in 1820 than it was in 1920.

Cary:
That’s interesting.

Michael:
By a lot.

Cary:
Wow. One of your projects that you have going on right now is the Farallones hydrophone project. Is that, how is that, is that underway right now or is this future?

Michael:
We are working here. We have our theme together. I’m working with Alan Heinz at the asteroids and oceans with San Francisco State University …asteroids and ocean science… And, uh, Bruce Martin. with JASCO. We are shy of funding, but, what happened, I mean, we’re ready to submit. This next week I’m going to get into — and we have people who are interested funders in this, including Noah. And so…this little coronavirus kinda got in the way. And also… we did a project up in Alaska and we have huge amounts of data, which we have to start really combing through. So, we’re on the arc there. The funding is lacking, but there are enthusiastic funders. So, I think we’ll probably hopefully be wet in the water on that by mid- or late summer.

Cary:
Yeah. I hope so. Some of the other projects you listed that you have going on — citizen science sailors, mapping ocean noise, uh, acoustic journeys.

Michael:
Yeah. Yeah. The citizen science…you know, when we’re as, as a nonprofit organization, the scientific work, we’re kind of like carpetbaggers, because unlike people who are doing health and human services stuff, where you say, we’re going to feed this group of people or we’re going to address this homeless issue, what have you, a lot of people who are funders don’t really understand exactly what’s going on. So Citizen Science Sailors is a project we developed, it’s kind of on the boards right now. We never were able to get adequate funding for the thing. And so we’re… It will be a fun project, but I think what we’re going to be doing instead, because what we really wanted to accomplish with that is that there were…Noah has a program called set sound, citation sounds and they’re basically wanting to model the noise in the ocean and they’re taking datasets and are populating their datasets with typically academic stuff.

Michael:
But most of the other modeling is done through… Essentially we’re looking at shipping traffic and speculating what the trip [unintelligible] propagation, transmission characteristics of the ocean. So what we wanted to do was we wanted to put sound collectors out in the ocean. We’re using transoceanic sailors. And I was working with them, this other organization, Hello Ocean, who works with transoceanic sailors and use that opportunity to verify the models. So they would basically be going across the ocean, take a little break, drop the hydrophone in the water and actually do a data point and see if we could use that. It’s still an important project, but to someone who’s a funder, it sounds a little abstract. So I think, after, maybe we can reinvigorate that after we publish on this recent project. We did it in Alaska and also the Farallones thing. Once we get that going, I think we’ll be able to restart the Citizen Science Sailors project.

Cary:
When you say drop a hydrophone into the ocean, exactly what’s entailed in that? And what powers these hydrophones, you know, and enables them to communicate data with you?

Michael:
Well, you can buy a hydrophone, a calibrated hydrophone costs about a thousand bucks. But one that is reasonably calibrated costs a couple hundred bucks. So what we’re proposing doing, is getting these hydrophones with preamplifiers, and they would be on anywhere from 10 to 30 meter wire. You just drop it down in the water. And you record for some period of time and because you’re not highly calibrated, but reasonably calibrated. So we can get at, you know, essentially instruments set for $1,000 on a boat that was reasonably calibrated that we could actually use as a data point to help verify what the models are.

Cary:
Okay. So basically you have to, they have to be there — sort of managing that aspect of the capture. It has to be done while they’re there. It’s not something you could leave behind and measure a couple months later or something. They take it with them.

Michael:
Yeah. Transoceanic sailors, they’re on these boats for long periods of time. I mean, something to do. It’s interesting. It’s science. What may work as far as the project is there are now people with Noah launching these, they’re essentially autonomous vessels that are vehicles that are going down and they’re measuring temperature and solidity and pH and what have you. And then they’re coming up to the surface and they’re beaming that off to satellites. So in effect, that program may eclipse what we’re trying to do at least from a data point — acoustic data points — verification standpoint. But it’s also, the side of it too, cause of the people from Hello Ocean were basically ocean communicators. And they wanted people to know about the ocean that [unintelligible]. So there was that public communication side of it, which is important.

Phill:
I think in the context of this, I’d be curious to the citizen sailors thing. I would just imagine for listeners at home that are interested, is there a call to action, is there like a funding towards you? What can a citizen, an interested citizen do to contribute to these efforts?

Michael:
The Citizens Science Sailor thing was really targeted towards people who were transoceanic sailors, people who are doing that kind of work. In terms of what people can do at home, there’s always, this is, again…there’s another challenge that we have from a funding standpoint because what we’re doing is a little bit removed from the kitchen table. So you know, when people ask me, what can I do to improve this situation that you’re highlighting here? And I say things like, “don’t buy stuff from China,” or “ride your bicycle to work.” You know, the systematic issue that is one of the artifacts or symptoms of noise in the ocean is understanding that the ocean is an acoustic environment . As I say it’s, again, it’s not like one of the things that NRDC or biological diversity can do. They can say, you know, “the wolves are being threatened up in Wyoming” and they can have a program where by investing in $50 donations, you can actually do something to move the needle on that.

Michael:
When people look at the work that we’re doing here. You know, I’ve got this really wonderful communications person, Daniela Huson. You know, what she’s doing is she’s helping people fall in love with the ocean. And you know, when she started working with us, we had a fairly narrow visitorship on the social networking stuff because I didn’t know how to do it. And the person I had doing her job before was more of an under-the-hood. computer person. And well, this gal has got …you know, she’s got it going on. And we, from having a thousand hits a month on Facebook, we’re now getting 20,000 a week. And she’s just getting … Letting people know that the oceans and beautiful place, and it’s great. And then occasionally we slipped in one of these kind of like, okay, right now it’s being threatened. We would like you to subscribe to this or endorse this or call all your Senators or what have you. And then, you know, we can have more impact when people have it under their skin.

Phill:
I do have one more — this is more general and contextually, I would say our initial conversation around this being a watershed moment or the chance to start things over. I’m a very big proponent of DIY methodologies and community grassroots building of things, et cetera. So the question I want to ask though is in your research and in your work about studying the ocean and the acoustics of it, if you could invent or magically create some tool to better help you do your work, what would that tool be? Or what would it do.

Michael:
We’re working on it. I wish it could come fast. But, the project that we’re talking about in the Farallones sanctuary is putting a couple of hydrophone arrays that are displaced by a few kilometers from each other in the water, and having that focus onto the shipping lanes. So what our objective is to look at the interactions between the ships and the bow, or the whales, to try to avoid whale strikes. And what we’re trying to do is have those whales show up on a screen in real time. So shipping people who can see ahead of time if there’s aggregations of certain types of whales that they can avoid, or slow down, or what have you. But we’re using a mathematical tool which called wavelet. Wavelet analysis is a lot more precise as far as getting a read.

Michael:
So there is a project going on down in Santa Barbara area in the Channel Islands down there that has a single hydrophone array, which is identifying when there are large aggregations of whales down there. And how they’re using that is that they are basically listening to the soundscape and they have these classifying… They’re looking at it and then they’re doing analysis through what they call Fast Fourier transform, which gives you a spectagram. And then the spectrograms that we see are basically time against frequency, and that allows us to see kind of shapes that are going on there. And that’s done through, I don’t want to get too technical here, but it’s done through Fast Fourier transform. And so you can see if they’re humpback whales or blue whales or …because they all have these classifiers that work with this visual thing that’s happening.

Michael:
Wavelets are a little different. You essentially are able to kick a sound out, excuse me, not kick a sound, receive a sound. Because we’re not interfering with it, and be able to determine, for example, what we do as we hear. Somebody could call me on the phone I haven’t heard in 30 years and I’ll say, “Hey Bob, what’s going on?” I can hear it because the characteristics of his voice. The way he pauses, whatever. Wavelets allows you to look at the characteristics of sound in a lot more finer-grain detail. And so you can say, with wavelet analysis that’s not just a blue whale, but that’s the blue whale named Bob, and there’s Virginia and Barbara over here. It allows you to really get a fine pitch, you know, fine-grained detailed analysis on this without interfering with the sound.

Michael:
Which is what Fast Fourier transform does this whole filtration process and get a lot of filter all artifacts. I don’t want to too technical here. But, so we’re doing wavelet analysis, and we’re finding that we can get a lot clearer detail on specifics about the sound as opposed to just generalities about the sound. So the answer to your question, what would I want to have at my finger tips is what we’re trying to get. It’s going to take a couple of years working on it to really get it that way. And I have to get the hydrophones in the water. We have to get the wave and you know, we have to get the mathematicians who really have that up on there on their screen working on it. You know, it’s a project that’s, you know, it’s gonna take a number of people, not just me.

Phill:
Yeah. So I see you’re gonna … to summarize, let’s see if I understand this correctly. You’re basically going to apply a wavelet analysis to this hydrophone array in order to track individuals and ideally perhaps visualize this on a map for navigators. That that can be one consequence of this.

Michael:
Exactly, exactly. Yeah. But what can also do, so, you know, the shipping lanes is important. You know, so one of the things that Ellen Hines, with Estuary and Ocean Sciences, she does biological GIS stuff. So she looks at the interactions of animals in a geographical information system context. And we have a situation where we have different species of whales that are being damaged by boats in different ways. We find that the gray whales, which are predated on by orcas, will spook. So they’ll swim away. Humpback whales, which are also predated on, but not to the same degree, will end up also diving when there’s noise around. But when we have these large fin whales and blue whales, these animals are not, you know, the last 6 million years that they’ve been evolving, they have not had anything larger than them in the ocean moving through it. And now, you know, it’s not in their DNA to understand that there is a 30,000 TEU Panamax cargo ship coming at them.

Michael:
They don’t know what to do. And it’s literally at the last moment what animals do, who need to breathe. Instead of diving, they surface. Because they need to breathe when they’re freaked. So we want to look at the… we want to unpack that behavior, those behavioral responses to the shipping noise and find out if there’s something we can do to help alleviate or warn these animals to try to decrease the ship strikes that are happening. Because they’re happening, you know, at a pretty high clip. I mean, over 10 whales came in on the bow of ships in 2018 you know, in the last couple of years. Well actually this last year, 2019, was horrible. It’s like 18. So these animals are getting killed. So you have two different things. One of them, they get struck in front so you can say “OK are these animals trying to avoid the noise and getting in front of the boat because it’s quiet, cause it’s acoustic shadow and they’re getting hit” — or you know, what are they doing? And then there’s the ones that died, but they get stuck up in the propellers because the propellers are sucking a huge amount of water in, and they get sucked up into that. And they’ve got these propellors that are like five meters across. And so we want to look at that and see in real time what’s happening with these animals and see if we can do something to try to figure out how to stop — or at least decrease — it.

Phill:
I have one quick question, just out of curiosity. Are you familiar with the group in Santa Cruz “Conservation Metrics”?

Michael:
No. That sounds like an interesting idea.

Phill:
There’s a team, I think it’s led by this PhD. Matthew McKown who  — they seem to be a bunch of academics and scientists that have now started this company where they put up microphone arrays and then do machine learning analysis of the data to track populations in individuals. I don’t know much more about the specifics of it, but I do know that they’re nearby and are approaching other environmental acoustic problems with similar tool sets. So they might… it might be of interest.

Michael:
Would you mind sending me a link to that? That would be great because this is really one of the things that I’ve been working on for 20 years now is metrics. Because the challenge that we have in terms of regulatory guidelines as well as just understanding what’s going on is to have a metric that explains more clearly what’s happened. And so I’m on the American National Standards Institute, underwater acoustics committee [inaudible] and also on the International Standards Organization committee on underwater sound. Because we need to have that, ways of expressing the sound in the ocean so that it more actually represents what’s going on. And so metrics are super important, and the matches are getting more complicated. And the next ones for using regulatory guidelines are very rudimentary, you know, so we need to actually get into this a little bit more clinical. So I really, yeah, if you could send me their contacts, I’d really appreciate that.

Phill:
Absolutely.

Cary:
Well thank you. And is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

Michael:
We’ve got a lot of work to do. But I appreciate you taking the effort here and I really look forward to hearing more of your podcasts. And Phill, I look forward to seeing what you’re up to.

Phill:
Thanks so much, Michael. Really great talking with you.

Michael:
Yeah. Likewise. Thanks.

Cary:
I’d like to thank Michael Stocker and also my cohost, Phill Hermans. Phill is a musician and educator and a computer programmer. He’s also done a lot of work in acoustics. You can learn more about Michael Stocker and ocean conservation [email protected] you can also make a donation there to their projects. I’ll put links for everything into the Soundproofist blog post that goes with this episode. Thanks for listening.