SOCAL BRS Tools: WILD geospatial mapping software

Today was a tag recovery day for SOCAL-11.  The Rissos dolphin tag from yesterday afternoon rode around on the animal overnight and it was quite a ways from where we started.  We again put someone on an island to listen for it and had both our small boats searching and it took until afternoon to find it.  We did hear a sperm whale (or more) in the distance and tried for most of the day from the other boats to locate it, but never managed to.  We tracked a nice group of common dolphins for a while as well, testing our group sampling protocols for doing sound playbacks to groups of animals without tags.  As we have done in the past, below is a some information on one of the many capable tools used in SOCAL-BRS.  This project requires many different specialized capabilities, and this geospatial software is among them.  Thanks to C. Kyburg of SSC Pacific for this contribution.


The Whale Identification Logging and Display (WILD) software serves several functions for the research team.  Animal observations are recorded and displayed on a map in plan view as well as the positions of all research vessels in real time.  This permits the team to coordinate animal tagging as well as setting the stage for successful sound transmissions in controlled exposure experiments (CEEs).   The mapping portion of WILD also displays bathymetry, shorelines, marine sanctuary boundaries and other contextual information (e.g., location of research and some other vessels).  There is a WILD mapper display on the flying bridge where the visual observer team operates and another display on the bridge of the ship.  Having the same map information real time in both locations allows for effective communication between the visual team, the ships helm and the chief scientist.  The result provides the chief scientist effective tactical decision support for both tagging and playback operations.


 Configuration of WILD aboard the Truth.  The logger Observations are recorded on the Logger module on the flying bridge. The animal positions are immediately posted to the WILD Mapper both on the flying bridge and the Bridge.  The WILD communications module provides navigation information to all components as well as animal observations to the Mappers.

The illustration above shows a summary from WILD of a playback sequence.  The map includes the 100 meter bathymetric contours represented by blue lines and land (yellow).  The central research platform, the R/V Truth, is represented by the green line, and the focal animal group for this experiment (Risso’s dolphin – Grampus griseus) is represented by the pink triangles (animal ‘A’).  An individual within the focal group is affixed with a WHOI D-Tag recording device.  Each individual or group of animals tracked by the visual team is represented by identifier (the letters on the map) and sequential observation numbers (the number appearing after the letter on the map).  The two buffer rings on the map are the 200 meter and 1000 meter rings around the main platform. Any marine mammal within the 200 meter ring requires the experiment to be terminated for the safety of the animal(s).  The 1000 meter ring allows researchers to determine animals that are incidentally exposed at a level where they may be behaviorally affected according to the operating conditions of the permit.  In the case of this playback the experiment was terminated after 15 minutes because another Risso’s dolphin (animal ‘B’) entered the 200 meter zone.  .  Even with the experiment terminating early to comply with operational protocols and permit requirements, valuable data is still obtained from the tag on the focal animal.  This example demonstrates the importance and efficacy of a real-time mapping tool to integrate visual sightings, vessel positions, depth and range to shore information, and other data in a common environment for decision-making and visualization of operations.   [WILD software was developed by Spawar Systems Center, Pacific to support a variety of marine mammal survey programs and the SOCAL-BRS.]

Back to the Rissos (plus Ziphius tagging video)

Today the offshore forecast remained poor and the inshore seas were a mixture of swell and shop from different directions.  With the conditions, we turned our attention back to Risso’s dolphins (above photo credit A. Friedlander, taken under NMFS permit #14534) and offshore blue whales.  We found both and tried for the combo, but oddly only got the Risso’s.  They headed to Catalina, but we followed them and managed to complete a successful playback this afternoon.  On the way back in we heard some distant sperm whales, which has us intrigued about another possible species tomorrow.  Stay tuned.  We will also try to put up a few posts on some of our different teams and some interesting things we have seen out here in the beautiful Channel Islands.

We thought people might like to see a short video clip <click on: TagOnBeakedWhaleSmall> showing the tag attachment of the suction cup tag on a Cuvier’s beaked whale from a few days ago, taken from the sound source boat.  You can notice how glassy calm it was out to the west of Santa Barbara Island at the time.

Operation Ziphius…Engaged

At the top of our list of objectives for SOCAL-BRS is to obtain direct measurements of the responses of beaked whales to simulated military sonar.  Yesterday we had remarkably fair seas (as in zero wind for almost the whole day), which are the conditions required for tracking these elusive animals.  Yesterday we got it and were able to find and track beaked whales 60 miles offshore all day.  Early in the morning we found a group of three Cuvier’s beaked whales (Ziphius cavirostris), that became five and then eight animals, with another pair spotted on the horizon.  By midday we managed to attach a version III D-tag for monitoring movement and sounds produced and received by the animals on an individual beaked whale (the tag can be seen riding on the whale in the picture below, taken by A. Friedlander under NMFS permit #14534).


                Cuvier’s beaked whale with an acoustic monitoring tag off southern California

 Beaked whales are some of the most extreme animals on the planet, repeatedly doing long and deep dives.  We also have specific protocols for conducting controlled exposure experiments (CEE) to ensure the safe execution of the study and also sufficient baseline data against which to statistically compare potential responses.  The combination of these factors generally means that, even after the extreme challenge of tagging one of these animals, successfully completing a full exposure sequence can be difficult and takes a lot of patience.  Fortunately we managed to follow the group yesterday for over ten hours with a combination of acoustic monitoring, visual monitoring, and tracking of the VHF transmission from the tag.  Near the end of the day we successfully completed a CEE with the tagged Cuvier’s beaked whale. 

Today was spent in MUCH rougher conditions recovering the tag and getting back to the mainland.  We put a lookout on top of Santa Barbara island to listen for the tag transmission and direct the boats spread out to track down the tag.  While it was a little bumpy, it worked and we got the tag and all the data loaded onto it back.  There was much rejoicing.  The offshore weather forecast looks pretty tough for the next few days so we will likely be coastal and back in baleen whale mode the next few days, but this is why we have options.


A group of Cuvier's beaked whales swimming in calm seas

Rissos again…headed back offshore

Thursday started off calm but foggy.  This can be a little interesting coming out of Long Beach across the busy shipping lanes, but this is where the animals live.  Our objective today was to retrieve some of the tags deployed yesterday that had still been riding around on multiple animals overnight and then work back into deep water to focus on more offshore species with the increasingly optimistic weather forecast.  Several of the tags were found over twenty miles from where they had originally been deployed, so this took a little bit of searching.


For the second day in a row we managed to attach a suction cup acoustic monitoring tag on a Risso’s dolphin (above: A. Friedlander – taken under NMFS permit #14534), one of the deeper-diving cetaceans that are fairly common along the California coast.  These are remarkable animals with some very interesting social structure we continue to learn more and more about.  They are a priority species for us in SOCAL-BRS and we have been focusing on them more since continuing to learn the best approach strategies for tag attachment in this somewhat challenging species.  Having the success we have with them has been a productive development for us.

On Friday we will be heading back further offshore to some of the more distant Channel Islands.  The forecast is for calm seas through Sunday.  Consequently, we will likely be offshore for the next few days and may have some radio silence with the lack of internet coverage 50 miles out.  We hope to be able to find and tag one of the elusive beaked whales that live in the area.  This is always hard, but hopefully the seas will glass out and we will be in the right place at the right time.  We will let you know how things go when we are back in range, probably Sunday.  Thanks as always for the interest and questions about our progress.

Feast or Famine

Well, after the first four days of this second leg of SOCAL-11 with no suction cup tag attachments and marginal weather conditions we had a good day today.  We attached a total of five tags on three blue whales and a Risso’s dolphin and conducted the third-ever CEE on Risso’s.  We used a variety of tags in deeper water areas to look at diving, movement, and vocal behavior in the blue whales, and the responses of Risso’s dolphins to a controlled exposure to simulated military sonar.  All of the tag attachments and the CEE went very well and with minimal disturbance to animals, who spent much of their day surrounded by inbound and outbound ships from Long Beach.

The tag deployment on the Risso’s dolphin was really an excellent attachment for this species on which there was some question before our successes as to whether it was a good candidate for suction cup tags.  Below is a photo of the tagged Risso’s dolphin from earlier today.

Risso's dolphin with a Dtag (A. Friedlander - taken under NMFS permit #14534)


Offshore to start SOCAL-11 leg II…

We spent the first four days of the second leg of SOCAL-11 well offshore working deep basins and canyons in search of beaked whales.  Sorry for being out of touch,but we have spent the last three nights we stayed near Santa Cruz, San Nicholas, and Santa Barbara Islands, hiding in the lee at anchor and without internet access.  We had several visual sightings and acoustic detections with good working conditions in the mornings, but in marginal weather conditions by afternoon and we did not manage to stay with the animals that were detected long enough to get tags attached.  We did have a tag on an offshore blue whale briefly today but the tag slid off before we could get to a controlled sound exposure.  Risso’s dolphins are a priority species for SOCAL-BRS and we  have had quite a few encounters with them, including a dozen or so sightings, several focal follows, a few close approaches for tag attachment with one being successful today.  The weather forecast is again a bit marginal tomorrow but we will have all assets out searching deeper water areas for beaked whales and offshore baleen whales and shelf areas for additional options with Risso’s dolphins.
Risso’s dolphin in southern California (A. Friedlaender — taken under NMFS permit #14534)




Hi everyone — two important things to announce here.

First, we are all aboard the R/V Truth (below) and our sister sailing ship with towed passive acoustics ready to go for the second leg of SOCAL-11 starting tomorrow at dawn.  While it looks like it will be a little windy to start tomorrow, it should be coming down and the longer range forecast looks quite good.  We will be focusing on offshore species like beaked whales and Risso’s dolphins if the conditions allow, as well as mysticetes (blue and fin whales) in deeper water areas.  If we get well offshore and without internet acces, it may be a few days before you hear about our progress at the start of this second phase of our project.


If you do want to keep track of us through the SEA blog as we report progress on SOCAL-11 from the field, please realize we have made some changes to the location and nature of the blog.  From here on out, please find the SEA blog (and SOCAL-11 blog for the next two weeks) at:  If you subscribe to the SEA blog, you will need to re-subscribe within our new site, which you can do at:

Finally, we have re-configured the SOCAL-BRS site a little bit with a new landing page and sub-pages for both SOCAL-10 and SOCAL-11 — please go to  Thanks for all the interest and support from so many people on this project.  I hope you like the changes and improvements we have made to the blog and website.  We continue to believe that openness and transparency are absolutely essential elements of a responsible research program and we hope you enjoy and learn some things from the material we attempt to try and share in a generally understandable way.


End SOCAL-11 Leg I

We have come to the end of the first leg of SOCAL-11.  We worked offshore the last two days based on the forecast of light winds and calm seas, but this didn’t entirely materialize.  We worked up by Santa Barbara Island in relatively low winds but moderate swell, looking and listening for beaked whales in deepwater canyons.  By noon the winds had come up enough to eliminate chances for locating and tagging beaked whales and we switched gears to try for more coastal species in the lee of the northern Channel Islands.  We didn’t find them there, but yesterday we found several groups of fin whales, Risso’s dolphins, and sighted two beaked whales.  The fog came in though, and it started raining a little, and despite hours of trying with different groups, we didn’t manage to tag on our last day.

Nevertheless, the first leg of SOCAL was quite productive, with a total of 22 tags attached to 20 individual marine mammals (blue whales and Risso’s dolphins), and 14 total controlled experiments conducted, each with detailed focal observations and monitoring before, during, and after sound transmissions.  I will be posting some additional details and images on our first leg in the coming weeks, and the planning for the second leg starting next month.  Thanks so much for all the people following our progress and for all the feedback.

Brandon Southall, Chief Scientist on behalf of SOCAL-11 team

Closer on fins…finally good offshore weather

We’ve had some pretty good conditions in deeper water the last few days and have had success finding baleen whales in deeper water and have spent a lot of time searching for beaked whales as well.  From the picture below you can see the calm conditions we have had in 800-1000m kinds of water.  This has been great in terms of focusing on some key species in areas more like where they might be more likely to encounter real sonar.  For today and tomorrow (our last day of the first leg), we hope to have this weather in 1500m canyons way offshore where we would expect to be more likely to find the deep-diving beaked whales that are an important species in this study.  You can also see in this picture the safety helmets we have been using when tagging large whales.

We spent last night on Catalina, but didn’t really see it as we arrived after dark and left before sunrise, although we did watch masses of schooling flish flying around being chased by sea lions by our lights.  Kind of an aquatic fireworks display.  We will be out of touch working in the Channel Islands today and tomorrow so this may be the last posting before we finish tomorrow night.  Hopefully the offshore forecasts will ring true.  As we are pulling away from Catalina with bottlenose dolphins flipping out in our quarterwake it looks pretty smooth out here…

Trying for beakers…got offshore blues

We had good weather offshore today and we tried for most of the day well offshore in good visibility species looking for beaked whales.  We surveyed fairly large areas of offshore banks and basins looking and listening, but didn’t have any luck.  We came across several small groups and single blue and fin whales offshore and an aggregation feeding up on the shelf and by the end of the day we found a small group of blue whales feeding in quite deep water well offshore.

The photo to the right shows a tag on the left side of a blue whale collecting data about the movement and sounds received (and made) by the animal (J. Calambokidis, Cascadia Research, collected under NMFS permit #14534).

We are still aiming for beaked whales and hope to have good conditions tomorrow morning out from San Diego.  However, we are quite interested in testing the differences in responses of marine mammals in the various kinds of habitats in which they live and are exposed to human sounds.  Today’s CEE with offshore blue whales was very useful in that regard.


SOCAL-BRS is a study of basic behavior and responses to controlled sound exposures in a variety of marine mammal species.

Southall Environmental Associates, Inc.

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