Bahamas BRS Video in Smithsonian Ocean’s Today Kiosk

Hi everyone,

Please note the availability of a short video summary of our behavioral response study (BRS) from the Bahamas in 2007-2008 — see:

This video was produced through the Ocean Today kiosk and website by NOAA and is available online as well as in touch screen format at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington DC and Coastal Ecosystem Learning Centers around the U.S.  If you have questions or comments about the project or would like a recent scientific publication of the results, please contact

Have a wonderful holidays and a great start to 2012!  Brandon

NEW PUBLICATION: A New Context-Based Approach to Assess Marine Mammal Behavioral Responses to Anthropogenic Sounds


Please note the following recent publication in Conservation Biology, co-authored by SEA, Inc. President and Senior Scientist Brandon Southall.

Conservation Biology, Volume **, No. *, 1–8
2011, Society for Conservation Biology
published online: DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2011.01803.x

The link to the full article is
The link to the abstract is
and the abstract text is given below:

Abstract: Acute effects of anthropogenic sounds on marine mammals, such as from military sonars, energy development, and offshore construction, have received considerable international attention from scientists, regulators, and industry. Moreover, there has been increasing recognition and concern about the potential
chronic effects of human activities (e.g., shipping). It has been demonstrated that increases in human activity and background noise can alter habitats of marine animals and potentially mask communications for species that rely on sound to mate, feed, avoid predators, and navigate.  Without exception, regulatory agencies
required to assess and manage the effects of noise on marine mammals have addressed only the acute effects of noise on hearing and behavior. Furthermore, they have relied on a single exposure metric to assess acute effects: the absolute sound level received by the animal. There is compelling evidence that factors other than received sound level, including the activity state of animals exposed to different sounds, the nature and novelty of a sound, and spatial relations between sound source and receiving animals (i.e., the exposure context) strongly affect the probability of a behavioral response. A more comprehensive assessment method is needed that accounts for the fact that multiple contextual factors can affect how animals respond to both acute and chronic noise. We propose a three-part approach. The first includes measurement and evaluation of context-based behavioral responses of marine mammals exposed to various sounds. The second includes new assessment metrics that emphasize relative sound levels (i.e., ratio of signal to background noise and level above hearing threshold). The third considers the effects of chronic and acute noise exposure. All three aspects of sound exposure (context, relative sound level, and chronic noise) mediate behavioral response, and
we suggest they be integrated into ecosystem-level management and the spatial planning of human offshore activities.

Keywords: behavioral context, noise, received level, signal-to-noise ratio

SEA Office Warming Party


SEA, Inc. had the pleasure recently of christening our little office, with fresh ocean-themed paint and everything (thanks Kristin!).  It was a wonderful time with great food, live music, and friends new and old, family, and colleagues.  We are so fortunate to have the people we do around us in the work we do in many different areas – people matter most of all.

Here are a few fun pictures a wonderful night at our cozy new offices in the redwoods of beautiful Aptos, California and a little musical sample…03 undr








We have reached the end of SOCAL-11.  While we had some challenges with weather (a few lightning storms near the end), personnel illnesses (nothing too serious but involved some shuffling), and a very different distribution of animals than the near-amazing abundance of animals in 2010, this was all-in-all a very successful second season.  We successfully incorporated two new teams into our efforts, including a towed passive acoustics team operating from a separate vessel (with colleagues from the NMFS Southwest Fisheries Science Center) and fisheries acoustics researchers mapping prey around foraging whales (also from NOAA and Duke University).

As a simple summary of our accomplishments, we attached 38 tags (including v2 and v3 Dtags (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), and Wildlife Computer MK-10 TDRs and TDR-satellite tags) on 25 blue whales, 7 Risso’s dolphins, 2 bottlenose dolphins, and one Cuvier’s beaked whale.  Each of these were important accomplishments, but the Cuvier’s was a highlight, as was the relatively large number of Risso’s dolphins for which time-synched movement and acoustic data were previously quite limited.  We also conducted CEEs on18 individuals (13 total sequences) including 13 blue whales, 4 Rissos, and one Cuvier’s beaked whale.  All of these were completed within all specified protocols, animals were observed following CEEs, and several were cut short because marine mammals ignored the sound source and came within the specified safety zone during transmissions.  We are aware of no live stranded marine mammals occurring anywhere near our experimental activities.  Finally, we completed three focal follow sequences in testing tagless group follow protocols, including two with common dolphins and one with bottlenose dolphins.

We will be summarizing and analyzing our accomplishments, which will be included in the SOCAL-11 project report that will be issued sometime in early 2012.  A blog post and other messages will announce the availability of this report, and it will be posted on  Additionally, SOCAL-BRS will be presented and discussed within a one-day workshop preceeding and at least three formal scientific presentations at the 19th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals in Tampa, FL in November (please see: for more information.

Finally, it has been a tremendous privilege and a pleasure to work with so many talented and dedicated people.  We have been trying to do some difficult things, some of which have not been done before, and we had the fortune of an all-star team of scientists and field personnel from all of our partner organizations (Cascadia Research, NOAA, WHOI, NUWC, SPAWAR Systems Pacific, Scripps, Duke University, Applied Physical Sciences, and SEA).  We would also like to thank our friends and colleagues at Truth Aquatics in Santa Barbara who operate the R/V Truth and who’s flexibility, patience, and dedication to doing what needs to be done have been central to the success of this project.  We also appreciate the help, support, and permission to conduct our work granted by both the NMFS Office of Protected Resources and the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.  Finally, we would especially like to thank our resource sponsors (N45 Environmental Readiness Division of the Chief of Naval Operations and the Office of Naval Research) for believing in and enabling this project to proceed. 

 Below are a number of photos from our efforts on the water (photo credits are included; all were taken under NMFS permit #14534).  Please stay tuned for more SOCAL-BRS information in the coming weeks and months, including announcements from and presentations given at th SMM conference.

Cuvier's beaked whale with the R/V Truth


Common dolphin skimming the surfaceSan Nicholas IslandSouth side of Santa Cruz Island at sunset


San Nicholas Island


South side of Santa Cruz Island at sunrise

Last days of SOCAL-11

We are wrapping things up here on the second leg of SOCAL-11.  The winds have been calm and we have had a number of visual and acoustic detections the last few days offshore in the Santa Monica and Santa Cruz basins.  However, our efforts have been somewhat compromised by those of others and we decided against doing a CEE for the one Rissos dolphin we tagged given the amount of other incidental noise it was being exposed to at the time already.

The orca interaction was interesting and seeing these animals in the wild is always inspiring.  We decided against tagging these transient killer whales, but did take some excellent photos (above and below by T. Pusser taken under NMFS permit #14534) to contribute to the existing photo-ID databases, which is one of a number of contributions to the basic understanding of marine mammals our project has been eager to make.  If you click on the link here <OrcaShortMovie>, you can see a short video clip of five of this group of eight animals as they surfaced passing quite close to our boat that was stationary as they approached us.  As you can see by the photo below, even the most dominant animals in the ocean aren’t immune from human impact; this male has what appears to be a propeller scar on it’s dorsal fin.


Today is a packing day for SOCAL-11, unloading the myriad instuments, boats, and tools used in this multi-disciplinary project.  I will provide a wrap up summary post in the next few days once we are completely dry.  One final note is that it looks like the link to the 3-part blow hole on Santa Barbara Island I posted while we were traveling the other day didn’t work, but I have fixed it and you should be able to access that now from the preceeding post.

Steaming, orcas, and Channel Islands Geology

We have been mainly in transit this morning back up to the northern Channel Islands so thought we would provide a quick from the field update and a little bit about the geology of the area where we are working.  We are steaming west now in a heavy fog but just bumped into a small pod of transient killer whales and are observing them.  There are some bottlenose and Risso’s dolphins as well as elephant seals in the area, so it might get interesting.  We just had the group of eight orcas swim right past us as we were stationary, which was impressive; photos will follow at some point.  We will likely be out of internet range tonight and tomorrow, so stay tuned for an update on Friday about our progress and how this current situation develops.

Throughout this project we have had the privilege of working in some remarkable and beautiful places.  The eight Channel Islands cover 160 miles off southern California and include a northern cluster (San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and Anacapa) and a southern group (Santa Barbara, San Nicholas, Santa Catalina, and San Clemente) that is more dispersed.  During the course of SOCAL-BRS we have worked around all eight of the islands and this year have anchored in the lee of five of them.  They are fairly rugged and quite dry with desert-like plants.  Like many places near people, some of them (such as Santa Barbara) have been heavily impacted by people, but for the most part they are amazingly undeveloped.  They are quite distinct for being as close to one another as they are, and they are all really remarkable in their natural history and in their geology.

The foundation of rocks making up the islands seems old at over 100 million years, but even that is relatively young in a geological perspective and most of the changes that have made them into their current form are more recent.  Like much of California, they have been formed and modified by the fact they are on an active margin between the oceanic Pacific plate and the continental North American.  A smaller plate (the Farallon) began being pushed under the North American plate about 30 million years ago and the modern marine basin formed in which the Channel Islands began forming from the compression of sedimentary rocks and uplift of the basement foundation.  These areas have been changed as well by historical rises and falls in global sea level.  During the last ice age the northern channel islands were actually one large island was called Santarosae.

Like many areas with recent and ongoing tectonic activity, the Channel Islands have an associated diversity of visible geology.  While our ability to explore the area has obviously been very limited with the round the clock pace of operations out here and covering the large areas of ocean we do, we have had a few chances to observe some of this geology.  If you click the link here <SantaBarbaraIslandDragonBlowhole> you can see a short movie of a tripartite blowhole on the south side of Santa Barbara Island that we caught blowing in the surf the other day.  Below is a photo taken inside the second largest sea cave in the world (almost a quarter mile of water extending into it) located on the north side of Santa Cruz Island.  This photo of the cave (where scenes from the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie was shot) was taken from the main research vessel used in our project.  These are just a few examples of how cool the Channel Islands are, beyond the rich marine life that has brought our studies to this special place.


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.


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.

Reducing environmental impacts from essential human activities requires unique approaches to meet challenging conservation objectives in the 21st century. SEA, Inc. works globally with diverse scientific teams and cutting-edge technologies to provide real-world solutions. Learn more about SEA