Local media coverage of SOCAL-BRS outreach

Please check out a recent story in a local SOCAL newspaper (The Daily Breeze) on the SOCAL-BRS research project.

See the link below as well as the lead-in to the article


Scientists can’t yet definitively say why whales and dolphins strand themselves — or whether human activities are always to blame. But they are closing in on some answers and, in the process, seeing a fuller picture of how marine mammals interpret their environment.

The initial findings of a years-long study of whales that have been tagged in the Southern California Bight (the curved coastline from Point Conception to San Diego) have turned up a few surprises, while also generating new questions about the lives of these massive, but largely mysterious animals.

“We have a mixed message,” said Brandon Southall, a lead biologist on the Southern California Behavioral Response Study (SOCAL-BRS) team trying to understand how whales react to certain noises. “Some of them have responses and some don’t, but it looks like the responses really depend on what the animal is doing.”

Southall and 17 other researchers on the SOCAL-BRS team on Thursday completed a 10-day stint on the ocean five miles out from San Pedro, buzzing around in inflatable motor boats tagging 80-foot-long whales and smaller dolphins.

Tagged blue whale


SOCAL-14 Phase I ends – with an open public forum at Cabrillo Marine Aquarium

We’ve come to the end of our first phase (of three or possibly four) for SOCAL-14. This was a bit shorter than typical (10 days) for our research phases using the R/V Truth as a platform. We finished off our field work with an open public presentation and discussion forum on the project hosted today by the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro. They were gracious enough to offer us some significant logistical support and to provide a venue for us to talk with some of the local research, conservation, and education folks working on marine mammal issues in southern California. Above is a photo of a subset of our field team in front of the Aquarium today and below are a few more photos of our talks and demonstrations of field gear and tagging boats.

Overall for the first phase we had good but not great success. We worked in some marginal weather conditions and are seeing some different distributions of animals in a few places, perhaps having something to do with the unusual 70+ degree surface water temperatures we are seeing out here with more tropical fish species showing up. We didn’t tag our highest priority beaked or fin whales and tagged just one Rissos dolphin. But we tagged eight blue whales (like the one shown below with two different tags being applied – taken under NMFS permit #14534-2, credit K. Levek) with four complete CEE sequences (two MFA, two control), one of which had an incidental exposure on a tagged minke whale, which is a first. This is just the start of SOCAL-14 and please stay tuned for more details and updates as we continue our work out here studying behavior in these amazing animals starting back up in a few weeks.





Struck out offshore…Risso’s off Catalina


There was a decent weather window for SOCAL-14 to work offshore the last there days. We had workable conditions with acoustic detections and sightings of a few beaked whales, which are our priority species when we are able to work in areas around the Navy range west of San Clemente Island. Unfortunately we weren’t able to tag any beaked whales and there just weren’t many other animals of any species around. Today the offshore weather went downhill and we fell back to Catalina targeting Risso’s dolphins (like the one above; taken under NMFS permit #14534-2, credit A. Friedlaender). There were plenty of animals around but the weather picked up on us before we were able to get tags deployed. Overnight here in Avalon with an early start hoping for either beaked whales or Risso’s dolphins in the morning off the deep waters around this beautiful island.




SOCAL-BRS paper on fin whales

Dr. Jeremy Goldbogen of Hopkins Marine Station (Stanford University) lead a team of SOCAL-BRS researchers in publishing a recent paper on new techniques to identify calling fin whales. This method involves using the accelerometers (movement sensors) in combination with the typical listening hydrophones to pinpoint whether a whale vocalization comes from the individual the tag is riding on. This is harder than it may seem given that the loud amplitude and low frequency nature of fin whale calls means other whales might be as easily detected on the tag as the focal individual it is on. The results have implications for the basic study of communication, responses to disturbance, and population assessments of these endangered animals. The reference, link, abstract, and Fig. 1 are given below (check out the paper for more details). _________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Goldbogen, J. A., A. K. Stimpert, S. L. DeRuiter, J. Calambokdis, A. S. Friedlaender, G. S. Schorr, D. J. Moretti, P. L. Tyack, B. L. Southall. (2014). Using accelerometers to determine the calling behavior of tagged baleen whales. The Journal of experimental biology, jeb-103259. <http://jeb.biologists.org/content/217/14/2449.abstract>

Low-frequency acoustic signals generated by baleen whales can propagate over vast distances, making the assignment of calls to specific individuals problematic. Here, we report the novel use of acoustic recording tags equipped with high-resolution accelerometers to detect vibrations from the surface of two tagged fin whales that directly match the timing of recorded acoustic signals. A tag deployed on a buoy in the vicinity of calling fin whales and a recording from a tag that had just fallen off a whale were able to detect calls acoustically but did not record corresponding accelerometer signals that were measured on calling individuals. Across the hundreds of calls measured on two tagged fin whales, the accelerometer response was generally anisotropic across all three axes, appeared to depend on tag placement and increased with the level of received sound. These data demonstrate that high-sample rate accelerometry can provide important insights into the acoustic behavior of baleen whales that communicate at low frequencies. This method helps identify vocalizing whales, which in turn enables the quantification of call rates, a fundamental component of models used to estimate baleen whale abundance and distribution from passive acoustic monitoring. KEY WORDS: Acceleration, Acoustics, Whale


A Good Start to SOCAL-14


We’ve were offshore the first few days of SOCAL-14 and pushed back closer to the mainland today with tougher offshore weather. Working around tiny Santa Barbara Island shrouded in fog early on we managed just one short tag deployment on a Risso’s dolphin out of over 100 we encountered. We searched for beaked whales as well in the offshore areas but conditions were marginal most of the time and rougher weather moved in yesterday.

Given the deteriorating offshore conditions, we fell back closer to the mainland in search of our priority baleen whale species, which are fin and blue whales. We found each, as well as minke and humpback whales, in Redondo and Santa Monica bays with lots of visible krill and many other predators from birds to fish as well. Yesterday we were able to get both a blue whale (shown in the photo above; taken under NMFS permit #14534-2 credit J. Calambokidis) and a minke whale tagged. We focused efforts on the blue whale for the simulated sonar controlled exposure experiment (CEE), but the minke whale was incidentally exposed and we measured the sounds on the tag attached to that animal, which was a first for this species in the Pacific. Today we tagged another blue whale and conducted a control (no sound) exposure experiment.

As a reminder, please see <http://sea-inc.net/socal-brs/socal-14/> for a simple summary of our experimental methods and objectives for SOCAL-14. Thanks for following our progress out here – we will update the blog as regularly as possible with internet access.


For those of you who have followed the from-the-field blog for the Southern California Behavioral Response Study (SOCAL-BRS) before, welcome back and thanks for the interest and support over the past year regarding our publications and presentations. For others of you not familiar with the project, we hope you will find some interesting information about our work through the blog and the project website <www.socal-brs.org>

We have posted a lot of new information, updates, photos, and papers from the front page of the website. Additionally, you can find a drop-down menu with a dedicated page for each field season, including SOCAL-14 which is just beginning now. On this page <http://sea-inc.net/socal-brs/socal-14/> you can find a simply worded public summary document with information about the configuration and objectives of the project for this field season.

We will be on the water for the next ten days starting tomorrow and the weather looks very favorable for the next few days offshore. Look for semi-regular posts about our effort and progress as soon as we are able to get enough internet access to upload some images and summaries. Thanks again, and especially to the program sponsors (U.S. Navy Living Marine Resources Program and Office of Naval Research Marine Mammal Program) for allowing us to be out here doing this work.

Brandon Southall

SOCAL-BRS Chief Scientist



IMO adopts guidelines to reduce underwater noise from commercial ships.


The International Maritime Organization (IMO) recently adopted guidelines to reduce underwater noise from commercial ships.

The new guidelines:

–         recognize that shipping noise can have short-term and long-term impacts on marine life;

–         call for measurement of shipping noise according to objective ISO standards, which are themselves on the verge of adoption;

–         identify computational models for determining effective quieting measures;

–         provide guidance for designing quieter ships and for reducing noise from existing ships, especially from propeller cavitation; and

–         advise owners and operators on how to minimize noise through ship operations and maintenance, such as by polishing ship propellers to remove fouling and surface roughness.

While these (as yet) are voluntary guidelines, not mandatory code, they put the IMO’s imprimatur on noise reduction. Thanks go to the U.S. government, which put the issue on IMO’s agenda and shepherded it through the IMO’s processes, and to Germany, Australia, Spain, the UK, and other governments that supported and helped develop the guidelines.  Thanks also to the coalition of progressive trade groups, research and academic scientists, and NGOs who partnered with member states to get this done, most notably NRDC.  The more difficult work – implementation – lies ahead, but the guidelines are a milestone in the advancement of this issue.

Later this month, there will be a short article in the Journal of Ocean Technology written by Brandon Southall on the history and evolution of this issue, the text of which is given below. If you would like a copy of the IMO document describing what was voted on and the guidelines, please contact Brandon.Southall@sea-inc.net


Partnerships for Global Change on Ship Noise

Brandon L. Southall

An international collaboration of scientists, environmental groups, government agencies, and forward-thinking sectors of the shipping industry aims to reduce noise from large ships and associated negative effects on ocean life. And a landmark vote to adopt new guidelines for vessel quieting is just around the corner.

Imagine being beneath the sea with a quiet re-breather system, listening to the underwater world. Among the rushing of waves, snapping shrimp, glumping fish, and whistling dolphins you hear the rumble of a distant ship. You might wonder what it was and whether it was approaching. Or you might recognize it as a symbol of human advancement – a vital flow of industry delivering goods to far corners of the world. To many of us that began working together a decade ago it represented both a challenging, broad-scale concern for sound-sensitive marine life and an opportunity to effect change proactively beyond confrontational divisions that permeate many environmental issues.

Unlike Cousteau’s vision of a silent world, the ocean is naturally noisy – sounds of earthquakes and whales are heard for hundreds of kilometers. But some areas, particularly coastal northern hemisphere regions, have seen major increases in low-frequency (<1000 Hz) noise. The source is human growth and industry, particularly the tens of thousands of commercial ships now continuously plying the seas as our primary global means of distribution.

Public awareness of how sounds affect animals is driven by dramatic but rare events like whale beachings following sonar events. Ship-radiated noise presents less obvious but continuous, broadly-distributed issues. These sounds can affect marine animals in sub-lethal yet significant ways, reducing communication ranges particularly for species reliant on low-frequency sounds to socialize and navigate like whales, seals, and fishes.

Reducing impacts from the aggregate noise of many vessels is challenging given the global scale, typical lifespan of a large ship, and the historical lack of regulation. But progress has been made since the recognition of this as an important conservation matter at the first international symposium on shipping noise convened in 2004 by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and workshops on vessel quieting by NOAA and the environmental organization Okeanos – Foundation for the Sea. An international collaboration of proactive representatives of the shipping industry, environmental, government, and scientific communities is pushing solutions forward through the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Marine Environment Protection Committee. This spring, the IMO will vote on new guidelines outlining engineering solutions to reduce incidentally radiated noise from large commercial ships. This is an historic milestone in a long quest toward tangible reduction of the global noise footprint of one of our oldest and most important industries.



New Paper on “200 kHz” sonar with side lobes audible to marine mammals



On behalf of my co-authors, I would like to let you know about a new paper on the audibility of high frequency sonar systems to some marine mammals. We investigated the acoustic “leakage” of energy into side lobes from the 200 kHz center frequency of three commercially-available sonar systems. These active sonar systems were being used in efforts to detect and track marine mammals around a tidal power turbine site and they were not expected to be audible to the animals based on their very high frequency. However, behavioral observations of killer whales suggested they were in fact detecting them. Our acoustic analysis of the systems indicates that there is sufficient downward spread of energy in the side bands to expect that these odontocete cetaceans could in fact hear them. We conclude that received levels at animals would very likely be well below those that could be harmful, but that they could be audible and potentially affect behavior over ranges of hundreds of meters. A reference to the paper, weblink to the Open Access manuscript, and the article abstract are given below. The lead author was PNNL engineer Zhiqun (Daniel) Deng and both he and I would appreciate any comments or questions on the paper.

Deng ZD, Southall BL, Carlson TJ, Xu J, Martinez JJ, et al. (2014) 200 kHz Commercial Sonar Systems Generate Lower Frequency Side Lobes Audible to Some Marine Mammals. PLoS ONE 9(4): e95315. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0095315


The spectral properties of pulses transmitted by three commercially available 200 kHz echo sounders were measured to assess the possibility that marine mammals might hear sound energy below the center (carrier) frequency that may be generated by transmitting short rectangular pulses. All three sounders were found to generate sound at frequencies below the center frequency and within the hearing range of some marine mammals, e.g. killer whales, false killer whales, beluga whales, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, harbor porpoises, and others. The frequencies of these sub-harmonic sounds ranged from 90 to 130 kHz. These sounds were likely detectable by the animals over distances up to several hundred meters but were well below potentially harmful levels. The sounds generated by the sounders could potentially affect the behavior of marine mammals within fairly close proximity to the sources and therefore the exclusion of echo sounders from environmental impact analysis based solely on the center frequency output in relation to the range of marine mammal hearing should be reconsidered.

Please also see a PNNL press release on the study: http://www.pnnl.gov/news/release.aspx?id=1053

Greenwire put a short piece out on the paper which you can find at: http://www.eenews.net/greenwire/2014/04/16/stories/1059998006

Marine mammals can detect sounds from readily available sonar systems — study

Jessica Estepa, E&E reporter

Published: Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Whales and other marine mammals likely can detect sounds from sonar systems that had been considered out of their hearing range, a new finding that scientists say should play into policymaking.

While marine mammals are known to be sensitive to certain sounds emitted by echo sounders, some systems were considered safe because they operated at frequencies of 200 kilohertz — thought to be outside their hearing range.

But the new report published yesterday in the journal PLOS ONE found that these sounders — commercially available for uses such as exploration and navigation — release a second, lower frequency that can be heard by marine mammals.

A team led by study authors Daniel Deng, a chief scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and Brandon Southall, senior scientist and president of Southall Energy Associates Inc., examined the potential impacts of three different systems as part of a bigger assessment on the environmental impact of a proposed tidal energy project in Puget Sound, Wash.

Deng and his team measured the frequencies from the systems in field tests. The data collected was then used to determine whether the lower frequencies would fall into the hearing ranges of marine mammals.

They found that these lower frequencies fell between 90 to 130 kilohertz, well within the audible range for the animals.

While the mammals could detect the sounds at those rates, the study noted that’s below potentially harmful levels, such as causing tissue damage. They also determined that the frequencies could only be heard by animals who were nearby.

Still, researchers said the signals could affect animal behavior. Southall noted that some species, such as harbor porpoises, may leave local areas if they hear the frequencies.

Sonar systems are “commonly exempted” from environmental permitting requirements, according to the study. Both Deng and Southall suggested that policymakers should at least consider whether high-frequency systems may affect animals.

The study provides scientific evidence that policymakers can use, according to Deng. “We believe this should be a consideration for them,” he said.

Southall said other systems should be investigated in similar ways. He added that there is a need for controlled behavioral investigations about cetacean responses.

“We aren’t saying that these are necessarily a major issue, but managers should revisit just flatly excluding things from the regular kinds of consideration and assessment because the frequency on the side of the box says they should be ultrasonic,” Southall, previously with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in an email.



New Paper on Spotted Seal Hearing

We are very happy to announce the recent publication on hearing and the masking effects of noise in spotted seals. This is the first-ever such measurement of hearing in this species both in air and under water. This study was conducted in highly controlled and quiet acoustic environments and the results indicate very acute hearing by these phocid seals both above and below the water. Jillian Sills, a graduate student in Dr. Colleen Reichmuth’s lab at UC Santa Cruz <see: www.pinnipedlab.orb> was the lead author of this seminar article. SEA’s Brandon Southall was fortunate to work with the UCSC team on this important project, which is continuing with the first-ever measurements of how seismic airguns affect the hearing of seals. Related studies are also underway with ringed seals, another important species of Arctic seal, and future work is planned with bearded seals.

Sills, J. M., Southall, B. L., & Reichmuth, C. (2014). Amphibious hearing in spotted seals (Phoca largha): underwater audiograms, aerial audiograms and critical ratio measurements. The Journal of experimental biology217(5), 726-734.

New paper on seismic surveys and mitigation of impacts on marine mammals

SEA Blog,

A paper was on responsible practices for conducting seismic surveys in environmentally sensitive areas was published recently in Aquatic Mammals. The lead author was Dr. Doug Nowacek from Duke University’s Marine Laboratory, who is a close colleague of SEA’s president Brandon Southall who was also an author on the paper. A copy of the .pdf is available with an email to Brandon.Southall@sea-inc.net

An IUCN press release on the paper is available at <http://www.iucn.org/?14297> and the first part of the release appears below:

Keeping whales safe in sound

A unique collaboration between the oil and gas industry, scientists and conservationists proves a way to minimize seismic survey impacts on rare whales and other species. A step-by-step guide to reducing impacts on whales and other marine species during seismic sea floor surveys has been developed by experts with IUCN’s Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel (WGWAP)and Sakhalin Energy Investment Company Ltd. In the study, published in the journal Aquatic Mammals, the authors present the most thorough, robust and practical approach to minimizing and monitoring the risk of harm to vulnerable marine species when intense sounds are used to survey the sea floor primarily in the search for oil and gas.



Articles on the paper appeared in various news agencies and papers around the world – here are a few links:








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

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