We’re celebrating the launch of the 52 Kickstarter with Q&A’s from some of the project's key players. For this interview, Allday spoke with John Hildebrand, the oceanographer who will lead the search for the world’s loneliest whale. John fills us in on his background and discusses the mission’s risks and rewards.
How long have you been studying whales?
I’ve been at Scripps for thirty years now. I came here in 1983. My PhD is in Physics from Stanford. I came here because my expertise is in acoustics. When you work in the ocean, sound is the primary way that you sense things. Light doesn’t propagate very far in the ocean, whereas sound can propagate a long way. When I first got here, it was the 80s, and there was a lot of support from the Navy. I was principally working on underwater noise, which is important for tracking submarines. In my data were always these marine organisms: fish, dolphins, and whales. At some point I got interested in using the technology that we had developed for tracking. My student Mark McDonald and I started applying that to the whales and what we learned was that there were some very intricate patterns in the way that the whales would interact with each other. They’re swimming miles apart and they’re migrating over a long distance and while they’re doing this, they’re interacting. It’s like a round robin of communication and they would synchronize their behavior. They would all come up and breathe at the same time, using the sound as a queue to organize their behavior. Then, in the mid-late 90s, there were a series of incidents where the Navy was using sonar that produced some response from marine mammals. The one that really got peoples attention was an incident in the Bahamas in 2000 where deep diving animals - beaked whales - beached themselves in lock step with the use of the sonar. As the sonar passed along the coast of the Bahamas, through a channel, you could find animals standing sequentially.
Was it the first observation of noise pollution?
Yeah, exactly, but in an acute way, where the animals were clearly reacting in a way that they were injured. The ones that put themselves on the beach died. This meant that all of a sudden there was more scrutiny put on the whole topic of man made sound and the noise from ships, the noise from sonars, etc. But there were very few people that trained to work in that boundary between understanding underwater noise and understanding marine mammals and their acoustic behavior. The Navy came to me and they asked if I would start working on this more intensively and especially they wanted me to train graduate students so that there would be a community of researchers that could work on the issues related to marine mammals, marine mammal sound and underwater noise.
Is the idea for the navy, for example to use a frequency of sonar that would be safe for marine mammals?
That would be ideal, if we could understand the problem at that level.
How did you plan to go about the expedition? What kind of technology do you plan to use and how do you plan to triangulate the signal of the whale, and consequently what is it that you hope to find?
The signals that Watkins (the scientist who identified 52) described, no one knows at this point exactly the circumstance under which they are being made. They look very much like the kind of signals you would get from a blue whale or a fin whale; those are the two largest baleen whales. There are various hypotheses as to what this could be. One is that there’s an individual unique animal that has this unique call for whatever reason and it may be a known species. It could be a blue whale but it’s got a very unique call and that would be an interesting finding in itself. There also could be possibilities of hybrids between species. The cross between a blue whale with a fin whale - in fact I’ve seen these animals in the wild - they have the fin shape of a fin whale, which is very distinctive, but they have the body coloring of a blue whale. We know very little about those kinds of hybrids. We know they exist, we’ve seen it in the field but it’s really not been well documented, if the sound is from a hybrid and it has this kind of intermediate sense, the 52Hz is intermediate between what you’d expect from a blue whale and what you’d expect from a fin whale. The other possibility is that there’s a new species that no one has quite documented yet.
How do you envision your expedition?
First, we are going to scan through all the existing sound data that we have, because we do have recordings of the animal, and we’ll try to document where it is, what time of year, what time of day does it call, is it found on shore or off shore. Once we’ve scanned through all the data we have, we’ll design an expedition that puts us in the right place at the right time. We have tools for listening in the ocean; we’ll use that in tracking in real time. Go out on a ship, listen for the calls, track it down to the location of the calls and then right down to where there’s the animal that’s making the sounds. We would like to get a biopsy (which is a skin and blubber sample), that would tell us about the genetics. Also we would try to attach a little recorder, a small recording tag so then we could actually document “yes this is the animal that made the call.”
Give me some fun facts about scientific advancements that will come out of this expedition.
These are species that we think we know a lot about, I mean baleen whales, and there were hundreds of thousands of them that decades ago that were exploited as part of whaling, and yet we don’t know that much about them. Here’s this process of discovery, it could be either an unknown behavior of a known species; or it could be this mixture of species that’s never been documented; or it could be a brand new species. All of those are exciting possibilities; almost any hypothesis you come up with is going to tell us something that we don’t know. I think it’s a great piece of science to do.
Will you be part of the expedition on the boat?
I assume so.
Who decides who’s on board?
You need people with various skills. We need people who can track the animal with acoustics; we need people who can operate small boats and take the biopsies, take photo ID’s, apply the tag, extract data from the tag. We’ll have a team of people that includes some other researchers here at Scripps, maybe some graduate students and then my colleague John Calambokidis who’s at the Cascadia Research Collective, so that’s the plan right now and we’re still in the early stage of working out exactly what we will do.
What are the chances of success from 1 to 10 to find the whale?
That’s a good question. That’s hard to say, I would be guessing. I’ve probably seen hybrids maybe in 10 years two or three times but I wasn’t looking for them really hard so if it’s that, we could focus on finding them. As for the the sound, we have good skills for listening and tracking things down. I think we have all the right tools but it’s a really hard question, it’s possible we’d go out and not find it. It’s also possible that we go out within a couple of days we would find it so I don’t know. I’ve never done a project that’s quite so focused on a very small population, like maybe one animal.
So you’ll be the one who’ll tag the animal?
John Calambokidis, he’s the master boat driver but if I’m lucky I’ll be standing there with the tag. John C is the best person on the planet for understanding baleen whale psychology; he can predict what they will do next, which is amazing.