Archive for category Underwater Acoustics

From NYC to the GBR

by Elliot Bok

As the New York City skyline faded in the distance, I closed the airplane window cover over the reddening sunset in favor of a nap on my way to Vancouver. Upon landing, I rode on a couple of increasingly tiny planes, going farther and farther into the Great Bear Rainforest, a wilderness oasis that few people know exist. The plane pulled into the tiny Bella Bella airport, and Diana and Max, two people on the team I would be working with for my time in the Great Bear, greeted me.

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They got me settled in and quickly set me up looking over spectrograms for whale and dolphin sounds. Those hazy, blue graphs along with a range of other tasks became my life here. The work was satisfying, and I enjoyed the frequent spurts of wildlife action – from eagles to orca whales – that come with living here.

The local community was also a source of fascination for me. The small town experience was brand new, and it held much more appeal than I ever would have imagined. Despite the intrigue that I found during my first week of life in the Great Bear Rainforest, however, it was not until our trip to the outer coast that I began to understand the value of my adventure.

A boat ride of a few hours brought Ian McAllister and me to a small island on the edge of the Pacific with only one other sailboat resting in one of the beautiful lagoons. We dropped anchor and prepared for our mission the next day when the rest of the crew would join us to plant a hydrophone deep in the water and build infrastructure for wind mills, solar panels and a host of other equipment.

Later that day, I had the opportunity to take a canoe around the many beaches that glittered in the afternoon sunshine. The water was remarkably clear, and the pristine beauty of my surroundings truly struck me. I have always given the required “wow” at a beautiful sunset, but this island was the first time that I ever felt truly taken aback by scenery. I landed on the beach and walked through some woods to the other side. I reached a beach and, dipping my feet in the water, brushed a couple tiny pebbles off a big rock so that I might sit. It took a few minutes before I realized that these were not pebbles, but baby snails.

Suddenly, my surroundings seemed to come to life; fish swam through the water around my feet, and I finally noticed the crabs that I’m sure had always been running about the beach. Eventually, it became time for me to return to the boat, and, following my footprints back to the area in the woods I had come through, I realized that I had stepped over almost a dozen clear trails of wolf tracks. I returned to my canoe, and, after venturing among the tall reeds for another half hour, I made my way back to Ian. Those few hours gave me a new perspective to all of our work. My life trajectory may not have changed all that much because of this afternoon, but I am sure that on the plane ride home I will not close my window to the sunset.

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Gearing up for the Summer

The beauty and eeriness of the other-worldly symphony stop everyone in their tracks as the sounds of various pods from A and G clans fill the float lab. The increasingly familiar orca whistles and squeals are building a following as more people follow our Twitter and Facebook feeds and tune in to our local station 92.3FM, or through our website. This crystal clear audio is especially gratifying after a winter of huddling over laptops in torrential rains or climbing relay station towers in storm conditions troubleshooting testy equipment.

Now that we have our system design dialed, we’re preparing to install two new hydrophone stations, one on the extreme outer coast and one down towards Hakai Pass, to expand our efforts to monitor marine mammals and shipping noise.  We’ll also be setting up a high-definition remote camera at one of the hydrophone sites to allow for visual surveys of marine mammals in addition to our acoustic tracking.

Max Bakken, our field technician, is busy assembling windmills, building robust housing to shelter our equipment from the elements for years to come, and planning to install a new tower at our mountaintop relay site to accommodate our expanding network.  Our IT expert Rob Mackenzie is back for the summer, fully immersed in setting up our new servers and AIS receiver, implementing automated detection software, and programming devices that will allow us to monitor power and functionality at our field sites.  We’ve also welcomed New York-based intern Elliot Bok into the world of reviewing spectrograms,  logging cetacean detections, and hydrophone station construction.

Next week two high school students from Bella Bella will join our crew for the summer as a part of the SEAS internship program.  They’ll assist us as we upgrade our hydrophone stations, install the new ones, and catalogue cetacean recordings.   We’re also planning a trip for the interns and field staff from the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department to visit our colleagues at Cetacealab to the north in Gitga’at territory to learn from their marine mammal acoustic expertise.

More to come as we continue to explore the fascinating world of the Great Bear Sea.

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Hydrophone Scouting in the Great Bear

by Claire Hume, Pacific Wild intern

With herring season upon us, a small group of us here at Pacific Wild took advantage of a break in the weather and took a trip along the outside of the Great Bear.  Our mission was to identify new locations on the windswept and rugged outer coast for the next hydrophone and remote wildlife camera installations planned for Heiltsuk territory.

Little did I know that this one trip would introduce me to sea otters, humpback whales, signs of an outer coastal wolf pack, and the incredible sight of a group of transient whales surfing through breaking swells as they preyed on Stellar sea lions.

As we crossed miles of open ocean swells and entered a rocky outcropping of islets downwind, I was hit with the smell of 500 Stellar sea lions. They watched us curiously as we pulled the boat along shore. As we slowed to a stop, Ian and Tavish slipped into their diving gear, grabbed underwater cameras, and hopped into the water.  Finding a suitable underwater crack in the rock to lay the hydrophone cable is essential if we expect to keep the cable intact through the winter. The sea lions, comically sluggish and clumsy on land, clambered over their sleeping neighbours and grunted in each other’s faces. But the moment they hit the water, after dragging and wobbling their way to the rock’s edge, they moved easily with an incredible combination of power and grace. I wondered, as we bobbed around in the sunshine, what, exactly, our plan of action would be if the divers were met with a less than friendly response from the giant creatures swirling below. With no way of knowing how the underwater world was treating them, we just continued to bob and hope for the best.

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A short while later the divers resurfaced, all smiles. Swimming with the sea lions, they informed us, didn’t make them nervous at all. They compared it to visiting a gang of playful, albeit massive, dogs. It wasn’t until I saw their footage later that day that I really appreciated their analogy. The sea lions kept their distance as they calmly circled the divers, curious to see these strange new beings from all angles. Occasionally coming closer to blow bubbles at their masks or to look at their reflections in the camera, the sea lions came across as beautiful and inquisitive animals.

On our way back from diving, Max thought he spotted something up ahead. Eagerly scanning the horizon for a dorsal fin or spout, our concentration was interrupted by a killer whale breaching clear out of the water. A group of transient mammal-hunting whales was heading right for the sea lion rock.

We dropped the hydrophone overboard and listened as they called to one another and then fell silent, a sign that they were going into hunting mode. Turning the boat around, we raced back to the sea lion rock and waited, with a quiet engine and cameras ready, for the killer whales to come our way. Minutes later they arrived, six adults plus two calves, and began tearing back and forth through the surf as sea lions barked and bawled. The tension was incredible both on the island and on board as everyone scrambled to get ID photos and footage.

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Then, just as quickly as it had started, they were gone, moving south, most likely to the next sea lion haul out.

Back on solid ground we compared our whale pictures to DFO’s killer whale catalogue and identified the individuals we saw as members of the T55 Group. The largest male in the pod was born in 1972 and goes by the ID label of T54. Clearly the next location for a hydrophone station had been found – now it’s just a matter of waiting for the right weather window.

When the hydrophones and camera are installed this summer, Pacific Wild will transmit the audio and video streams live through their website, allowing people all over the world to monitor the behaviour of the animals in this incredible ecosystem and appreciate what a spectacular place this really is.

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Speaking from the heart: an Enbridge Joint Review Panel Oral Statement

by Sarah Stoner

I arrived at the Delta Hotel about half an hour early. There had been so much hype about protests and security I didn’t really know what to expect. I made my way to the third floor and in my angst, realized that I was the first to arrive. I signed in and decided to go check out the rally outside. There were about a hundred people gathered in solidarity to express their opposition to the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline project and the way in which the public had somehow been excluded from the “public hearings”.

As it approached one o’clock, the crowd dispersed quickly in order to make it to the offsite location to view the live broadcast of the “public hearings” taking place inside the Delta. I made my way back upstairs.

Those of us that were registered to speak that afternoon gathered in a room down the hall from the actual hearing room. There was a projection screen with the actual hearings being video-cast in this room, so at least we could see what type of an environment we were to be speaking in. We were allowed to have one guest with us, which was definitely a relief in this intimidating environment. The Joint Review Panel officials brought speakers in three at a time, while the rest of waited patiently for our turns. Once you were done presenting your oral statement, you weren’t allowed to return back to the viewing room. If you wanted to watch the presenters that came after you, you were asked to go to the offsite viewing location. Luckily, I presented second to last so was able to watch all of my fellow presenters from the comfort of the waiting room screen down the hall.

I was definitely very nervous when it was my turn to talk.  My heart was pounding so hard it made my voice quiver.  Despite the nerves and the overly intimidating environment, the experience was empowering and I felt great afterwards.

Below is the speech I presented to the JRP. As a staff member of Pacific Wild and a passionate advocate for keeping our coast oil-free, I would be happy to answer any questions or provide advice to those of you that will be giving their oral statements in the coming weeks. Please feel free to get in touch: sarah@pacificwild.org.

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Dear members of the Joint Review Panel,

It’s a pleasure to meet you again. We crossed paths at the Oral Hearings in Hartley Bay nearly a year ago now, but let me re-introduce myself.

My name is Sarah Stoner and I am a resident of Denny Island on the Central Coast of B.C.

I have lived in British Columbia my whole life. I grew up travelling like a yo-yo between Vancouver and Whistler, Mum’s and Dad’s houses respectively. I learned to love the mountains and the ocean at a young age and spent lots of time outdoors exploring what has come to be known as Beautiful British Columbia.

I completed my BA in Geography and Environmental Studies at UVic and went on to pursue a master’s degree in Disaster Planning. My research focused on evaluating the social vulnerability of people living in urban, rural and remote communities on southern Vancouver Island to natural hazards.

Over the last five years, I have stepped outside of my ‘southern B.C. comfort zone’ and started to explore the Northern regions of our beautiful province. I have lived and travelled from Prince George to Haida Gwaii, and from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert. Last spring, my partner, Michael Reid and I, moved aboard our sailboat, Skomalt. Our destination was the North Coast and we were fortunate enough to spend the summer months exploring, working and living between Bella Bella and Hartley Bay.

You have now visited both of these communities and know that they are each unique blends of human and natural ecosystems, modernity and tradition. But where you haven’t been are the places in between. And these places, I assure you, are some of the most sacred in the world.

British Columbia is a province that prides itself on its’ natural heritage and has invested a huge amount of resources into diversifying its’ extraction based economy through developing the tourism and eco-tourism sectors. We have done this successfully, welcoming an average of 5.6 million visitors per year, generating around 12 billion dollars and over 120,000 direct jobs to help foster a sustainable economy. People are drawn to B.C. from all over the world to experience what is a true wilderness.

B.C. is home to the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world. You might have heard of it, it’s come to be known as the Great Bear Rainforest. But, as Helen Clifton, matriarch of the Gitga’at Nation once said: “what will be great about it when there are tankers here?”

And this is a question we must ask ourselves. Turning one of the world’s most pristine and wild ecosystems into a supertanker freeway would be detrimental to the social, environmental and economic systems that maintain our ways of life.

The recommendation you make on the proposed ENGP matters deeply to me and the direct and indirect impacts that this proposed project may have would be devastating. Devastating to me as an individual, to my family, to our community, and to all of our neighbours up and down the coast.

Personally, the impacts of supertankers running through Douglas Channel and out to the open ocean would first off deter me from visiting areas along, and within view of, the tanker route. I’m sure I wouldn’t be the only one avoiding the route. I’ve spoken to tourism operators in the Great Bear Rainforest and that’s exactly what they’ve said: If Enbridge comes here, we’ll just have to go someplace else where our guests won’t see the tankers.

Playing with Porpoises.Photo by Michael Reid.

Playing with Porpoises.
Photo by Michael Reid.

When living, travelling and working aboard Skomalt, there are many things that I have come to love doing that would be directly impacted by the introduction of oil supertankers to the Great Bear Rainforest. It is rare to go a day travelling the waters of the Central and North Coast of B.C. without seeing some species of cetacean, whether it be porpoises, white sided dolphins, the endangered orca or the threatened humpback.

The deep fjords and narrow channels of the Great Bear Rainforest are some of the quietest oceans in the world, creating acoustic sanctuaries where these cetaceans can echolocate, feed, socialize and practice their mating songs.

When we sight cetaceans from our sailboat, one of the first things we do is drop our hydrophone (a portable, underwater microphone) so we can listen to the whales or dolphins communicate. There is nothing more phenomenal than hearing a school of dolphins giggle away underwater as you watch them splish, splash, jump and twirl on the waters’ surface. The main thing that interferes with us listening to cetaceans via hydrophones, and thus interferes with cetaceans being able to communicate, echolocate and feed is the sound of ships. You can hear a ship underwater long before you can see it approaching. The sound emanating from a ship’s engine uses the same frequencies that cetaceans use, thus blocking any clicks, pings and songs coming from the many species of cetaceans that use acoustics for survival on a daily basis.

Another past time we have come to love while living aboard Skomalt is to hike

Photo by Sarah Stoner

Photo by Sarah Stoner

up and explore the many estuaries that intersect the coast to view wolves, grizzly bears, black bears and the illusive spirit bear. All of these animals rely on salmon as their primary source of food and in the late summer and early fall, you can easily find bears and wolves fishing in the rivers of the Great Bear.

This is how I came to meet my first Spirit Bear. It was mid-August and the salmon were congregating at the mouth of the river, waiting for a big rain to bring the water levels up so they could begin their migration upstream. We crept up the side of the creek bed and after walking for only a few minutes, I spotted his glistening white fur through the salmon berry bushes that separated us from the creek. I watched in awe as the giant creature loafed around, unsuccessfully looking for a tasty salmon breakfast. We observed this bear in peace for some time. He was aware of our presence, but was not concerned by us in any way. My first experience with a spirit bear was absolutely magical. This creature is a true gem, unique to this part of the world and just like the Dogwood is B.C’s official plant, the Spirit Bear is our official mammal. What will happen when a pipeline leak or oil-tanker spill decimate salmon habitat on the coast or in our inland rivers?

Exploring and learning about the natural wonders of the Great Bear Rainforest is indeed one of my favourite past times and I feel so blessed and honoured to be able to have spent time in this part of the world and to call this place home. But what is truly unique and inspiring is being able to spend time listening to and learning from the First Nations’ people that have called this coast home since time immemorial.

We have spent time in Gitga’at, Kitasoo and Heiltsuk territories learning from elders, leaders and community members what it means to really live on this coast. Being most familiar with the Gitga’at nation, I can say with confidence that their culture is rooted in the natural world, that the natural world is what provides sustenance and health to the Gitga’at people and that their traditions are dependent on what the natural world is able to provide. The inter-connections and inter-dependence of the Gitga’at Nation with their surrounding ecosystem is so deep that an oil-tanker spill of any substantial size along the proposed tanker route would cause a cultural genocide of the Gitga’at people. And we all know that it’s not a matter of if an oil spill were to happen, but when.

That leaves me with a question: how many years will the Gitga’at nation continue to thrive in the territory that they have occupied for thousands of years before they are forced to leave, to abandon their culture and ways of life.

And it’s not just an oil spill that will erode the culture of the Gitga’at nation and other First Nations along the Central and North coast, but the very proposal and this associated review process have already begun to have detrimental effects on coastal peoples. The very introduction of the proposal and the extensive and expensive JRP process has manifested into a source of stress for Gitga’at people and their families and has instilled a sense of “uncertainty about the future” (Gill & Ritchie, 2011).

And then there’s the expansion. Currently, ENGP is being assessed at 525,000 bpd, but what about Enbridge’s four-phase expansion plan that would increase throughput of 850,000 bpd? As currently proposed, the pipe would be built to accommodate this increased capacity. Will the risks ever be considered and adequately assessed, especially on the marine side?

And it’s not just ENGP that we are concerned about, here. In addition, five proponents have already, or are in the process of, filing applications to develop LNG export terminals out of either Kitimat or Prince Rupert on the North Coast. I have a deep concern that the cumulative social, environmental, economic, health and cultural impacts of these 6 major industrial development projects are not being adequately considered, as part of this environmental assessment process.

The proposed ENGP project, which seeks to export raw bitumen through one of the most unique, pristine and sacred parts of the world at the expense of entire societies and ecosystems, is absolutely not in the national interest. As a citizen of Canada, and a resident of the Great Bear Rainforest, I urge you to give the proposed ENGP project a negative recommendation, for the future of our nation, our economy and our planet.

I fell in love with the Great Bear Rainforest. We fell in love in the Great Bear Rainforest. We recently got engaged in the Great Bear Rainforest and we would do anything to ensure that we will one day be able to share this sacred place with our children and our grandchildren.

Thank you.

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King Island Hydrophone Installation

Two Fridays ago we set up the fourth hydrophone in the Central Coast Hydrophone Network. This new station will allow us to begin monitoring the acoustics of Fitz Hugh Sound, an area known for its abundance of humpback and killer whales.

Hydrophone installations are complicated and involve a lot of unknowns. Will there be good signal? What does the bottom of the ocean look like? Is there a protected spot for the equipment box? Approaching King Island in the boat, we were all wondering these things, how long we would be there, and how many times we would have to come back before everything was working smoothly. From the shoreline, our broadcasting hub on the mountain on Campbell Island was not in view. The radios need a line of sight in order to connect with one another, so this was a problem. After some quick scouting, we found a tall hemlock just up the hill from our new station that looked like our best chance for radio contact. The last time I climbed a tree, I wound up with a lot of scratches, branches in my hair, and no signal. As I looked up into the forest canopy, I was not feeling optimistic.

Tree climbing, for the most part, is fun. Focus is key. With two lanyards, you can leapfrog branches, with one always wrapped safely around the tree while you unclip the other. If you unclip the wrong lanyard, however, you’d better hope gravity is taking a nap. Focusing on climbing then, it wasn’t until I came to a clear spot near the top of the tree that I noticed a small blip rising above the treeline of Denny Island. It was our mountain!

Once you’re up in the canopy with the eagles and the ravens, it’s fun to look around just so long as you don’t look down. After some sparse limbing, this view appeared. A couple more minutes and the radio was up, plugged in, and communicating with the rest of the network.

The next step was to get the hydrophone in the water. We were pleasantly surprised on the morning of our installation with the arrival of friend and occasional co-worker Tavish Campbell. After having just spent most of his summer skippering charter trips between Vancouver Island and Alaska he was surprisingly keen to jump in the boat with us and do some diving. As I got down from the tree Tavish was getting suited up to get in the water.

Diving is serious business and we were lucky to have a commercial diver with us to set things up properly. After a lengthy discussion of signals and depths, Tavish got in the water. He swam out to 90 feet with a float attached to a line. When he got to a spot on the bottom that looked appropriate, he was to send us “the signal”. The signal was a plastic bottle he took down with him. When it popped up, we went to where it had surfaced and started lowering the hydrophone, anchor, and leadline. Once it hit bottom, Tavish gave the float a sharp tug and we knew to start heading back to shore. Abandoning his float, Tavish started swimming towards the shore, following a crevasse in the rock. We followed his bubbles until we were able to jump off and unload the rest of the cable to take it up to the box. As Tavish surfaced, he gave an enthusiastic, “That went amazing!” So far so good at King Island.

Now that most of the hard work was done, we decided it was a good time for a lunch break. Sitting on the rocks watching a passing ferry, we were briefly alarmed as the ferry stopped and started to turn around. Immediately we thought, man overboard, and rushed to the boat to turn on the radio to see if there was a mayday call. After hearing nothing and taking a closer look, we realized that what actually caused the ferry to turn around were two humpback whales breaching and feeding in a tideline. Even from the other side of Fitz Hugh Sound we could see the sun lighting up the splashes they were making. Feeling relieved, and then excited, we jumped in the boat to go have a look. A mother and calf who, of course, had stopped breaching by time we got there, were rolling about and feeding on the thousands of fish caught in the current.

Pleased that we’d selected a site that was already receiving whale traffic, we returned to finish the installation. The next step was to set up a solar panel to recharge our battery bank. With good southern exposure and a nice straight cedar tree, this was a simple feat. With our 450 amp hour battery bank, our stations can operate for almost a month without being recharged. Sunshine in the Great Bear can be hard to come by during the winter months, but this 120 watt panel will be enough to keep us going.

The final stages of this installation were the easiest, but not without suspense. Connecting the power to the radio, and the hydrophone to the digital encoder, there is always a moment where you wonder if you will hear the sound of the ocean coming clear through the headphones as you plug them in. Here’s Diana listening. Crystal clear!

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Simonds Hydrophone Installation

by Rob MacKenzie

Last week, our plans and hard work came together as we installed a hydrophone at a new site. We are now receiving and recording at the Simonds group, just inside Goose Island. We are excited about this site, as it is our furthest from our relay station, and most exposed of any of locations. This addition to our network greatly expands our ability to hear whales moving through the area and get an idea of their patterns over time.

We arrived early in the morning, the fog still hugging the ocean. We had been preparing the hydrophone cables and anchor the previous week. Because of the heavy exposure, this site will be subject to some strong currents and swells; we built this station to be more robust than our other installations. The hydrophone cable is protected by a steel-lined hose that passes through the intertidal zone down deep onto the ocean floor. This is mechanically secured to a heavy nylon line with lead weights distributed throughout it to prevent the waves and current from moving the cable from its installed location. A rock bolt holds the top of the line, and a large anchor secures the underwater side. Building and installing this line was a fun challenge to tackle, as we needed to figure out new ways to manage the increased weight. The whole underwater installation is approximately 600 kg.

Equipment on the boat

Matt ready to dive

The HIRMD staff and the SEAS interns were on site to aid with the installation. We also had the help of Matt Arnold of GreenSea Diving, a commercial diver who was teaching a dry suit diving course to school children in the area. Matt was able to survey the area we were interested in, surfacing with a description and some images of the underwater world. He was able to guide the placement of our underwater cable and our hydrophone, acting as our eyes below the surface. We are lucky to have friends who care about the coast and are willing to donate their time and expertise. Everyone who visits seems to agree on the importance studying and preserving the area.

Interns sandbagging

Installing the solar panel

When we finished I was happy to see (and hear) our hard work, sitting on a beautiful little island on the BC coast. I know that the hydrophone will be a key part of the cetacean study in this area, and I feel great that I’ve made a contribution to it.

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Hydrophone Sounds

It’s a great day here at Pacific Wild. We have heard many sounds come from our hydrophones in their various stages of construction, but after lots of tooling with the tech and knob turning, this is the first clear audio that we have received. This short clip is from our latest hydrophone deployment on Dearth Island, just at the mouth of Spiller Channel, which is approximately 15k from Bella Bella. It is transmitted using microwave antennas to our mountain top relay station and then down to the Bella Bella School where the feed is saved on a network and monitored by students, staff and volunteers.

So sit back and enjoy a small sample of what the Great Bear Rainforest’s underwater environment sounds like. We have sent this and other clips to scientists to confirm what animals we are listening to. What do you think it is?

Thanks so much to everyone involved in making this first of many recordings possible. Our hats are off to you.

John Guillote, Becca Chandler, Diana Chan & Richard Wilson-Hall
Remote Sensing Project crew

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