Throughout my scientific career, I have mainly studied our closest non-human primate relatives and their quirky behaviors (see my previous field notes here). However, when my graduate school advisor asked if I’d be interested in helping with a research project on humpback whales, I was excited at the prospect of starting something entirely new and dove right in. The following passage is a diary of sorts describing my first field experience studying [and communicating with] humpback whales in Southeastern Alaska.
August 17th, 2022
Depart from Juneau, Alaska
As we left the dock and entered the bay – I stood on the back of the boat watching the water spray out behind us as we slowly slipped out to sea. A series of sharp and towering mountains surrounding a small but quaint town is picturesque of Juneau. The only way into the city is by boat or plane as the mountains are too formidable to pass and surrounded by active glaciers, creating a breathtakingly gorgeous, yet rugged Alaskan scene. We headed south, beyond the Taku Inlet, through Stephens Passage, and into Frederick Sound where we hoped to find humpback whales. This area of Southeastern Alaska is home to the feeding grounds of many humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), who return annually to feast on herring and krill before migrating thousands of miles to their breeding grounds in the south. Our voyage goal was to collect data that may better help us understand how humpback whales communicate. With a strong and eclectic team of professionals, we set out on a voyage for seven days to collect our data.
For this voyage we were aboard a sturdy 60-foot boat aptly named The Glacier Seal, as she easily navigated the bays and coastlines we encountered. Our captain Marc has been sailing these waters for over 35 years – the main cabin is filled with photos of yester-year, adventures gone past, family members nurtured and taught the ways of the sea. Our crew was a good one – to assist Marc we had two deck hands and a lively cook who spoke her mind and cracked jokes with nearly every breath. Not only did this crew ensure the success of our voyage, but they made it fun and enjoyable at every turn.
We also had scientists aboard from many backgrounds – from biology to physics and physical sciences to artificial intelligence and musical theory. Some were academic scientific partners, while others were members of a non-profit group, or possessed some personal expertise with whales and the region. We were a team of specialists, each in our own field, yet working together to understand humpback whale intelligence and communication. Even in the first conversations I had aboard the boat – setting sail so to speak – it was clear to me that this would be a full week of engaging, provoking, and enlightening conversation. I soaked it all up – listened and probed, like the experiments we were planning to conduct, gathering all the information I could absorb from my surroundings.
Our first day on the seal was a travel day – our goal was to meet up with another boat, The Blue Pearl, where the rest of our crew had already been tracking and following humpback whales the past several days. However, the weather was not on our side. Nearly as soon as the boat thrust from the dock, it began to rain. As we sailed south to our rendezvous point in Hobart Bay, the waves grew more voracious and tossed the boat from side to side. The windows became smeared and opaque, enclosing us visually within the confines of the cabin. Eventually, the captain decided that we would anchor in a sheltered bay for the night and meet up with the rest of the crew in the morning. Of course – fieldwork is not without its unexpected twists and turns!
As I settled down to sleep that stormy night, I remember finding our sleeping accommodations particularly memorable as a nascent sailor recently welcomed to the wonders of the underwater world. The Glacier Seal had eight separate staterooms below the main deck, and each room had two stacked bunks equipped with a sink and mirror station. As I laid in my top bunk feeling the sway of the sea lull me into a sense of slumber security in my small but cozy space, I reflected on my life experiences that brought me to this moment. My upper bunk was equipped with a small round porthole – a peep into the outside world where I could view the sloshing waters nearly at eye-level, as if I were floating on the surface. The lapping of the waves on the walls of the room – the sides of the boat – were loud and foreign in my ears. It took me some time to acclimate to these – until the gentle rocking became internal, a rhythm coinciding with the internal clicking of my breathing – rising and falling – ebbing and flowing, until eventually I drifted off to sleep.
August 18th, 2022
Meet up with The Blue Pearl
I awoke to the sound of the anchor being yanked up and the engine roaring to life – once again we were thrust into motion – heading towards our next destination, our rendezvous with the Blue Pearl. The rocking became fierce, the boat slapping the waves as our engines thrust us forward. After a wonderful hot breakfast of eggs and hash (our crew often joked that we ate better on the Glacier Seal than we do at home!) we were ready to reunite with the rest of our crew. As we entered the bay, the still beauty and vastness of the Alaskan wilderness washed over me. The unfavorable rainy conditions of yesterday were gone – and in its place were glassy waters and deep majestic coastlines. The mountains were cloaked in a mist and the crew emerged from below-deck to take photos and soak in the view. My lungs filled with crisp clean air, and the chill that I had experienced yesterday had dissipated – either it was truly warmer in temperature, or my body had already acclimated – a true fisherman, whaler, crew member. I had arrived.
Upon reuniting with the rest of our crew aboard the Glacier Seal we immediately jumped into action, setting up the equipment we needed to conduct our experiments with humpback whales. Within 2 hours we were ready to go and scurried into the nearest channel to begin our first playback. A playback experiment is when scientists record sounds from organisms and play back those sounds to targeted subjects to measure their responses. These tools are commonly used to probe animal communication systems to better understand animal signal structures and functions. In our case, we were interested in measuring responses to the lesser studied non-song social sounds of humpback whales, as one of these calls (known as the “whup” or “throp” call) is hypothesized to be used as a contact call to communicate position or other information to groupmates .
To begin the experiment, we first had two researchers deploy the hydrophone (ie. underwater microphone) and underwater speaker overboard so we could broadcast acoustic stimuli to our target animals (using the speaker) as well as record the sounds that our target animals produced (using the hydrophone). After this equipment was secured and calibrated, the same two researchers then managed the recording equipment from laptop computers inside the cabin for the duration of the experiment.
Each playback experiment had the same temporal structure – with 20 minutes of baseline recording of ambient sounds before engaging in the playback, 20 minutes during which we conducted the playback experiment and broadcasted a fixed sound bite or stimuli, and 20 minutes after where we again recorded ambient sounds after the experimental portion of the playback period had ended. These periods of “experimental silence” flanking the beginning and end of the experimental period are important because they provide the controls necessary to show that the broadcasted stimuli elicited a response from the targeted individuals (as compared to them vocalizing naturally during that period without responding to the playback experiment).
Throughout all phases of the experiment (pre, during, and post), there was a team conducting observations on the top deck, recording the number of whales present as well as their distance, orientation to the vessel and direction of movement. A few observers were tasked with identifying individual whales using photographs of their flukes (ie. a unique whale fingerprint) and comparing them to a comprehensive database of verified humpback whale fluke photographs known as Happywhale. Finally, after all this time of preparing, traveling, and even missing the first few whales of our voyage (due to poor visibility in the rain), I finally had the chance to observe whales for the first time in their natural habitat.
After performing two of these experiments, we headed back to Hobart Bay to anchor for the night. On our way home, we dropped a shrimp pot and grabbed ourselves some dinner to-go! Up until that point, I had only seen frozen shrimp in the supermarket, but it is a completely different experience altogether to see them taken directly from their environment – squirting around on the floor like a squid thrusts itself through the water – beady red eyes assessing the bright light the surface presents, blinding them from their past and soon-to-be doomed future. We enjoyed them with old bay and white wine – and we were ever so grateful.
The rest of the evening continued in merriment, conversations rolling amongst us, as the glassy bay surrounded us – balancing out our raucous laughter, reminding us of our ultimate resting state of calm. The more experienced members excitedly shared their most extraordinary encounters with humpback whales in past years, as I became more and more engrossed in these remarkable animals and their unique behaviors. One captain shared some recent drone footage of a group of whales synchronously breaching while another played us the acoustic calls from a few minutes prior to their departure – a great crescendo of emotional excitement, after which they fell silent and simultaneously dispersed.
I lay in bed that night to the splashing of the waves against the Seal, wondering about all the complex things we need to communicate to each other – and how any one individual can have the capacity or intelligence to parse out that information in such a way that’s beneficial or useful enough to act upon. In a world where information is freely available and misinformation is more prevalent than ever, it is truly a marvelous feat to comprehend one another – in any capacity, despite our similarities or differences, biological or otherwise.
August 19th, 2021
Conversing with Twain
We awoke the next morning in a shroud of fog – so thick you couldn’t see much further than the bow. To pass the time we sipped coffee on the top deck, waiting for the lethargic mist to dissipate from our sleepy minds and surrounding waters. As the day drew on, we grew impatient at mother nature’s push to pause our progress in our experiments. We attempted to observe whales and collect data, but it was beyond difficult – we could hear them blowing (ie. breathing) just beyond our encapsulating cloud, but without a visual confirmation. We hoped that the bright morning sun would emerge and burn off the fog, but it wasn’t until late morning that the foggy skies gave way to a bluebird day. At long last, we could finally see as far as the horizon, and we were eager to get to work.
To prepare for our voyage on the Glacier Seal, our team had collated many archived recorded humpback sounds (specifically of the “whup” call mentioned earlier) from whale experts on board to use in our playback experiments. However, using those archived recordings as playback stimuli for the preceding days had not elicited any response from the target animals of the experiment, either physically or acoustically. Members of our team postulated that these archived recordings may have been of a lower quality and thus, may not have been as relevant or salient for the current population we were broadcasting to. To address this, our research team had been recording humpback whale sounds passively throughout our trip in the hopes of finding a better quality “whup” call to use in our experiments on the current voyage. On the previous day (August 18th) we had recorded a high quality “whup” call from a small group of whales outside of the context of our experimental paradigm. On the following day we decided to use that new recording as our stimuli to broadcast in a playback experiment. The events that followed were extraordinary and wholly unexpected.
As mentioned before, our experimental design consisted of two observers below deck broadcasting acoustic stimuli and recording acoustic responses, while another team of observers were on the top deck collecting information on whale surface behavior and position. Although data by both teams were collected simultaneously, each team was blind to the data collected by the other. As an observer on the top deck, I collected video footage of the whales’ surface behavior and ensured the systematic collection of data at specified intervals. Over the course of the experiment, we watched a single whale approach our boat, seemingly circle the boat one or more times, and then depart. While this encounter was remarkable on its own, as the approach and circling of the whale did not seem accidental, it was not until we completed the experiment and exchanged experiences with the observers in the lower cabin that we came to realize just how remarkable this exchange had been. Climbing down the ladder and into the cabin we could hear the excited screams and squeals of the researchers manning the recording equipment. After a few minutes of interpreting the excited remarks, it became clear to me what had happened – the whale that had just circled our boat had been counter-calling with our research team for the last twenty minutes, resulting in over thirty calls in response to our broadcasted acoustic stimuli. This whale was later identified using fluke marking as a 35-year-old female named Twain. After several days of less-than-ideal experimental results (i.e. no physical or acoustic responses to playbacks), we now had recorded, in high-resolution detail, an extended acoustic exchange between humans and a single humpback whale. Contact had finally been made, and our team was overjoyed.
As the day came to a close, we started our journey to our overnight anchor location. Overwhelmed with the excitement of the day, the crew was jubilant and chatty – considering all the potential implications of the encounter we had just witnessed and adjusting our methodologies accordingly for the following days. On our way we passed a large iceberg, and our captain took the opportunity to slow our pace and show it off to his passengers, some of whom (such as me) had never encountered one before! He informed us that the bluer the icebergs are the denser the ice is, and that they make excellent components for imbibing cocktails. As we passed them and I stared in awe at their beauty, all I could think was how much it looked like shaved ice – a slushie of the sea, deep and salty.
As we entered our sheltered bay that evening, sipping on iceberg-chilled drinks, I marveled at all that we had experienced on this trip, and all the new questions that brimmed at the edge of my mind regarding the role of flexibility in communicative exchanges. If organisms can adjust the information they give and receive to others flexibly in response to changes in their environment, this may be crucial for them to respond adaptively to rapid environmental change. Our lack of responses to playback experiments prior to incorporating a newly recorded stimuli indicates that animals may respond selectively to more recent or salient sounds. Further, when individuals do respond they can adjust their behavior based on the interactive communicative elements of the exchange. For example, Twain was observed to adjust her surface behavior throughout the 20 minutes she circled our boat as well as how closely she matched the timing of our broadcasted exemplar. This level of acoustic and behavioral feedback may be crucial for marine mammals to minimize risks associated with human activities in the oceans. Although merely conceptual, this idea gave me renewed hope for whales (and other animals) at risk in our increasingly anthropogenic world. Although I wasn’t sure what our experimental results meant just yet for the field of animal behavior, or the world at large – I did know that this trip had expanded my view of the natural world in a most profound way. Not only had I pushed myself outside of my land-locked comfort zone, but I had opened a door to an entirely new territory of untapped research opportunity – the wild and wonderful world of [humpback] whales.
Josie Hubbard is a 6th year PhD student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group at UC Davis. She studies how animals adapt to human-dominated environments, using monkeys in Asia as a model system. She conducts cognitive experiments with free-ranging and captive monkeys to better understand how individual characteristics influence performance and behavioral flexibility. Although she specializes in primates, she is most content studying animals of any macroscopic order, and has recently expanded her research niche to include song-birds and marine mammals.
For more information:
McCowan, B., Hubbard, J., Walker, L., Sharpe, F., Frediani, J., & Doyle, L. (2023). Interactive Bioacoustic Playback as a Tool for Detecting and Exploring Nonhuman Intelligence: Conversing with an Alaskan Humpback Whale. Preprint at bioRxiv, 2023-02-05.
Here is a link to our pre-print describing the interaction with Twain.
 Wild, L. A., & Gabriele, C. M. (2014). Putative contact calls made by humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in southeastern Alaska. Canadian Acoustics, 42(4), 23-31.
[Edited by Maggie Creamer]