Tag Archives: Noisy Ocean

New Paper: A Tale of Two Soundscapes

I am a little bit behind in posting about my various PhD publications.  But a pretty cool one that came out in the August edition of Acoustics Australia focused on comparing the acoustic characteristics of urban versus pristine coastal dolphin habitats.

I’ve previously spoken about the need to define the soundscape of dolphin habitats and examine patterns of when and where noise occurs.  But whilst we can monitor dolphin acoustic habitats and describe how they are now, in many cases it is hard to say how they were in the past.  We simply don’t have enough long-term datasets that capture the expansion of human activities into the marine environments – i.e. datasets that go far enough back in time to capture when the habitat was pristine and free of human influence.  Understandably, this can also make it hard to decide how we best manage man-made noise in these habitats into the future.  It’s hard to determine what noise mitigation measures are necessary when you don’t know how quiet an area is ‘supposed’ to be.

A potential solution to this conundrum for managing ‘urban’ areas is to find comparable ‘pristine’ areas which are also used by the study species, and see what differences exist.  Of course, this is reliant upon pristine areas still existing in the first place.  However, in Western Australia we are fortunate enough to have some areas up in the remote north of the state.

The Kimberley region in north-western Australia is one of the most remote, pristine wildernesses in the world.  The largest town in the region is Broome, which has a permanent population of only 16,000 people (although the temporary population can increase to 45,000 in the tourism season).  Broome is located on the shores of Roebuck Bay, with a relatively large population of snubfin dolphins and is also regularly used by bottlenose dolphins and humpback dolphins.  This area offers a nice contrast with the busy, urban environment of the Swan River, which flows through the Western Australian state capital of Perth.  This river is also used by bottlenose dolphins.  To create successful noise mitigation strategies for coastal dolphins, there is a need to compare ‘quiet’ and ‘noisy’ acoustic habitats.  Roebuck Bay and the Swan River offer the perfect opportunity to do just this.

Prepping the Roebuck Bay acoustic gear

I chose to compare the pristine soundscape of Roebuck Bay with the Swan River’s anthropogenically-noisiest site, the Fremantle Inner Harbour.  I used autonomous underwater acoustic recorders to monitor the soundscape at these sites, and assessed these using a combination of weekly spectrograms, power spectrum density percentile plots and probability densities, octave-band levels, broadband noise levels, and generalised estimating equations – i.e. a shedload of nifty acoustic analyses.

What these essentially showed were that these two sites are very different in their acoustic characteristics.  In Roebuck Bay, biological sounds (such as crustaceans and fish) were the most prevalent sound sources, with very few instances of vessel noise.  However, in the Fremantle Inner Harbour, man-made noise dominated.  This worked out to a 20 dB difference between sites on average, and the frequencies used by dolphins for communication were more likely to be masked in Fremantle Inner Harbour based on elevated noise levels.

In this study, I was also lucky enough to get some acoustic recordings of sounds produced by snubfin and bottlenose dolphins in Roebuck, and could use these for a comparison with the sounds produced by bottlenose dolphins in Fremantle.  This helped me to discuss the potential consequences on Roebuck Bay dolphins if noise levels were to increase at that site.  Such information is going to be useful going into the future, as several coastal developments are currently planned for Roebuck Bay.

To find out more, check the paper out online or contact me!

Snubbies are happy little dolphins – hopefully they stay that way! (Photo: Sarah Marley)

 

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New paper: Behavioural and acoustical responses of dolphins to vessel traffic and noise

Last night, my sixth (and final) PhD paper was published in the journal Scientific Reports!

In earlier papers, I established that the Swan River is a pretty noisy place.  One of the noisiest sites from an anthropogenic perspective is the Fremantle Inner Harbour, which experiences high levels of vessel traffic.  However, during my initial visual observations I discovered that dolphins continued using the harbour, even though it was a busy noisy environment.  So in this latest paper, I searched for evidence of dolphins responding to boats and noise at a subtler scale.

To do this, I used a combination of visual and acoustic monitoring techniques.  I found that dolphins significantly increased their movement speeds when vessel traffic occurred at high levels.  Similarly, dolphins also changed their behavioural budgets at high vessel densities, spending more time travelling and less time resting or socialising.

I monitored dolphin movement speeds and behaviours, to see how these changed as vessel traffic increased

I also looked for acoustic responses, by measuring nine characteristics to describe the shape and frequencies of dolphin whistles in different noise scenarios.  I found that all nine of these characteristics varied with increasing levels of broadband noise, and that the response was particularly strong for low-frequency noise.

I used nine characteristics to describe dolphin whistles

I’ve spoken before about the importance of scientific publishing, in terms of career brownie points for researchers.  So I’m pretty chuffed to have completed publishing my PhD!  To view the full list of papers from this and other projects, check out my Publications page.  Now to deal with all the ‘leftover’ PhD data that I collected, but didn’t get around to including!

New Video: The Dolphin and the Sound

As you know, I’m fortunate enough to be sister to the amazing wildlife film-maker Lisa Marley.  I’ve written about her documentary on Scottish raptor poisonings here previously (and incidentally, this work is currently touring the film festivals – scroll to the end for details!).  But in June, we actually worked together on a short film project as part of the Aquatic Noise 2016 conference I attended in Dublin.

The conference held a public evening involving short lectures around the theme of underwater noise, and also invited submission of videos on this topic.  Lisa and I worked together to create a short film describing the effects of human noise on coastal dolphins, similar to the idea of my 3MT speech – but with much cooler visuals than just me standing on a stage!

I wonder if anyone recognises the locations involved in this production?  Suggestions on a postcard please…!

So now I have a professional video to highlight my research AND had the awesome experience of working on a creative project with my sister.  And all without a single sibling squabble to be seen!


“Red Sky on the Black Isle” lastest screenings:

  • Hebrides International Film Festival (on Lewis, Harris, Uist and Barra; UK):  14-17 September 2016
  • Aberdeen Film Festival (UK):  17 October 2016
  • Festival de Menigoute (France):  27 October 2016

Follow the film’s Facebook page for more updates!

Famous Last Words

FameLab Australia Final

MC Robyn Williams revs up the crowd at the FameLab Australia Final 2015 (Photo: OK White Lane)

My last post spoke of my experience competing in the WA State Heat of FameLab.  Although I was delighted to be voted the Peoples Choice by audience vote, unfortunately only the winner and runner-up of each state heat progress to the National Final.

Or so I thought…

But a couple of weeks after the State Heat, I received a phonecall from FameLab Australia organiser Chris Hodge, inviting me back to present again as the British Council Wildcard entrant.  So I made it to the Final by a fluke!

Sussing out the Competition

The FameLab Australia Final involved entrants from New South Wales, Victoria, ACT, Queensland and Western Australia.  A mix of PhD students, post-docs, and scientists-with-real-jobs we covered a range of subjects from coughing guinea pigs to spider behaviour, gut bacteria to brain function, biofuel to artificial intelligence.  A mysterious group of people at the best of times, especially when most of us had never met before!

I had the chance to suss out one of the competitors, David Farmer, on a radio interview with ABC Melbourne presenter Lindy Burns.  Ironically, when discussing the Australian competition, the station had managed to select two Scottish people to interview.  So this combined with dolphins, lasers and squishy brains made for some great banter in a pretty unique interview!

With competitors like that, it was obviously going to be some stiff competition…

Love and Science

Media trainer Malcolm Love (far left) with some of the FameLab Australia 2015 finalists

Media trainer Malcolm Love (far left) with some of the FameLab Australia 2015 finalists (Photo:  OK White Lane)

The lead-up to the National Final included two days of media training with science communication guru Malcolm Love.  Chief Trainer of FameLab International, Malcolm was originally a freelance journalist in South America before working for the BBC as a producer on features and documentaries for over 20 years.  He is now a specialist in the public engagement of science, giving lectures on the subject at the University of West England and providing training for a range of science-stakeholders, as well as hosting his own weekly radio show “Love and Science“.  So this guy knows what he’s talking about.

In the training, we covered a variety of topics including body language, story-telling and interview tips.  But one of the best things about it was interacting with people who love science communication.  Many scientists still hold onto a fear of presenting to the public, and worry about “dumbing down” their research or coming across as boring.  But all the participants were obviously people who were passionate about their research, and it is hard not to get swept up in that kind of enthusiasm!  So it was an awesome two days of being a science geek with other science geeks and discussing how to turn other people into science geeks too!

The Final

Nothing like a bad dolphin joke to kick-start your presentation...  (Photo:  OK White Lane)

Nothing like a bad dolphin joke to kick-start your presentation… (Photo: OK White Lane)

A sell-out event with over 200 people in attendance, the final was a bit more nerve-wracking than the state heat.  But I always tell presenters that you just have to try changing the nervous energy into excited energy, so when I stepped up to the spotlight I tried to remember my own advice.  Unfortunately, I still felt my performance lacked the right mix of enthusiasm – even as I was speaking, I knew it sounded over-rehersed.  So although the crowd laughed in the right spots and seemed keen, I knew it wouldn’t be a winning presentation.  But that’s okay – there will be others!

Science is a serious business - need to work on that intense expression!  (Photo:  Ok White Lane)

Science is a serious business – need to work on that intense expression! (Photo: Ok White Lane)

The overall winner of FameLab Australia 2015 was Dr Sandip Kamath, with Dr David Farmer coming a close second.  Sandip is studying shellfish allergies at James Cook University, and spoke of his ambition to help people overcome these reactions – with the help of Mr Pinchy the lobster, his side-kick slash prop.  David moved away from squishy brains and lasers to give a fascinating description of his research at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience, investigating the cough reflex and brainstem function.  To see photos from the night, check out the British Council Flickr Page.

And, of course, we all had fun celebrating at the FameLab after-party!  The official function was in the WA Maritime Museum, with some speeches and lots of well-wishers…  But the scientists and British Council crew headed out into Fremantle to celebrate afterwards!  After all, we’re twelve of the top young science communicators in the country!

So now, as Sandip flies to the UK to compete in the FameLab International Final at the Cheltenham Science Festival, for the rest of us it is back down to Earth.  I’m back in a world of fieldwork, marking student assignments, and desperately trying to finish the first scientific paper of my PhD.  I can see all my new sci comm pals talking about the same reality bump on Twitter.  But to be honest, getting back to research is quite exciting enough… for now!

Intro to Underwater Acoustics: Two dolphins walk into a bar…

One of the things many scientists find challenging is how to explain their research in an interesting manner.

It’s one thing preparing your research for academic publications – there is a recognised structure to follow, certain items to always include, and feedback from co-authors and reviewers to improve your writing.  But presenting that same information to the general public is a whole other ball game.  How do you keep a class of undergraduates interested for a whole 2hr lecture on underwater acoustics?  How do you encourage community volunteers to develop scientific thinking skills?  How do you explain your research to media personnel in a way that makes it exciting and worth sharing?

These are problems that I find really interesting.  Obviously traditional science communication (academic publications and presenting at scientific conferences) is important.  But I’ve spoken before of the importance of also becoming a virtual scientist, and learning new science communication techniques to promote your research.  So I was pretty chuffed last week to find myself at a day-long workshop on “Science Communication and Presentation Skills” as part of FameLab Australia.

Bringing Science into the Spotlight

Taking the Stage at FameLab Australia WA Competition

Taking the Stage at FameLab Australia WA Competition to discuss underwater acoustics

FameLab is one of the world’s leading science communication competitions.  It aims to get people “talking science” by mentoring young scientists and engineers to turn them into awesome communicators.  Similar to the 3-Minute-Thesis Competition (3MT), speakers are given only 3mins to explain their area of research – no powerpoint, no labcoats, no jargon!  Organised by the British Council, there are over 45 countries participating in the event, having their own national finals to determine their competitors for the final FameLab International Competition in the UK.

I was encouraged by Curtin University to enter, so went along last Thursday to the workshop, which culminated in the WA State Finals that evening.  The workshop was held by three local science communicators – Emma Donnelly (Science Outreach Coordinator; Curtin University), Sarah Lau (Communication Managed; ChemCentre), and Renae Sayers (Theatre and Events Coordinator; Scitech).  We spent an amazing day bouncing around between flaming hands, personal brands, communication platforms, and vocal toolboxes.  It was like a step back into my former Science Presenter life…  If I could find a way to incorporate explosions, liquid nitrogen, and / or flaming limbs into my dolphin presentations, I would be complete!

Like Taking a Keyboard from a Baby

For my talk, I really wanted to get people thinking about underwater soundscapes.  To do this, I wanted to use an example that people could relate to – and since I knew my audience would majorly consist of young to middle-aged adults, I figured comparing the underwater environment to a bar would be a pretty nifty metaphor! Almost everyone in the audience had probably experienced the masking effects of background noise in a pub at some point, so it nicely familiarised the problem faced by dolphins.

How do a keyboard and a martini glass explain underwater noise?

How do a keyboard and a martini glass explain underwater noise?

But how to illustrate this on stage?  FameLab requires the use of a prop, which I struggled with for a while.  I got a friend to record some bar sounds from his weekend exploits, but playing them on stage quickly became a logistical pain.  The rules didn’t allow me to use the FameLab sound system, and bringing my own wasn’t feasible.

But a brainwave on the treadmill (I often problem-solve whilst walking) reminded me of the last time I was babysitting.  Owen wandered over to the electric keyboard, switched it on, and pressed the ‘random filler’ option to churn out some beats before dancing around in circles for ten minutes.

Random cheesy filler music would make a great bar-sounds alternative – loud enough to make the point, whilst being tacky enough to be funny.  Win!

Two Dolphins Walk into a Bar…

The resultant talk wasn’t filmed as part of FameLab, but Phil managed to catch the talk on his phone.  The volume is a bit low, but still gives a pretty good video of my performance!

"Tursiops Wins Again!" - Lyn Beazley presents me as the FameLab WA People's Choice winner

“Tursiops Wins Again!” – Lyn Beazley presents me as the FameLab WA People’s Choice winner

I was delighted to be awarded People’s Choice by audience vote, but unfortunately I didn’t make it through to the Australian Finals.  The judges consoled me afterwards by saying that it was my lack of results rather than my performance which hindered my progression to the next round, and strongly encouraged me to come back next year.  Although, as a friend kindly pointed out, it means I got the votes of 200 audience members as opposed to 3 judges!

Regardless, I still enjoyed the whole experience!  I always enjoy the chance to talk about dolphins and get people excited in science!  And it was a wonderful opportunity to meet some fellow science enthusiasts whilst flexing my science communication skills.  Plus applause isn’t something you get often in research, so that was pretty appreciated!

A massive congrats go to Amber Beavis (WA Museum) and David Gozzard (UWA) who were the winner and runner-up for the WA competition.  I can’t wait to see you guys at the Australian final down at Fremantle in May!

Any More Talks?

But looking at the birthday card I got from the department this week, perhaps I should be focusing more on my research for a while – I appear to be getting a bit of a reputation 😛

Sarah's Birthday Card 2015

Fieldwork Update: Watch out dolphins, Big Sister is watching (and listening!)

Over the last couple of months I have had a busy whirlwind of deploying noise loggers; learning how to program recording schedules and then process acoustic data; complete health and safety forms; obtain permits for area use; train volunteers for visual surveys; organise fieldwork shifts…  and this is before the fieldwork has even started!  But now it’s all underway and the data is coming in!

Eavesdropping on Dolphins…

Sylvia and Mal from CMST head out into the Swan River to help deploy my first batch of noise loggers

Sylvia and Mal (CMST) head out into the Swan River to help deploy loggers

Back in November 2013, three noise loggers were deployed in the Swan River as part of my PhD project examining the acoustical and behavioural response of coastal dolphins to noisy environments.   I have been lucky enough to have great support from the students and staff at CMST to help me with deployments.  Now the first batch of acoustic data from this first logger deployment is in my office, ready for processing!

These noise loggers record underwater sound produced by ambient (wind, waves), biological (dolphins, fish, crustaceans), and human sources (vessels, traffic, and construction).  For more info on these noise loggers, see my previous post on recording whale sounds in Albany.  Whilst I am examining this first acoustic data batch, the noise loggers have been moved to new locations and are busy recording more underwater sounds.

Over the next year, I will be deploying noise loggers at several spots throughout the river.  I can then use these data to describe the underwater soundscape of the Swan River and examine the vocal behaviour of bottlenose dolphins.

…  Whilst Watching from Above!

Visual observations of dolphin behaviour began in January 2014.  I am conducting visual surveys at various vantage points along the shoreline, using a theodolite to record dolphin movements and behaviours in the river.  This visual information can then be used to understand the context of dolphin sounds and their use of the underwater acoustic environment.

A theodolite is traditionally a surveying instrument, used to create 3D models of the landscape.  It does this by selecting different points, then measuring the horizontal and vertical angles to give an exact bearing and distance to each point; this creates a scale map of the area.  But we can also use this technique to get the position of objects out at sea – such as dolphins!  So we can use a theodolite to map a dolphin’s position each time it surfaces, giving a very fine-scale track of how the animals are using an area.  The added bonus being that the dolphins are not aware of our presence, so we do not have to worry about disturbing the animals and influencing their behaviour.  Although I do often wonder if they have a “feeling of being watched”…

Volunteers Elly and Bec join me surveying for dolphins in the Swan River

Volunteers Elly and Bec join me (and theo) surveying for dolphins in the Swan River

To run these visual surveys, I require a theodolite team:  one person entering data on the computer, one collecting positions using the theodolite, and some others to find the dolphins!  Thankfully, I have had an overwhelming amount of support from my ex-students (and some marine biologist friends), and currently have around 25 volunteers donating their time to help out in the field.  Many are studying or working full-time, making their contributions all the more amazing and appreciated!

But we have had some particularly awesome dolphin sightings to make it all worthwhile – and even on quiet days, the great team spirit (and masses of life stories to tell) keeps us pretty entertained!