Category Archives: Sea life

Amusing Monday: Science is music when data becomes sound

Nearly everyone who deals in scientific information learns to read simple charts and graphs to help visualize the data. As a reporter, I’m often looking for the right graph to bring greater meaning to a story. In a similar way, some people have been experimenting with rendering data into sound, and some of the more musically inclined folks have been creating songs with notes and musical scales.

As with graphs, one must understand the conceptual framework before the meaning becomes clear. On the other hand, anyone can simply enjoy the music — or at least be amused that the notes themselves are somehow transformed from observations of the real world.

The first video on this page, titled “Bloom,” contains a “song” derived from microorganisms found in the English Channel. The melody depicts the relative abundance of eight different types of organisms found in the water as conditions change over time. Peter Larsen, a biologist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, explains how he created the composition to Steve Curwood, host of the radio program “Living on Earth.”

      1. Living on Earth

Larsen, who calls this endeavor “microbial bebob” for its jazzy style, created four compositions using the same dataset in different ways. All four can be found attached to a news release written by Jared Sagoff at Argonne National Laboratory. For more detail on the project itself, go to Larsen’s report published in the scientific journal Plos One.

A more classical style of music was created by Nik Sawe (pronounced saw-vay), who was a graduate student at California’s Stanford University at the time. Sawe used data collected from the yellow cedar forests of Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago by another Stanford doctoral candidate, Lauren Oakes, who was studying climate change. (Her research report was published by Ecosphere.) Click on the red arrow below to listen.

Each musical note depicts a single tree. Dead trees are depicted by a dropped note. The species of tree determines which musical instrument will play the note. Yellow cedars are played by a piano. The pitch conveys the size of the tree, and the loudness conveys the age, as described in an article by Brian Kahn of Climate Central.

The song describes how rising temperatures and declining snowpack are killing off yellow cedars, a culturally significant tree for at least 9,000 years. The song begins with trees in the north, near Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, and progresses to areas more impacted by climate change to the south, ending near Slocum Arm, as described in a story by Brad Rassler in Outside magazine. Piano notes dominate the early part of the composition, but those notes become more sparse toward the end, where the flute (western hemlock) begins to dominate.

“Throughout the piece, Sawe wanted to highlight the relationship between the native yellow cedar and invasive western hemlock,” Rassier writes. “He braided the sounds of the two species, both to amplify their voices and to highlight the fall of one and the rise of the other.

“Just as the keyboard and strings in Mozart’s ‘Sonata for Piano and Violin in E minor’ play off of one another to create a musicality greater than the sum of their parts, this musical death dance between the two becomes, in its own way, the sound of climate change.”

Another example of transforming data into sound uses the same dataset in the following piece:

Sawe is a pioneer in environmental neuroeconomics, the study of how the environment influences people’s spending decisions. Such decisions can involve donating to environmental causes, including efforts to reduce the impacts of climate change. Sawe’s studies suggest that humans tend to protect and restore the environment when they are confronted with stimuli that elicit either good feelings or moral outrage. For more on his work, I recommend his Tedx Talk, shown in the second video on this page.

Since environmental decisions are largely based on emotion, Sawe is exploring how logic can affect feelings and vice versa. As part of his work, he is trying to figure out how sonification — turning data into sound — can bridge the divide between the right and left sides of the brain.

My final example of sonification involves data produced by the solar wind and turned into a sophisticated musical composition by a formally trained musician, Robert Alexander of the University of Michigan.

Jason Gilbert, a research fellow in the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences at the UM, obtained the raw data from a satellite called the Advanced Composition Explorer.

“In this sonification, we can actually hear in the data when the temperature goes up or when the density increases,” said Gilbert, quoted in a UM news release.

Since this blog post is about sound, I’m glad that I can share this audio about the solar sonification project, as discussed by “Living on Earth.”

      2. Living on Earth

For those of us who enjoy this music and want to connect to the data, the greatest challenge is to understand what is depicted by the specific combination of notes. The burden falls to the scientist and/or musician putting together the sonification. And just as graphs must be carefully labeled, the listener must be given a proper road map.

“It’s just like if you were to open up the Astrophysical Journal to any random page, show it to someone on the street, and ask if they could learn anything from a random visual diagram,” Alexander said in an article in Earthzine magazine. “If they don’t understand what’s being represented, if they don’t understand what the colors mean, if they don’t understand the axes, they can’t extract any of the information presented there.”

It is one thing for the music to explain something to others, but hearing the data also can open new doors of insight.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s easy enough to explain what you’re hearing,” Alexander added, “but that small fraction of the time where you hear something and it hasn’t been documented before, that’s really exciting.”

Granny, the orca, was seen in poor condition before her death

About a month before the Center for Whale Research last observed Granny, the killer whale, the elder orca was pictured in aerial photos by researchers from NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

Granny shown in poor body condition in September. Photo: NOAA under NMFS permit 19091
Granny, or J-2, shown in poor body condition in September.
Photo: NOAA under NMFS permit 19091

The last aerial photos of Granny showed her to be in “poor body condition,” according to a report from marine mammal researcher John Durban on NOAA’s website.

Granny, designated J-2, was missing for weeks before the Center for Whale Research gathered enough observations to announce her death on the last day of 2016. The oldest whale in the three Southern Resident pods could have been more than 100 years old, according to estimates, as I discussed in Water Ways on Jan. 4.

The aerial photos, taken from a small unmanned hexacopter, are used to monitor the health of the orcas, John noted in his report. The photos taken in September show Granny to be thinner than other adult females. The photos on this page show Granny (top photo) to be thinner than J-22, a 32-year-old female named Oreo (second photo) who was reported in “robust condition” and may have been pregnant.

J-22, named Oreo, appeared in better shape than Granny in September. Photo: NOAA under NMFS permit 19091
J-22, named Oreo, appeared in better shape than Granny in September.
Photo: NOAA under NMFS permit 19091

Aerial photos of the orcas also are used by researchers to record social behaviors of the animals, John notes. A photo on his web post shows Granny with J-45, an 8-year-old male named Se-Yi’-Chn, whose mother died in August. Granny and Se-Yi’-Chn were chasing a salmon that was eventually caught by the older animal and shared with the younger one, according to the report.

“Helping other family members catch food is a key role for older, post-reproductive females like J2,” John wrote. “This is a striking example that, through such cooperative behaviors, individuals will put the pod’s health ahead of their own.”

The video (below) explains the ongoing aerial study of killer whales, with John Durban interviewed by NOAA science writer Rich Press. Besides Durban, Holly Fearnbach of Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Lance Barrett-Lennard of Vancouver Aquarium are involved in the photogrammetric project.

For additional information, check out the following blog posts:

Amusing Monday: New steelhead license plate enhanced by inspiration

plate

Washington Department of Licensing has embraced a stylistic work of art in its new steelhead license plate, which became available for purchase last week.

The new license plate, which focuses on the eye and head of a steelhead trout, is an obvious departure from previous wildlife license plates that feature realistic images of animals. Derek DeYoung, the artist who created the new plate, specializes in what he calls abstract paintings of fish faces and flanks, as well as whole fish. The original steelhead painting is called “Abstract Steelhead — Horizon Eye.”

Derek, based in Livingston, Mont., is a rare combination of expressive artist and skilled angler.

“When hiking up a small mountain stream, I’m not just chasing trout, I’m searching for a magical experience or vision that will inspire me and raise my paintings to that next level,” Derek says on his website, DeYoung Studio.

“For me, the most inspiration comes once I’ve landed a particularly beautiful fish. I hold it up, tilting the fish back and forth in the sunlight, allowing all the subtle colors and patterns to come alive. After setting the fish back into the water and releasing it into the depths, the only thing left to do is get back to my studio to bring that fish to life on my canvas.”

The importance of a fish’s eye, as Derek sees it, is depicted in the first video shown on this page. The second video shows his work on an entire canvas. Check out his gallery for some amazing renditions of all varieties of game fish.

The new license plate is being sold to raise funds to benefit Washington’s iconic steelhead, listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. Money will be used for fisheries management, hatchery operations, monitoring and habitat restoration.

More than 4,000 people expressed interest in buying a steelhead license plate before the Legislature approved the concept last year, said Kelly Cunningham of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“We can’t wait to see steelhead license plates on vehicles across this state,” Kelly said in a news release. “This is a great way to help fund efforts to conserve steelhead in Washington.”

Derek DeYoung and one other artist were selected as finalists and both offered their work at no cost. Derek’s was chosen after “camera testing,” Kelly told me.

“Internally, we did not have any specific criteria,” she said. “We wanted something unique. Our goal was to have the ‘best’ fish plate in the country.”

The price of wildlife-themed license plates, including orcas and eagles, range from $54 to $72 (depending on the vehicle) plus the regular license plate fees. For purchase information, go to the webpage for the Washington Department of Licensing.

orca

It seems fitting that Washington’s official state fish finally gets its own license plate, along with a design that makes it stand out from the others. Maybe something a little more artistic could also be done for the orca, the state’s official marine mammal. All the wildlife license plates can be seen on the WDFW website.

I guess I should point out that such high-level acclaim has yet to reach the state’s official bird, the willow goldfinch; the state’s official endemic mammal, the Olympic marmot; the state’s official amphibian, the Pacific chorus frog; the state’s official insect, the green darner dragonfly; or the state’s official oyster, the Olympia oyster.

As for me, I’d like to see one or our native oysters emblazoned upon my license plate.

One thing I learned about license plates is that the first ones issued in Washington state were as customized as you will ever see. In 1905, the Legislature created the Division of Motor Vehicles, which issued license plate numbers for $2 each. Vehicle owners were required to make their own plates out of wood, metal or leather. If they preferred, they could just stencil the number on the front and rear of their vehicle.

The first personalized license plates were approved by voters in 1973, followed by a variety of specialized plates through the years — including those providing special access for people who can’t get along well on foot.

first

The first illustration used to promote the steelhead license plate was a realistic-looking fish shown in silvery colors from head to tail. That rendition was more easily identified as a steelhead than Derek’s fish-head-focused piece. I thought a straightforward steelhead would be more acceptable to people, but I have heard no complaints so far. People seem to appreciate Derek’s deeper expression, which is something that has grown on me over time.

As Derek explains on his website:

“My work has veered off from the traditional fish illustration style. I place more importance on using a unique style and palette rather than painting a fish to look photo realistic.

“The reason I’ve chosen fish as the subject of my life’s work is I find fish to be intriguing, not just as a fisherman, but as an artist. When painting a fish, I try to capture all the intricacies they possess: their scales, patterns, dimension and texture.

“When chest deep in a river, I’m not just chasing a fish, I’m searching for the magical experience or vision that will inspire me and raise my paintings to a higher level.”

Steelhead fishermen seem to experience a passion unmatched by most other anglers, so it’s nice to know that someone who embraces that passion will have his artwork traveling on vehicles throughout Washington state and beyond.

Granny, a killer whale unlike any other, stayed graceful to the end

If we can celebrate the life of a person who has died, it seems fitting to me that we should celebrate the long, productive life of a killer whale known as Granny.

Granny, or J-2, breaching in 2009, as she was known to do throughout her life.Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
Granny, or J-2, breaching in 2009, as she was known to do throughout her life.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

Granny, officially designated J-2, was the oldest orca in the three pods of Southern Residents. Possibly more than 100 years of age, her longevity is something we can only hope to see among the other orcas that frequent Puget Sound.

Granny was the longtime leader of J pod. In a matriarchal society like the orcas, offspring stay with their mothers for life. Generally, the older females lead the way, and Granny was almost always seen at the front of the pack as J pod moved through the Salish Sea.

For a long-lived intelligent orca, it is hard to imagine the amount of knowledge she must have accumulated through the years. I tend to think that Granny had a personal history with nearly every cove and inlet in the Salish Sea. I think she understood the movement of salmon and where the fish would congregate before heading up the streams. It must have been tough for her to watch the decline of the whales’ once-abundant prey.

In 1997, a group of 19 orcas from L pod spent a month in Dyes Inlet between Bremerton and Silverdale. (Check out my stories in the Kitsap Sun.) There is pretty good evidence that their record-long stay in one location was at least partly because they were not comfortable going under the Warren Avenue Bridge, which was their only way out.

If something about the bridge spooked the whales, then how did those 19 orcas make it under the enormous structure when they first entered Dyes Inlet? Although it has never been confirmed, observers at the time reported seeing two groups of whales coming into the inlet.

I’ve always wondered whether Granny had visited Dyes Inlet long before the Warren Avenue Bridge was constructed. Could she have led both the J- and L-pod whales into the inlet, where chum salmon were abundant? Did the L-pod whales choose to stay behind to catch fish only to become confused later when they tried to make their getaway? I guess we’ll never know.

When a beloved friend or relative dies, it is hard to keep going as if nothing has changed. I know there is sadness about Granny’s passing among longtime whale observers, orca researchers, educators and whale-watch boat operators.

I can’t help but wonder how the orcas in J pod are coping with Granny’s loss. How long will it take to rally around a new leader? How will Granny’s knowledge be missed as the whales struggle to find bountiful salmon runs? How will her sudden departure affect cohesion among the whales, which were already breaking into smaller and smaller hunting groups.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research ponders some of these questions in a tribute to Granny, a story that appropriately recognizes the important discoveries of the late Mike Bigg, the first person to realize that orcas could be identified individually and that each whale has a story to tell.

I was also touched by a report from Ken’s associate, Dave Ellifrit, who spent time on the water with J pod on Dec. 28 near the San Juan Islands. Dave, who knows the whales as well as anyone, found them spread out and spending significant “down time” as they foraged for food. In a scientific tone, Dave dispassionately described the actions of all the whales he could find, then he concluded his report:

“This was CWR’s first encounter with J pod in several months where we felt like the coverage was good enough to find all the whales present, and we could not find J2. Many have suspected for the last couple of months that she might be gone, and it is looking like that is the case.”

Jeanne Hyde, a longtime orca observer, offered a number of interesting observations in her blog “Whale of a Purpose,” including this:

“Late this past season I noticed Granny with the J16s. That was very curious. It was out of the ordinary. Slick J-16 in the lead with Granny behind her a ways, and Mike J-26, Slick’s oldest male, on the offshore side…hum…highly unusual…

“In the late part of the year, the J Pod whales acted, to me, like they were lost…like they didn’t know which way to go or they didn’t know what to do…their travel also seemed unusual….they have lost their leader…how will that impact this community who has not ever been without a leader?”

Another longtime observer, Sara Hysong-Shimazu, wrote a piece on her Facebook page with this observation:

“Even in her death Granny leads by example. ‘This is how it should be,’ she tells us, even now. ‘This is when we should be parting ways … at the end of a long life.’ The tears in our eyes and on our cheeks are for the loss of a whale — a beloved friend — who has led a life whose length alone is worthy of remembrance and of celebration.

“The times ahead are ones I cannot predict, for I do not have the gift of foresight. But whatever they bring — be it triumph, tragedy, or something in the middle — may we face them with the same tenacity and dignity as Granny. She lives on in the whales that still remain, in the calves that have yet to join us. She lives on in our hearts, and more importantly in our deeds.

“She is epic and awesome and impressive and she will always be.”

In 2006, M.L. Lyke, a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, wrote about how she perceived Granny’s life in a series called “The Sound of Broken Promises,” now featured on the Orca Network webpage.

Death toll for 2016 includes six orcas
from the Salish Sea

UPDATE, Jan. 2
The Center for Whale Research has announced that J-2, known as “Granny,” has apparently died. The oldest orca among the three Southern Resident pods, Granny was one of the first Southern Residents identified when Ken Balcomb began his Orca Survey in 1976. At the time, she was estimated to be at least 45 years old and probably in her 70s, putting her likely age at more than 100. Ken’s tribute to Granny can be read on the Center for Whale Research website. More to come.
—–

When it comes to the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound, a year can make all the difference in the world. Last year at this time, we were celebrating a remarkable baby boom — eight new orca calves over the previous 12 months. See Water Ways, Dec. 16, 2015.

J-34, named DoubleStuf, with Mount Baker in the background. Photo taken last February before his death this month. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
J-34, named DoubleStuf, swimming last February with Mount Baker in the background. The 18-year-old male died this month.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

Another new baby was added in January of this year, for a total of nine. But if 2015 was the boom year, then 2016 turned out to be a major bust, with six orca deaths recorded during the calendar year.

The latest death among the Southern Residents was J-34, an 18-year-old male named DoubleStuf. He was found dead floating near Sechelt, B.C., northwest of Vancouver, on Dec. 20. Check out the tribute and wonderful photos on Orca Network’s webpage.

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Amusing Monday: Looking forward to some new conservation films

“Dream” is a clever animated video promoting the annual Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in New York City. The festival is more than films, with workshops on wildlife topics and a goal to connect average people with filmmakers, conservationists, researchers and media outlets.

One of my personal goals for the coming year is to see more of the wonderful films being produced about conservation concerns, environmental issues and wildlife preservation.

Among the films being released next year are “A Plastic Ocean,” a feature-length documentary that explores the problem of plastic pollution in 20 locations around the world, including the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Gyre, 1,500 miles off the West Coast. The film also discusses practical and technological approaches to solving the plastic problem.

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Sea Shepherd encounters Japanese whalers at start of summer season

It has just turned winter in the Northern Hemisphere, which means that it is now summer in the Southern Hemisphere. The Japanese whaling fleet has entered the Southern Ocean to kill up to a self-designated quota of 333 minke whales, and Sea Shepherd has given chase.

Ocean Warrior, Sea Shepherd's newest ship, moving beyond pack ice in the Southern Ocean. Photo: Sea Shepherd Global/Simon Ager
Ocean Warrior, Sea Shepherd’s newest ship, moving beyond pack ice in the Southern Ocean.
Photo: Sea Shepherd Global/Simon Ager

We have heard the story before, and many of us have watched the drama play out during six seasons of the TV series “Whale Wars” on Animal Planet. This year, Sea Shepherd hopes to have an advantage with a ship declared to be faster than the Japanese whaling vessels, as I explained in Water Ways at the end of August.

On Dec. 3, the Sea Shepherd vessel Steve Irwin left Melbourne, Australia, for the Southern Ocean for its 11th campaign against the whalers. The Steve Irwin was followed a day later by the new ship, Ocean Warrior. Yesterday, the Ocean Warrior located one of the Japanese harpoon vessels, the Yushin Maru, inside the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, according to Capt. Adam Meyerson, the skipper of the Ocean Warrior.

“The crews of the Ocean Warrior and the MV Steve Irwin have been battling through thick fog and ice to protect the whales in the Australian whale sanctuary,” Meyerson said in a news release. “The Yushin Maru was hiding behind an iceberg and came out on a collision course.

“Finding one of the hunter-killer ships hiding behind an iceberg in a thick fog means that the rest of the fleet is nearby,” he added. “We all hope to have whaling in the Southern Ocean shut down by Christmas.”

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Congress authorizes five restoration projects throughout Puget Sound

Five major Puget Sound projects have been given the provisional go-ahead by Congress in a massive public works bill signed yesterday by President Obama.

It seems like the needed federal authorization for a $20-million restoration effort in the Skokomish River watershed has been a long time coming. This project follows an extensive, many-years study of the watershed by the Army Corps of Engineers, which winnowed down a long list of possible projects to five. See Water Ways, April 28, 2016, for details.

In contrast, while the Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project (PSNRP) also involved an extensive and lengthy study, the final selection and submission to Congress of three nearshore projects came rather quickly. In fact, the Puget Sound package was a last-minute addition to the Water Resources Development Act, thanks to the efforts of U.S. Reps. Rick Larson, D-Lake Stevens, and Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, along with Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.

The three PSNRP projects moving forward are:

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Amusing Monday: Giant crab has amazing grip, but species is at risk

Coconut crabs are giant land-based crustaceans that can grow to 3 feet wide, claw-to-claw. The crabs, frightening to some, inhabit islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

These crabs, which grow larger than any other land-based arthropod, are known for their uncanny strength. They get their name from an ability to break through coconut husks with their powerful claws. They can also break a lot of other things, as revealed in a variety of amusing videos, some of which I’ve posted on this page.

Coconut crabs became a topic of discussion among scientists last month when a group of Japanese researchers reported that they had measured the strength in the legs and claws of coconut crabs. They found that these crabs could lift four times their weight, and their pinching power was greater than that of any other kind of crab, even greater than the jaw strength of terrestrial predators. The report was published in the online journal Plos One.

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Interactive map brings together extensive salmon information

When I first started covering the environment for the Kitsap Sun in the early 1980s, I convinced a state fish biologist to make me a copy of a notebook containing information about salmon streams on the Kitsap Peninsula.

Winter steelhead streams in Puget Sound from SalmonScape. Map: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Winter steelhead streams in Puget Sound, as shown in SalmonScape, a GIS-based interactive map.
Map: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Hand-drawn maps of streams, both big and small, along with field notes about the migration of salmon, stream blockages and other information were listed in that notebook. Through the years, the information was updated, combined with other data and eventually transferred to electronic databases for wider access.

A few years ago, much of this little-known information was digitized into a map that could be accessed by anyone from a web browser. The map, using a geographic information system, is such a valuable tool that I wanted to make sure that readers of this blog are aware of it.

It was given the name SalmonScape, and the map shows salmon streams across the state (click “hydrography”); salmon migration by species (“fish distribution”); stream blockages (“fish passage”); and hatcheries, fish traps and major dams (“facilities”).

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