Acoustic Research Gives Scientists Clues To Gray Whale Behavior - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Acoustic Research Gives Scientists Clues To Gray Whale Behavior

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Local scientists are traveling south of the border to study one of San Diego's biggest wildlife attractions - gray whales. Every year, people flock to local shores to catch a glimpse of these gentle giants. But there's a whole whale world you can't hear, that is, until now.

If you have spent a winter in San Diego, you know that just beyond the bay is the place to watch gray whales. Instead of watching them from above, News 8 flew south to Baja to listen to their calls from below.

Scripps grad student Melania Guerra shows her acoustic research group the sounds of the lagoon.

"Ambient noise is important, because you can imagine being at a bar, the louder the music, the less you can hear the people around you," said Melania Guerra a Grad Student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

It's the sounds of the whales and surrounding noise in Laguna San Ignacio that concerns Melania and her research team. This protected Bay of Baja is about halfway down the peninsula on the Pacific Coast.

This is where gray whales begin the circle of life: mating, giving birth and nursing, which attracts tourists from all over the world.

"There's been a long term trend in the decline in the number of animals present in San Ignacio Lagoons, this lagoon is famous for the friendly whales the animals that swim up to the boats and allow themselves to be petted," said Aaron Thode an associate research scientist with SIO.

Scripps researchers are keeping track of the whales and their subsea nursery by using underwater microphones.

"What is the long term impact of exposure to noise, human noise. There's a lot of natural noise in the environment there's also now ecotourism and fishing so we wanted to find an acoustics team to be a part of the program," said Doctor Steven Swartz Gray Whale Researcher who is with LSIESP.

We're used to hearing the sound whales make above water, but Melania is studying the sounds that the whales make underwater.

"First of all it goes on the animal. We put it with suction cups on the whale, and it stays on for about eight hours maximum and then it falls off and it's recording the sounds the whale is making, as well as the sounds the whale is hearing in her environment," continued Melania. "Just taking notes of what times we did the pings because the acoustic recorders are also going to record these sounds."

It's the underwater sounds of whales, boats, and shrimp that are helping researchers protect this precious natural resource.

"We're measuring what a tourist boat sounds like to a whale when a tourist boat comes by and approaches the animal," explained Aaron. "And with these tags we can measure not only the sounds, how the animal reacts, we can measure changes in its orientation pitch and roll and see if it finds the sound of the boat disturbing."

This research will tell scientists what sounds gray whales experience in the lagoon, and their responses to those sounds.

Since the filming of this acoustics deployment in Baja, the equipment they recovered is providing brand new information.

"We tagged a calf and it was the first time ever we are listening to sounds of a baby by mounting an instrument on it," noted Melania.

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