Wisdom Listens to Whales!
14, 2000, Journey North interviewed Sheyna Wisdom on her exciting research
with gray whales. Here's what Sheyna shared!
Q. What is your background
A. I grew up in Socorro, NM (a small town); I received my B.S.
in Biology from Eastern New Mexico University in 1995 while playing NCAA
Division II basketball; I just recieved my M.S. in Marine Science from
University of San Diego in Jan 2000. I now work with the Hubbs-Sea World
Research Institute (HSWRI) as a research associate. HSWRI is a non-profit
organization associated with Sea World. The goal of HSWRI is to apply
what we learn from animals in captivity to the wild. My project is a perfect
example of this.
Q. How did you get started on your whale sounds research project?
A. This project started out with "JJ,"
a gray whale calf that stranded on the coast of Marina del Rey (north
of LA) in Jan 1997. She was estimated to be less than 3 days old due to
the presence of incompletely healed umblicus. Sea World San Diego rehabilitated
her over a period of 14 months and she was released into the wild on March
31, 1998. While JJ was at Sea World, I recorded her sounds and also exposed
her to sounds of gray whales to help prepare her for her release. My project
is entitled "The Development of Sound Production in Gray Whales"
and I am basically looking at how gray whale calves develop their sounds.
I worked with Dr. Ann Bowles of HSWRI, a senior research scientist who
studies the effects of noise on animals. Dr. Bowles was my major professor
for my Master's thesis, as well as my employer.
After JJ was released, we decided to continue my project with calves in
the wild. Fortunately for me, one of my committee members, Dr. James Sumich,
has studied gray whales in the calving lagoons for 20 years. So I worked
it out to go to San Ignacio Lagoon (the 2nd major calving lagoon) to monitor
the development of sounds in wild gray whale calves January through March
After completing my degree, I was able to find enough funding to continue
the project for another year and spent six weeks in San Ignacio Lagoon
in March 2000. I still am collaborating with Dr. Sumich (of Grossmont
College in San Diego) for this project. I also work with Dr. Brent Stewart
of HSWRI and with Dr. Jorge Urban-Ramirez of the Autonomous University
of Baja California Sur-La Paz. We are now looking for more funding to
continue the project for the next few years.
When this project started, I had no idea what sounds gray whales made!
I came into USD as a graduate student not sure about what project I was
going to do. I had just completed two internships working with marine
mammal behavior (one in Hawaii looking at dolphin cognition and one in
San Diego looking at wild dolphin movements near San Diego), so I had
experience with marine mammals. I had always been very interested in marine
mammal communication, but had focused more on dolphins. So when JJ came
in, I started volunteering at HSWRI to get some baseline behavior and
sounds. After a few weeks, I decided I was very interested in the project
and talked Dr. Bowles into taking me on as a graduate student with JJ
as my thesis project. And I've been listening to gray whales ever since!
Q. What did you "wonder" and what burning questions
did you have in mind as you planned and began your work?
A. The study of vocal ontogeny, or how an infant acquires a full
adult vocal repertoire (all the sounds an animal uses), is very interesting
to me. For instance, we (humans) know how to make some sounds at birth
(crying), but we also require maturation of our vocal apparatus and muscles
to make other sounds and we also require learning to make the rest of
the sounds. But in most mammals, babies are born knowing how to make most
of the calls at birth. However, no one knows much about marine mammals.
We know that bottlenose dolphins and killer whales do need to learn from
others to make calls, but that's about it. There is absolutely no information
on how baleen whales develop their sounds. So when this project started,
I really wondered how gray whales developed their vocal repertoire. I
wanted to know if they need to learn or if they already know how to make
As the project developed, more questions arose. I wonder how gray whales
are able to make the sounds they make. Scientists have no idea how these
sounds are made! Other questions I have: What sounds are made as the mother
weans the calf? What sounds are made in the Alaskan feeding grounds? (Only
one study has recorded in this area, for a period of 3 hours!) What can
gray whales hear? What part of the sound is important to gray whales?
(Certain frequencies or certain time characteristics are important to
animals, not necessarily the whole call.)
Q. Why did you choose the nurseries for your studies?
A. I am looking at vocal development, so I needed to record calves;
the calving lagoons are an obvious choice. However, it was also easier
for me because one of the scientists I work with knows the lagoon and
some people down there for me to work with.
Q. What is your goal?
A. I have been recording gray whales for 3 years. I am currently
working on a budget and plan to continue this work for the next few years.
We are interested in describing as many aspects of vocal development as
possible. We are also interested in building upon Marilyn Dahlheim's work
(she characterized gray whale calls in 1984) by describing more calls
and associating behaviors with those calls.
Q. Can you describe any big surprises or unexpected findings?
A. Of course!!! One finding that is really exciting to me is this
new sound we recorded last year. I heard this really long, low rumble
(almost sounds like thunder) and then a calf breached right in front of
us. By the end of the season, we heard 27 of those rumbles and over half
of them were recorded right before a calf breach -- and all of them were
recorded in the presence of a very active calf. This is a sound that has
never been described in gray whales before and it is the first sound to
be associated with a behavior.
Q. How are vocalizations different in sounds and purposes among cows,
calves, and males?
A. This is a tough question. In the wild, I am not able to distinguish
the calls of the calves from the calls of the adults . . . yet. We are
looking at equipment that will allow us to do so, but it is very difficult.
So, I record sounds from mother-calf pairs and can make some inferences
about the development based on this.
However, we have not been able to detect any difference in the sounds
based on age or sex (when we can identify the sex of a whale); the sounds
seem to change based on the level of activity. We notice that as the whales
are more active, that is, lots of touching and rubbing and splashing,
there are more sounds. As the whales are less active, more resting at
the surface or just travelling, there are fewer sounds.
Q. What equipment do you use?
A. I use a hydrophone (an underwater microphone) to hear the sounds
and I record the sounds on a DAT (digital audio tape) recorder. I have
headphones attached to the recorder (which looks like a walkman) and listen
as I record. When I get back to the lab, I use a computer to look at characteristics
of the call, such as frequency (pitch), duration, and what the call sounds
Q. What kind of support and encouragement do you get from other
A. As I mentioned earlier, I work with scientists from HSWRI, Grossmont
College, and University in La Paz. I have also presented my research at
conferences to a large group of scientists and will soon publish my findings
in scientific journals. Everyone that I've talked with is very interested
in the project and they are looking forward to my papers coming out.
Q. What has been most difficult or challenging?
A. The most challenging is trying to figure out a way to distinguish
the calls of calves from the adults. It also takes a lot of patience to
record gray whales because they don't make very loud sounds and they aren't
always making sounds. So there are a lot of days when I sit on the water
hearing nothing but shrimp! It is also difficult to find funding to support
the project and myself.
Q. What has been most rewarding?
A. The most rewarding is hearing some really great sounds from
a mother-calf pair. It is also rewarding to bring it all together into
a paper (or a thesis) and to know that all that time spent out there actually
gave us some good information about the development of sounds. It is also
rewarding to share my knowledge with people and know that I've given them
information they wouldn't otherwise know.
Q. What do kids want to know?
A. Kids want to know
- how whales
make the sounds (which we don't know yet).
- what the
sounds are used for (which we're just now starting to understand.
- how I
got started in this field.
- how they
can do the same thing. The answer I always give is to take lots of math,
science, and computers! This is never the answer they want to hear,
but it's true! Working with marine mammals can be very rewarding, because
it is working with amazing animals! But it is a difficult field because
everyone wants to do it, so it takes some special skills to truly make
it in this field. Any kids who are interested in sounds need physics,
math, computers, and electronics skills. They can learn the biology
What's on your mind now?
A. Well, my question is: what do these sounds mean? In general,
sounds in baleen whales are used in these contexts:
(to know where other whales are)
or individual recognition (to know what species it is or to know the
coordination (to go with other whales to do something, like feed, or
context (feeding, alarm calls, reproduction).
But. . .
.we don't know what GRAY WHALES use sounds for.
You can hear the sounds Sheyna heard:
Sheyna! Journey North wishes you good luck in discovering the answers!
you listen to the sounds Sheyna recorded, what do you think the sounds
mean? Imagine and write some comments that these sounds might represent.
- What would
you ask Sheyna? How do you think she might answer your questions?
- What did
you learn about scientists from reading this interview? (Write down
at least 6 statements about scientists.)
Science Education Standards
investigations involve asking and answering a question and comparing
that to what scientists already know about the world.
use different kinds of investigations depending on the questions they
are trying to answer.
develop explanations using observations (evidence) and what they already
know about the world.
make the results of their investigations public.
scientific knowledge and understanding guide scientific investigations.
have always had questions about their world. Science is one way of answering
questions and explaining the natural world.
and men of all ages, backgrounds, and groups engage in a variety of
scientific and technological work.
- Many people
choose science as a career and devote their entire lives to studying
it. Many people derive great pleasure from doing science.
is very much a human endeavor, and the work of science relies on basic
human qualities, such as reasoning, insight, energy, skill, and creativity.
men and women using scientific inquiry have learned much about the objects,
events, and phenomena in nature, much more remains to be understood.
Science will never be finished.