Skype in the classroom success!

I had my first Skype in the Classroom yesterday and I loved it! Skype in the Classroom is an amazing way to reach students all around the world! I had my first call yesterday with Mr. Grabowski’s class in Canada. I had so much fun talking to them. The students were so excited and asked great questions. They had so many questions that we’re doing a quick Q and A tomorrow so everyone can ask all their questions! I got to tell them about how I got to where I am today as a scientist sharing awesome photos from when I was in 6th grade. They agreed I’ve come a long way! I shared what I study, how we study dolphins and why we study the sounds that they make! And now there are 6th graders in Canada that know spinner dolphins rest during the day! Win! I’m so looking forward to my future Skypes!

Check out Mr. Grabowski’s blog! Complete with more photos!




Repost! $1500 outreach grant awarded

IMG_3025I put this blog up on the Johnston lab website but I also wanted to post it here since it is such good news! I am really looking forward to working with Joy Stanistreet, Sean Stanton, our faculty mentor David Johnston and our 6th grade teacher contact Mrs. Jennifer Coggins at Morehead City Middle School on this!

Also check out the cool local press about Girls in STEM complete with quote and a picture from a visit I made to the Morehead City Middle School 6th grade class. Thanks Jackie Starkey for writing the piece for the Carteret News-Times.  



IMG_3030Earlier this fall the Duke Center for Science Education announced a small grant ($500-$1500) competition for student teams to work on hands-on activities for 4th through 10th graders.  Joy Stanistreet (PhD student), Sean Stanton (MEM Student) and I along with our faculty mentor Dr. David Johnston got together with local teacher Mrs. Jennifer Coggins from Morehead City Middle School to come up with a plan… and…  We are all pleased to announce that we were successful! We received word from the Center Executive Director Chris Adamczyk yesterday that we were awarded a $1500 outreach grant!

A major part of the 6th grade curriculum in the State of North Carolina is about sound. In fact, I visited half of Mrs. Coggins’ and Mrs. Nancy Piner’s 6th grade class last week to talk about my research on spinner dolphin sound.  Check out an article done about Girls in STEM fields in the Carteret News-Times complete with a picture from that visit here! When I first spoke to Mrs. Coggins about the opportunity to visit her 6th graders to show them how they can someday use the things they are learning in the classroom to study marine mammals, I mentioned the grant. And the rest is history.

We got together to write the grant application and it seemed like a logical step to work on a proposal to develop activities and materials about marine mammals and sound, bring students to the marine lab to expand on their classroom knowledge and learn about marine mammal sound research and also to give them the opportunity to get out on the water and experience the sounds of their own “backyard.”  We asked for funds to build a “hydrophone kit” that would be available for groups coming to the lab. We also asked for funding to get the entire Morehead City Middle School 6th grade class out on the water on the RV Susan Hudson making recordings and at the lab using the activities and materials we develop as a pilot group.  The lasting products of this grant would be the hydrophone kit and all of the materials and activities we develop for the day, all revolved around “Sound in the Sea” with a focus on marine mammal sound. We hope to publish these activities in an iBook that would be available for teachers everywhere.  Another lasting product is of course the relationship we are continuing to develop with local schools and teachers like Mrs. Coggins at Morehead City Middle School.

So now the work begins! We will start to craft activities and put together the kit and all of the materials for the big day. We will also be hosting the Science Education Center’s Summer Science Sleuths summer camp in June. We are all really looking forward to interacting with all of the students and introducing them to “Sound in the Sea!” Who knows, maybe there’s a future marine mammal acoustician in the group!

For more information about the proposal or if you are a student at the marine lab interested in helping with “Sound in the Sea,”  please email Heather at



You’re looking at the new HuffPost Girls in STEM Blogger!

What a great surprise today…  I logged in to my email to find that the blog I wrote for Huffington Post and their Girls in STEM initiative was posted!  I am so proud of it and so excited about everyone talking about it in emails, on Facebook and Twitter!

Check it out on the front page of the Girls in STEM page. Yup that’s my blog, 5 Ways Scientists Can Engage Youth in the Classroom! 

And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter! @spinnerheather 




I’m definitely making a scrum board. #elontlc

Shortly after we started the PhD program  Alyse Larkin and I attended a workshop on writing a teaching statement. One of the activities to get to know your neighbors was to discuss a set of questions we were given on a handout. One of the questions was, in your career, what would you like the balance of research and teaching to be. I had written down Teaching>Research.  It was time to share and Alyse and I went first and second. We both said “teaching greater than research.” Well. The looks on the faces of our two other group members was shock, horror, terror, confusion and anything else that encompasses the thought “You’re CRAZY!”  Alyse and I were pretty upset after this workshop. Our other two group members continued on to proclaim that “Undergraduate students hated numbers” and that “No teacher could change that” and the general sentiment of, I really don’t want to teach (but they were at a teaching statement workshop?), and what was even more horrific to Alyse and I, I don’t think teachers can make a difference. At this point we were looking at our group members in shock, horror, terror, confusion and anything else that encompasses the thought, “You’re CRAZY!”

Yesterday Alyse and I attended the 10th Annual Elon University Teaching and Learning Conference and as we walked down the stairs to the final talk of the day I found myself leaning over #elontlcand saying “I think these are my people.”  I’m 100% sure that if any one of the people at the conference yesterday were in our group at that teaching statement workshop that they would have all supported us in our quest to teach, they would have said, “Right on!”

The workshop was full of interesting, thought-provoking and incredibly useful presentations and Alyse and I went to the full range.  We started with a thought-provoking lecture on “The Intercultural Dimension” by Michael Paige.  My takeaways from this presentation were that everything has a cultural context and it is important to take time to reflect on cultural dynamics and how culture matters in a given context.  Dr. Paige also supported something I try to do in my lectures, to use a diverse set of examples, texts, authors and methods while delivering content  and interacting with students. So my goal after having attended this talk was to continue to keep diversity in mind while I lecture, whether that be trying to incorporate an example from another country or part of the United States, or incorporating ways to deliver content to students with different learning styles.

The next two presentations we attended were on Authentic Assignments and Collaboration.  Authentic Assignments was run by Deandra Little from the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning and Paul Anderson from the Writing Across the University Program at Elon.  In this session, we discussed creating assignments that actually have students do, in my case, what scientists do.  This was a theme from both this session and the final session we attended and resulted in my #elontlc tweet.  We should give our students assignments that give them the opportunity to be scientists. So what might that mean? We might give students the opportunity to respond to a Request for Proposals, or write an an Op-Ed related to our field of study, to create an outreach or education material about a certain topic, to create and design experiments that test certain hypotheses.  We spent a lot of the time developing an idea for an assignment and mine was to have students produce a Scientific American “60-Second Science” podcast like this one on dolphin signature whistles.

The next session Alyse and I attended was on “Easy Strategies for Encouraging Better Collaboration” by Rebecca Pope-Ruark. My take-away from this presentation was “I’M DEFINITELY MAKING A SCRUM BOARD!” But seriously, we learned about ways to get our students to collaborate better.  And one key to this is to have students actually talk about collaboration with their peers, to discuss their horror stories, because we all have them, and their hero’s tales and then to discuss why certain groups didn’t do so well and why others succeeded with flying colors. Then the next step would be to talk about the lessons learned from these groups and to have students come up with a set of rules to govern their collaboration.  We also learned about Scrum boards and Agile’s Epics, Stories and Tasks. I won’t go into it too much here but the idea is that students in a group (or say a PhD student with a lot on her plate) creates a Scrum Board where you put every task and story that is part of your epic, in my case it might be “Graduation” and then I have all the tasks and stories I need to complete to achieve that epic.  I make the board with a “to-do” column, a “WIP” (work in progress) column and the most satisfying of all the columns, the “Done” column and watch as the little cards move across the board. You literally watch the progress you make march across the Scrum Board. Let’s just say I think I’ll making one of these with my 35% off coupon from Michael’s!

We had lunch and chatted about using Tablets in the classroom and then wrapped up the sessions with one on Engaged Learning by Kate King and Megan Isaac.  This session had us start by thinking about our most meaningful experiences in formal education.  And I’ll give you a hint, our answers were not a specific lecture in a specific class in Sophomore year. They were internships, TA-ships, field and travel courses, dissertation research, etc.  This got us thinking about how to engage our students and to help give them these types of meaningful experiences. They even provided us with some principles for engaged learning.  One of the principles was using authentic problems and experiences (Hey! I know about that!) and incorporating reflection as part of the learning process and to focus on big questions and enduring concepts.

At this point we had a lot to think about and Robbie Kendall-Melton gave us more! We wrapped up the day with her presentation on some of the latest technological innovations and advances in mobile devices and apps. Robbie showed us apps you could use in the classroom to do a frog dissection, she showed us Nearpod, an app that I was already familiar with but I am encouraged to actually use it when I get the chance. She also showed us computers that rolled up into something half the size of a yoga mat, blood pressure cuffs that hook right into your iPhone, and extremely inexpensive ($69) document cameras that double as microscopes and telescopes. It is amazing what technology can do and just encourages me to continue to think of ways to incorporate it into my teaching.

We ended the day with a trip for Mapleview Ice Cream and continued our reflection on the conference on the 3.5 hour drive back to Beaufort.  And that was one of the best parts of the day. Alyse and I had set aside a full day to think about teaching, to learn about new developments and tools. I hope that we (and even more Duke Marine Lab PhD students) continue to attend this conference. It was extremely valuable and a great way to spend the day with a supportive and engaging group of people.


Here have a lei and let me tell you about Hawaiian spinner dolphins…

Dylan, Melody, me and Demi at the Open House. Photo by Katie Wood

Dylan, Melody, me and Demi at the Open House. Photo by Katie Wood

Yesterday the Duke University Marine Lab hosted a public Open House and it was quite a success. I wasn’t too sure what to expect when I volunteered to tell people about my research on Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins but it sure wasn’t 300 visitors in two hours (a new record for the DUML open house!). Go Marine Lab!

I joined forces with Demi Fox, a recent Master of Environmental Management graduate and postgraduate researcher at the marine lab, Kenady Wilson a PhD

Kenady and the future seal scientists

Kenady and the future seal scientists

candidate, and her summer undergraduate colleague Emma. Together we were the Mammals in Hawai’i team! And yes, we had leis. 200 of them to be exact! Kenady and Emma tackled Hawaiian Monk Seals and showed off some amazing crittercam footage. Kenady even placed an elephant (yes a fake one! we don’t have elephants on island) with a tag in the room and used what scientists use in the field to locate that tag and the elephant. Lots of fun for all ages!

Demi and I spoke about Hawaiian spinner dolphins. It was so fun to watch Demi show off her Nai’a Guide throughout the day. It was her master’s project and it is an amazing free app I wrote about in my last entry. We had extra iPads for the day so people were able to click through the app, check out the content and ask questions! Sometimes they started with Demi and then hopped over to me others started with me and then moved over

Hands-on app learning with the Nai'a Guide

Hands-on app learning with the Nai’a Guide

to Demi. Either way, we tried to make sure that people walked away with a lei and the knowledge that spinner dolphins rest during the day and feed at night.  “I’m sure Heather told you that spinner dolphins rest during the day,” Demi would say. And that was really the goal, to tell people about the dolphins and their predictable daily behavior.  So some people walked away with new facts about spinner dolphins, others with business cards about the Nai’a Guide so they could download it when they got home and some future marine biologists, hopefully they got the inspiration to continue pursuing their dream. But all, now, should at least know a little something about the dolphins.

It was also quite fun for me to share some sounds recorded by our acoustic loggers in Hawai’i and watch people listen to spinner dolphins. The smiles on their faces reminded me how fun the recordings really are. Some visitors got a kick out of a recording I call “Scuba Steve.” If you don’t know the Big Daddy reference, here’s a short clip. Anyway, the recording is of a scuba diver that has found our acoustic logger and proceeds to yell at it! It is quite entertaining.

Here are two files if you’d like to listen! Put on headphones if you have them, you will hear more.  Dolphin Sound and my dear friend ScubaSteve

I was also happy to pass out some of my new outreach coordinator business cards. Alyse Larkin and I are the new PhD student outreach coordinators and I made some business cards for us to hand out.  I met teachers from the area who were interested in having DUML students visit their classrooms! If you are a teacher in the area reading this entry please feel free to contact us at and check out my For teachers and students page.

The Duke Marine Lab is 3.5 hours from main campus and on an island, literally. People pass right by us after they go over the big Morehead City bridge right before the little Beaufort bridge and I’m sure some of them, have no idea we are here. Sure we have a small sign on 70 that says Duke University Marine Lab but I’m not so sure how many people actually see it. However, on Saturday, big wavy signs and balloons joined that small blue sign and we did our best to get people on our island and show off a little. There is some amazing stuff going on at the lab and it was great to show people our research and outreach and to welcome them to our community for the afternoon.

Waiting for new friends at the Nai'a table.

Waiting for new friends at the Nai’a table.


P.S. I’m one proud Spinnerette!

I was helping my sister Kaitlin write a cover letter for an Academic Advisor position and like any cover letter we were working on describing her experiences as they related to the job description… what was her experience with social media, with mentoring and advising students and running information sessions.  It was then that I realized that for both of us, mentoring and advising students has been”our thing” for a long time. We were both involved in Peer Leadership in high school. Of course now my “Peer Kids,” the students who were once just high-school freshmen, have now graduated from college and some are pursuing advanced degrees of their own.  We were both involved in mentoring at the University of Connecticut and both have continued on this path of advising and mentoring throughout our time at Virginia Tech for Kaitlin and Duke for me.  And now Kaitlin is headed back to our alma mater UConn to work with the Honors Program and the students in the program, a program that made our UConn careers what they were and a group of people I still think of as family.  P.S. I’m one proud big sister!

And that’s how it’s been, we’ve always found opportunities to mentor and advise students and I don’t think we will ever stop.

So when I started my PhD I knew this “mentoring thing” would continue and I was very lucky to find three amazing Master’s students that I am so proud to call my mentees, my friends and my fellow Spinnerettes right off the bat. For my first year of PhD’ing I was in Durham. I spent the academic year there and then shipped back to Beaufort where the Marine Lab is and where I truly feel is my Duke home. This is the same path I took when I was a Master’s student, first year in Durham and second in Beaufort. Because I repeated this path I had the opportunity to get to know the first year Master’s students for the year in Durham and then we all moved to Beaufort for our second year together. And because of this I had the opportunity to develop as a mentor over the two years of getting to know Demi, Julia and Liza and get my first real taste at what a college professor/advisor must feel when their students go on to do great things and make a real difference in the world.  I vividly remember my first meeting with Demi Fox and Julia Goss in my office in Durham. They had learned about the spinner dolphin project and just like me two years ago, knew they wanted to get involved. Scratch that, the knew they HAD to get involved. So we sat down and chatted about their ideas for their Master’s project and our relationship started! That meeting with the first meeting of 3 (of the future 4) Spinnerettes.

Our group grew quickly after that meeting to include Demi Fox, Julia Goss and Liza Hoos and I like to think that the four of us could take on the world! We recently submitted a lesson plan for a book on Tablets in K-12 classrooms about marine mammals and sound, which should be published within the year. The four of us shipped off to Hawai’i for three and a half weeks to study the spinner dolphins as part of the last month of fieldwork for the SAPPHIRE Project and made quite the team, moving like a well-oiled machine as we followed dolphins along the Kona Coast.  And I had the privilege of watching Julia, Demi and Liza present their Master’s Projects and I couldn’t have been more proud of the work they did. You can check out their projects here: Julia and Dolphin Smart, Demi and the Naia Guide and Liza with her habitat models for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.  I felt like a proud parent watching the three of them gracefully and confidently talk about their projects.  I know this might seem like strange timing for this blog post, it is a few months after graduation and only Demi remains in Beaufort.  But I was reminded just yesterday how proud I am of my now fellow CEM Alums and knew I needed to share this latest milestone on my blog.

Demi’s Master’s Project focused on the use of mobile applications for conservation and the creation of “The Nai’a Guide.” The Nai’a Guide started as an idea, what if there was an app that people who were visiting the Hawaiian Islands could download and it would tell them about the spinner dolphins (known in Hawai’i as nai’a), about the fact that they rest during the day, about the research being done about their population and about how people could responsibly interact with the dolphins. And as of yesterday, when it made its debut on the iTunes app store, that idea is now a reality. So, if you have an iPad download it! If you know someone who is going to Hawai’i or you just want to look at some cool pictures and videos of these beautiful dolphins, this is your app too! Here is the link again:

Also check out the Duke research blog article about the app and keep an eye on the Johnston Superpod page for a blog from Demi about the app’s release!

P.S. I’m one proud Spinnerette! And I can’t wait to see what’s next for Demi, Julia and Liza. I know they’re off to great things!

Demi, Liza, Me and Julia

Demi, Liza, Me and Julia

I’m a Northeast girl living in a southern world

2013-04-28 11.52.13The past two weeks I had the great opportunity to travel to Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York for their Sound Analysis Workshop and Woods Hole, Massachusetts to meet with one of my committee members, Sofie Van Parijs, and her lab group. And boy was I happy about it.  Some might say, you live in North Carolina and went up to the chillier Northeast, how could you leave the warm southeast and be so happy about it? Well, hailing from the great state of New Jersey and having gone to the University of Connecticut for my undergraduate degree I have a special place in my heart for this corner of the world. Plus the weather in NC was apparently not so nice and the northeast had beautiful weather!

I started my adventure at Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, NY.  They run a week-long intensive sound analysis workshop and having terabytes of recordings stored up at this point I thought it would be a great opportunity to add some tools to my toolbox and to work with the people at Cornell. My goals for the2013-04-23 17.16.15 week were to be a big sponge and to take advantage of the opportunity I had by asking questions and spending time trying to come up with a good plan for my analysis.

One of the major things that I learned during this workshop is that there are many different types of sound analysis software and each does something a little different or entirely unique to that software, so… you need a lot of tools in your toolbox. You can’t just use the hammer to build your dissertation, you need the hammer, the saw, the nails…  and each tool has its strengths (and weaknesses).  I spent the week mostly learning about Raven a sound analysis software created at Cornell and XBAT, an extensible (meaning you can work on it and add to ti if you’re into programming) tool that runs through Matlab that I’ve been using for the last two years.  Both have some new features and each have automated detectors built in that I plan on spending more time testing for my analysis. Many thanks to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Bioacoustics Research Program for a great week, especially Russ, Tim, Anne and Liz.

After this intense week of presentations and hands-on experience with the software I was happy to continue building my toolbox and working on my dissertation plan in Woods Hole with Sofie Van Parijs and the rest of the Passive Acoustics Group at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center.  At Cornell it was great, 2013-05-01 07.01.58there were people who were working on elephants, bats, prairie dogs, birds, mice and fish.  I was the only marine mammal person there so it was really nice to head to Woods Hole to be with fellow marine mammal acousticians to learn about their projects and tools too! I had great meetings with so many people! Thanks to Gen, Dani, Sofie, Trudi, Peter, Denise and Samara for making my stay so worthwhile and for meeting with my to talk about my project.  And as a special treat I also got to go out on the boat with Lisa (I call her Grace) Conger and saw my first right whales! I leaned over on the way out and said, “Grace, I’ve never seen a right whale before.” And from just the look on her face I knew I was in for quite the day. A group of 10-15 high skimming right whales, AMAZING! Check out my sweet outfit on the left. That mustang suit might not be the most fashionable but it kept me warm! A big thanks to Grace for taking me out!

So after 6 planes, 4 buses, 2 taxis and 6 hours of driving I had given two talks, met with so many different people to learn about the projects they’re working on and the tools they use, built up my sound analysis toolbox and came up with a more detailed plan for my chapters of my dissertation! I’d say it was a successful two weeks! Plus I got clam chowder on Martha’s Vineyard and a new green black dog hat so life is good!

Beneath the Waves

Last spring I took an Environmental Issues and Documentary Arts class at Duke University with filmmaker Erin Espelie.  The class introduced me to Jacques Cousteau’s “The Silent World,” Chris Jordan’s Running the Numbers and works done by so many other talented artists, musicians and filmmakers.  I have always seen science as part of a bigger picture and this class (like so many of the others I have taken at the Nicholas School) offered me a chance to learn about more of that “bigger picture” and to learn about different ways to tell my story.

In the past few weeks I have shared the spinner dolphin story and my story with many. I have visited middle school classrooms to teach them about acoustics and to tell them the story of how I got to where I am today, capstone events to get middle school girls interested in the STEM fields, and talked with my colleagues and friends about the progress I have made with the acoustics analysis.  But this weekend, my story, and the story of the spinner dolphin, gets told on “the big screen.”

As part of the documentary arts class we were asked to do a project. It could be anything, a painting, a photo essay, or a film just to name a few. Since I had a trip to Hawai’i planned for March I thought I would try to get footage during my trip for a little film about the Hawaiian spinner dolphin.  I showed “Their Right to Rest,” a film about Hawaiian spinner dolphins, to Erin in an early form and she was really impressed. Me, not a filmmaker, impressing a real filmmaker! I showed it in classes, to my friends and family and was finally encouraged by Erin to submit the film to a film festival. So I did, thinking no way would my film get chosen. Well, this past week I learned that my film was chosen for the Beneath the Waves Film Festival and its first screening would be at the Benthic Ecology meeting in Savannah!

In fact, my film could be making its big-screen debut as I write this blog.  So thank you to Erin Espelie for giving me the chance to make my film and for encouraging me to submit it.


Check out the Duke Magazine story about the class and the projects that came from that class here

“Holy Humpback” of a Day

Aloha from Kona! I am currently out in Hawai’i doing fieldwork for the third time since the start of the project and I can’t believe we are so close to the end. I began as a Master’s student in the summer of 2010 and here we are more than three years later, I’m now in my second year of PhD and the project is set to end at the end of the month. We will pack things up, back up terabytes of acoustics files and I will return to NC with plenty to do! I’m nostalgic to think about how this project, one that I have been so involved with in the last three years, is coming to an end. But as Julian Tyne, the PhD student from Murdoch said, “It’s just the beginning.”

Here is a link and the text for the blog post I wrote for the Johnston lab website! Check it out and keep an eye on that page for updates about different Johnston lab projects including the Nai’a Guide.

2013-03-13 18.20.43


At this moment three quarters of “The Spinnerettes” are in Kona, Hawai’i assisting with fieldwork as a part of the Spinner Dolphin Acoustics and Population Parameters Research (SAPPHIRE) Project. The project started in the summer of 2010 to study the spinner dolphins using a suite of techniques including photo-identification, focal follows and behavioral sampling, acoustics and theodolite tracking.  It was set to wrap up before the 1st of the year but the State of Hawai’i closed one of our study bays, Kealakekua Bay to all non-coast guard approved vessels and we were called on to assist with the fieldwork to continue data collection during the closure.

Demi Fox, Liza Hoos and I arrived on the evening of March 11th and today was our first day of fieldwork. We took yesterday to plan out a week of our fieldwork and to get ourselves acclimated to the Island, to see Kealakekua Bay and to get some Kona coffee and breakfast at the Coffee Shack.  We woke up to spinner dolphins off our lanai and ended the day with humpback whales and a beautiful sunset.

Today, Demi, Stacia, a volunteer that has been with the project since the start, Brett, our fearless boat captain Bob and I set off on our first day of focal follows. When we set off on focal follows we find a group of spinner dolphins and start photo-identification. We take pictures of the dolphins to figure out “who is there.”  We can use pictures we have taken in the past to match the fins to previously captured fins.  We found a group farther up North and we started our focal follow. We were the only people with this group of dolphins, just us on our boat.  Our plan was a little derailed when a group of 3 humpbacks showed up (two adults and a calf) but we got a 2 hour follow in on the group recording their aerial behaviors and other information about the group of dolphins. We continued to have amazing views of dolphins and humpbacks interacting together.   We all found ourselves screaming when three adult humpbacks surfaced together off our port side. And “HOLY HUMPBACK”!” was born.

We moved south to try to find another group of dolphins and we sure did find some.  Our estimate was actually about 200 dolphins. The group was the biggest I had ever seen and we could see dolphins everywhere surfing the waves as they rolled in.  At this point however, we were not the only people with the dolphins. There were two boats, one exhibiting the clearest example of leapfrogging I have ever seen. This is a process where swim-with boats get up in front of a group of dolphins, drop their snorkelers in the water, let the dolphins pass, pick them up and repeat.  We stuck with the group taking pictures of them in hopes we would have some identifiable individuals.

We ended the day with data entry and a Mai Tai and another beautiful sunset complete with the green flash!


“Maybe I should try humpback”- Dory

Finding Nemo is my favorite movie of all time and I vividly remember when it came out. I went to see it in the theater with my family and when the scene came when Dory can’t seem to remember P. Sherman 42 Wallaby Way Sydney, a child sitting behind me yelled at the screen in tears, “It’s okay Dory, I would forget too!”

Dory is quite the fish. Not only does she help Marlin find Nemo but she also speaks whale! And although I can’t name it as my favorite scene in the movie I do laugh every single time I watch the scene where Dory asks the whale for directions. She moves through a few different species, claims that one of her dialects sounds a little orca and also suggests that maybe she try speaking humpback.  Dory proceeds to make what seemed to me at the time, ridiculous sounds.

I used to think the dolphins held the title for most ridiculous sounds.  I’ve heard things that sound like almost any farm animal or instrument you can think of, cows, ducks, dogs, banjos, you name it. But in the last week the humpback whales have done their fair share of surprising me too.  The thing that has surprised me most recently is the range of frequencies humpbacks use. Baleen whales, the Mysticetes, generally use low frequencies, bigger the body, the lower the frequency and the smaller animals, like the spinner dolphins, higher frequencies. If you think about the type of sound a humpback would make, think of all the whale songs you’ve heard, are they high in frequency like a bird singing or are they low in frequency? I would say low too. But check out the harmonics on this humpback!

This recording was taken in Makako Bay of Hawai’i Island. The recording is from January 8, 2011 and was recorded at 12:08 am.

Again this is a spectrogram. Along the left hand side of the picture (the y axis) is frequency in cycles per second.  We sample at 80,000 cycles per second but we can only accurately represent up to half of that, 40,000 cycles per second due to something called the Nyquist Theorem.  The brightest line in the picture is called the fundamental frequency it is where most of the energy of the signal lies. The rest of the lines are the harmonics and fall at multiples of the fundamental. When we listen to the sound of the humpback we hear one sound, each of the harmonics comes together with the fundamental frequency as one sound. But these harmonics go ABOVE 20 kHz! The spinner dolphin whistles I listen to are generally between 2 and 22 kHz! And the craziest thing is that I can’t hear at least the top three harmonics of this humpback sound. When my ear processes that sound I can’t make out the top three lines. I have lost some of my high frequency hearing, too many concerts… If you’re interested in finding out what harmonics you can’t hear try this hearing test. The best hearing human can hear from 20 Hz to 20 kHz. My hearing cuts out at around 15 kHz.

So sure the whales do use a lot of low frequency sound but that have quite an impressive ability to produce very high frequency harmonics, higher than I can hear! I guess I’m not quite as surprised as I used to be when I heard Dory speak whale.  These whales do make some crazy sounds.

Take a listen to this file here!