High school student Frankie Demantle used the greeting, “hello” in Yup’ik, her native Alaskan language, to open her presentation on marine mammal acoustics research during the recent SeaTech Arctic Marine Bioacoustics Symposium held at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.
In the fifth year of collaboration between the Whale Acoustics Lab at Scripps and Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, Alaska, the event marked the annual culmination of a groundbreaking research and technology program in which students contribute to and actively participate in Scripps research.
Demantle and 11 of her fellow students from Mt. Edgecumbe, a boarding school at which 85 percent of the students are Alaska natives, presented new findings focusing on their Alaskan Arctic research on sounds of four species of ice-breeding seals, belugas, and bowhead whales.
“The SeaTech program is so valuable because it offers students the ability to conduct real science. So often scientists come to classes to present about what they do but rarely do they invite students to not only participate but to become a part of a research team,” said Michael Mahoney, a Mt. Edgecumbe science teacher and liaison with the SeaTech program. “I find that our students are interested in learning about the animals that are so important to them from both a subsistence standpoint and an observational standpoint. Many of our students have spent their lives around these animals and the opportunity to learn more about them is attractive.”
Josh Jones, a Scripps staff research associate working in Professor John Hildebrand’s laboratory, helped launch SeaTech in 2005 to bring students together with marine scientists to cultivate an appreciation of oceanography and marine acoustics research through field excursions and immersive activities. After a successful launch in Southern California, Jones and Hildebrand targeted the Alaskan Arctic as an ideal location for the program based on the cultural bonds between human populations of the north and the marine mammals that live in the region. Jones became acquainted with Mahoney, and the program took off from there.
“This project gives everyone involved opportunities to learn, teach, and contribute to
research,” said Jones. “Some of the students are from the Alaskan Arctic and are
studying animals that are important culturally and as a source of food their families.
One student will return from this trip with a hydrophone system to make on-ice
recordings of bearded seals next month with his mom.”
Mahoney’s SeaTech students pore through data collected from high-frequency acoustic recording packages, or HARPs, instruments conceived and developed at Scripps that sit on the ocean floor with a hydrophone, or underwater microphone, to continuously record the ensemble of calls, clicks, and songs from marine mammals in the Alaskan Arctic wild. With help from Hildebrand and Jones, the students learn how to analyze the acoustic data and create scientific questions.
“This is a fantastic program that involves a lot of work but at the same time it’s been super rewarding—to be able to do things and see things that most people will never have the opportunity to,” said Anneliese Moll, a recently graduated Mt. Edgecumbe student who studied the acoustic behavior of thousands of beluga whale whistles in her SeaTech research.
The program also has provided a bonus in luring high-achieving students to UC San Diego. Mt. Edgecumbe alumni at UC San Diego include Tessa Baldwin, who will soon complete her freshman year, and Ian “Chachi” Sia, a 2010 Mt. Edgecumbe graduate, who is finishing up his junior year.
“The main reason I came (to UC San Diego) was to further my studies of bowhead whales that I began in SeaTech in high school,” said Baldwin, who is Inupiaq. She has been sharing data and comparing ideas about whale populations and migration routes with her father, a subsistence hunter. “SeaTech is a connection to my native heritage but in a different way than most people experience.”
Mahoney is hopeful that the connections made through the SeaTech program will reward the students culturally, but also shed new light on science of the species in the region.
“I truly enjoy watching the students gain confidence not only in my class but in everything they do because of the work they complete in SeaTech,” said Mahoney. “I cannot think of any better way to prepare them for their future.”
-- Mario C. Aguilera