Listening from Freo to Darwin – WAAP emailed Sat 08/09/2012

Fremantle to Darwin. Skipper makes friends.
Photo credit M.Jenner

Just wanted to fill you in on yet another amazing project, in which we were able to participate recently.

The good ship Whale Song left Fremantle Harbour on August 13 at 1315, bound for Darwin.   With rousing hoots and hollers from Sam, our deckhands’, family excitedly waving from the groin of the Fremantle Fishing Boat Harbour, our small shipboard community commenced the approximately 4000 kilometre journey northwards along the Western Australian coast.  Nine personnel onboard included the usual Whale Song crew of 5 (Curt, Dale, Resty, Sam and me), Daffy (Defence), Gary (L3), Maria and Inday (both CWR researchers).   Skipper was of course on board, and initially appeared excited about our departure, but then became increasingly glum over the next few days without our daughter Tas, his buddy to always cuddle-by.  He actually was depressed, poor little soul but cuddling next to Daffy seemed to help(!)

The primary aim of this journey was to relocate the ship to the general off-shore Darwin region to support a Defence Department training exercise, but early in the logistics discussion process, our colleagues at Defence and Curtin University, Daffy and Prof Rob McCauley, agreed that there was incredible potential offered by the actual transit to the exercise area.  There was indeed a unique opportunity to systematically collect ambient noise data along 30% of the Australian continental shelf with the hi-tech acoustic equipment on board.  Certainly something of interest to biologists but also something that is in Australia’s national interest.  Thus we conceived the Western Australian Acoustic Profile (WAAP) – a simultaneous ambient noise and visual cetacean survey, along 4000 kilometres of the 100m depth contour off Australia’s western and northern coasts.

We had a lovely start to the journey, but still a few bellies needed settling and it wasn’t until the second night before we had a full-house seated at the table for dinner!  As the Perth buildings faded on that first day, I felt two pieces of me had been left behind…

From Day 1, August 13, we began the first of many sonobuoy deployments, whereby passive underwater microphones (hydrophones) are put in the water and within a few minutes transmit a radio signal to a sensitive receiver on board – this system is known as a sonobuoy.  The radio signal is processed with sophisticated hardware and software onboard Whale Song, all built and created by the gentlemanly bright sparks at L3 Oceania for our Defence Department.   This means real time, live whale songs were piped into the wheelhouse as live “ocean music”, for up to 10 hours each – a beautiful experience… Whale Song by name and by sake.  The wonderful sounds of the sea filled the whole vessel!  The chirps of dolphins and hoops/trills of the northern, then southern bound humpback whales filled my sleeping time between 3-7am after my 12-3am watch, when the “Dawn Patrol” was collecting data!  It was great to dream, nestled in a cocoon of whale songs!  Naturally, the poems flowed with eleven the final count, one per day, even including one of forty-two verses long about the journey and our whole crew, read out on the last night on arrival in Darwin!

Observers on watch as the team depart Fremantle.
Photo credit M.Jenner

By day three, we had fallen into a good work program, finetuning the nuts and bolts of maintaining our regular ships’ watches, cetacean observation schedules with the 3 observers (Maria, Inday and Mich) and Daffy and Gary each taking 2 of the 4 takes per day running the audio recording systems on two separate computers.  We moved our mealtimes slightly later – all to allow for the four “Environmental Takes” each day with acoustic and visual observations over-lapping, as much as possible.  After 11 days, 1985 nm (3676 km) travelled, several hundred sonobuoys deployed and around 30 GB of data collected, we can now reflect on the awesome sights of some of the cetaceans and ocean creatures we saw and heard.

Watching humpback whales breach.
Photo credit M.Jenner

Some of the highlights include large numbers of humpback whales playing and belting out tunes off Ningaloo Reef, and a unique sunset feeding frenzy with three Brydes’ (pronounced broodes) whales, 5 huge oceanic manta rays barrel-rolling at the surface with krill leaping skyward escaping from them and a lovely quiet pod of spinner dolphins just swimming gently through the “chocolate milk”!  We also encountered another frenzy with two more Brydes’ whales and a group of 50-80 false killer whales, which had a nursery group of smaller individuals bordered by the larger animals out wide!  We had a “bong” fish, something going “bong bong bong bong bong”, five times with great resonance, (most likely Antarctic minke whales), “carpenter” fish chipping away (Sperm whales) and even a Cuvier’s beaked whale (seen as well!) making impressive zzzzipppphhh sounds too!  Flying fish panicking, crested terns squawking, jellyfish bobbing, Wilson Storm Petrels dancing and Red-footed Boobies perched atop our fore-mast…  The sights of the sea always amaze me, but now with the sounds and sights of the sea together, we have indeed entered another realm.  For Skipper, he knows it is a visual world for us, so he is always with us, while we look.  We have always thought that he can hear things that we can’t, so perhaps, now that we have those sounds at our audible level, maybe it’s like a perpetual whale rock concert for him?


Seeing the Sounds


Listening to the world below

Shows how much we know

With whoops and trills

Signals across screen curls


Humpbacks singing

Whoops ringing

Blues on the moan?

In deep low tone


Patterns of all kinds appear on the screen

To please a carpet designer keen

The bright tones of a movie foyer

Compare with English country garden flare


Or roses interspersed with purple petunia hues

I shall make whale song carpet – record the blues!

A cacophony of whales

All singing their tales


Perhaps tales of woe?

Perhaps where to go?

From burps, chirps, chumps and whistles

Wonderful sounds that make your arms bristle


To the comforting whosh of the air-con fan

And the random beep of a watch – to find I never can!

On the 100m line

Recording 4 times a day just fine


There was a soul lost at Wedge the other day

Maybe what the soulful humpbacks say

Imagine Captain Cook in days of old

Hearing the sounds through the wooden hold

Ghosts they decided they must be

Filling each and every sea


Sounds to glide by

And thus tunes to guide by

A veritable cacophony

Of humpbacks filling the sea

(Written by Micheline Jenner)


Arriving safe and sound in Darwin Harbour, we anchored in front of the main wharf at 1730 (NT time) on Thursday August 23(Day 11), feeling thoroughly thrilled with the incredible quality and quantity of data collected.  Curt and I feel privileged to be doing this work and we are so elated that our truly quiet vessel Whale Song, is able to be used to her capacity as a recorder and defender of the sounds of the sea!

Team Whale Song, our team of nine, operated like a well-oiled machine, well done and congrats all around!  The WAAP (West Australian Acoustic Profile) was very successful and we look forward to more such activities, as well as supporting exercises and helping Defend the Defenders.  We are fortunate, we truly do have much to protect and care for in Australia.

We had one day in Darwin and then prepared for the next offshore adventure, more about this soon…


Sending you calming, Indian Ocean breezes,

Mich and the Whale Songs

A warm welcome into Darwin. WhaleSong II steams past as the sun sets.
Photo credit M.Jenner

Sam, R.V. Whalesong’s deckhand, keeping us entertained with Ukulele tunes.
Photo credit M.Jenner

Making more friends. Skipper and a bottlenose dolphin make eye contact.
Photo credit M.Jenner

Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia.
Photo credit M.Jenner

Skipper is attentive as he senses land close by.
Photo credit M.Jenner

Centre for Whale Research

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