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A Career in Marine Mammal Acoustics and the Arctic

Joshua Jones,  a Ph.D. candidate at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, studies marine mammal acoustics in the Arctic.

Joshua Jones, a Ph.D. candidate at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, studies marine mammal acoustics in the Arctic. Credit: Scripps Whale Acoustic Lab.

This week, I interviewed Joshua Jones, a Ph.D. student in biological oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO). The focus of his thesis research is marine mammals in the Arctic, their acoustic behavior and relationships with sea ice, and the effects of human activities on the underwater acoustic environment. 

The Arctic is a hot topic largely due to its sensitivity to climate change, its rapidly dwindling sea ice, and the host of marine mammal and other animal populations that call it home. Research such as Josh’s help us to better understand how the Arctic’s systems interact, and what we can do to adapt to the changing ecosystem.

Personal Background:

Q: What got you into the marine science field? Did you always know that you wanted to go into this field?

A: I started out as a fishing guide in southeast Alaska right after high school. It was a job opportunity I got while I was working as a lumber loader at a hardware store in Seattle. One of the customers owned a fishing lodge in Alaska and offered me a job. This led to driving small boats and a license to operate them with passengers for hire. I met some whale researchers in Alaska one year when I was working as a fishing guide. My girlfriend, Carrie, was a marine biologist/animal behavior person and she got a job on their research vessel, the R/V Odyssey, which was wrapping up the filming of an Imax movie in southeast AK at the time. I helped out in the winter, which led to a volunteer crew position for me too.

Carrie eventually left the Odyssey and I stayed on, working for Ocean Alliance and ultimately becoming first mate and expedition coordinator. This led to lots of time at sea with whales using an acoustic array to find and track them. After a few years of this, I left the boat to go back to college and pursue a graduate degree. I came to Dr. John Hildebrand’s lab at SIO, the Whale Acoustic Lab, in December 2002, and started working on my undergraduate while doing lab and fieldwork for him. That was 13 years ago. I’ve been working in bioacoustics ever since, and that’s the focus of my current graduate program.

Q: How have your focuses changed over time?

A: I’ve been consistently focused on research-based conservation and education since getting the job aboard the Odyssey, working for Ocean Alliance. Aboard the Odyssey, my focus was primarily the vessel and its operations. I was also the primary operator and maintainer of its acoustic system, a towed acoustic array. During my years at SIO, I’ve slowly become more practiced at the research process that comes before and after the data collection: the proposal writing and the analysis, writing, and publication. Now as a graduate student, my main focus is on learning and practicing methods to analyze acoustic and a range of other data, then putting those results together into coherent manuscripts.

Q: What is the most exciting aspect of the work that you do?

A: I still do a substantial amount of fieldwork in the Arctic and other areas around the world. Deploying, recovering, and operating a range of sophisticated equipment from towed arrays and sonobuoys, to our High-frequency Acoustic Recording Packages (HARPs) in the highly variable marine environment, often in remote locations and under challenging technical and logistical conditions, is still fun and rewarding.

Mammal Acoustics: Ocean Alliance and Scripps

Aboard the R/V Odyssey, Josh readies a HARP to be deployed in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Zoe Gentes.

Aboard the R/V Odyssey, Josh readies a HARP to be deployed in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Zoe Gentes.

Q: What is Ocean Alliance and what do they do?

A: Ocean Alliance collects a broad spectrum of data on whales and ocean, from bioacoustics, to behavior, to toxicology. They work with scientific partners to advise educators and policy makers about reducing pollution, managing marine mammal populations, and promoting ocean and human health.

Q: Is there any way for students to get involved with the organization?

A: Contact the Ocean Alliance, send a CV and request to volunteer, be persistent, offer to show up at the site of the project and work for free for some amount of time.

More Ocean Alliance links:
Voyage of the Odyssey
Sea Shepherd and Ocean Alliance’s Gulf of Mexico Research Campaign

Q: How did you get involved with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography?

A: I was planning to do my undergraduate degree at Cornell after leaving the Odyssey, but a friend of mine in California in 2002 reminded me about SIO and suggested I look into going to school at UCSD. I found John Hildebrand’s lab there and asked Roger Payne, who I had worked for at the Ocean Alliance, to call him and recommend me for a student job. Roger called John for me, then I went to meet him and offered to help him do more with acoustic arrays and sperm whale research. He gave me a small desk in one of his lab spaces and an hourly job.

Q: Can you tell us about the Voices in the Sea interactive exhibit you created? How did you come up with this idea?

A: I was inspired by the focus the Ocean Alliance put on reaching an audience of millions with results of ongoing research. They did this through their work with film, television, and radio productions and through their website. With the help of a friend who was also a top marketing executive, we came up with a concept for developing a new audience at US aquariums, where millions of people are already making time to go experience and learn about ocean life. His company foundation, the Pacific Life Foundation, supported the project and we found an amazing partner in the Aquarium of the Pacific and their exhibit design firm, Cortina Productions. It was this team that developed the exhibit that exists today. The project is now in it’s 12th year and is currently in seven US aquariums.

With the Voices of the Sea interactive exhibit, you can explore acoustics from various marine mammals including whales, dolphins, and seals. The exhibit is featured in various aquariums throughout the US. Credit: voicesinthesea.org

With the Voices of the Sea interactive exhibit, you can explore acoustics from various marine mammals including whales, dolphins, and seals. The exhibit is featured in various aquariums throughout the US. Credit: voicesinthesea.org.


Q: What got you interested in Arctic mammal acoustics research? Why pursue a Ph.D. in it?

A: In 2006, John and one of his students, Ethan Roth, had started an acoustic monitoring project in the Chukchi Sea. In 2007, John asked me to help with the analysis of those data. Ethan focused on his study of ambient noise and we worked together on the bioacoustics. I found the acoustic environment and the animals fascinating and thought this would be a good project to focus my eventual thesis work on because it was not only interesting, but related to the bigger issue of climate change and the effects on marine mammals.

Q: How many research cruises have you been on in the Arctic? Your first time in the Arctic, what was least like you expected? What surprised you?

A: I’ve been to the Arctic seven times. The first trip was in March to Barrow, Alaska to film interviews of bowhead whale researchers and Inupiaq hunters for the Voices in the Sea exhibit. Most surprising was to see ice from horizon to horizon and to be unable to tell where the land ended and the ocean started. It was more like being on one of the moons of Jupiter than Earth.

Q: What kind of logistical planning goes into a typical Arctic cruise for deploying equipment?

A: Lots of things. For example, there is equipment design, building, and testing. There are permit requests and the permitting process, sometimes with multiple permitting agencies. There is ordering and purchasing of supplies; shipping up to a few thousand pounds of equipment, some of which is hazardous material; travel planning; and coordinating with vessel operations and other researchers involved in the cruise. 

Scripps conducts Arctic research on marine acoustics, including ambient ocean noise,  shipping, whales, and seals. Credit: Scripps Whale Acoustic Lab.

Scripps conducts Arctic research on marine acoustics, including ambient ocean noise, shipping, whales, and seals. Credit: Scripps Whale Acoustic Lab.

Q: Is everyone aboard the ship working toward addressing the same question, or do they have their “own” project? What is your role usually?

A: On a big ship, we’re often one of many science projects. On a smaller vessel, we’re often the only science mission. I am responsible for our acoustic mission in all cases.

Q: How do you typically arrive at the ship? How much of an ordeal is this?

A: With practice, this aspect becomes routine. It is expensive and involved getting to some locations, but is usually a predictable stepwise process starting with a cab ride to the airport and ending with some form of transport (e.g. truck, police car, snow machine, small boat, float plane) to the vessel.

Credit: Scripps Whale Acoustic Lab.

Scripps scientists deploying a HARP. Credit: Scripps Whale Acoustic Lab.

Q: What skills have been most useful to you in the field?  Have you developed any skills while in the field?

A: My boat experience as a captain and mate have been very helpful in all fieldwork at sea. Working as a fishing guide and as part of a team running remote fishing expeditions has helped me to work well with small groups of people in isolated often challenging conditions. The fastest learning is most often accomplished in the field when things break or do not go as expected. Much of what I have learned has been on the job in this way.


Importance of the Research

Q: What do you hope to find or learn from these cruises and data collection? 

A: Some key questions I want to answer are: How do marine mammals in the Arctic use sound to communicate, to hunt for food, and to navigate? What sounds do they make? What are the relationships between Arctic marine mammals and sea ice? How do human activities in the Arctic, such as shipping, petroleum exploration, fishing, tourism, etc.,  affect the underwater acoustic environment?

Q: Is there potential for your findings to influence policymakers or marine managers?

A: First we focus on implementing rigorous research methods, then on generating published findings, then we have the opportunity to share those findings broadly. I hope the results of our Arctic research are relevant first to the people who live in the Arctic and who interact with marine mammals as a part of their culture and subsistence. I also hope that in the process of doing the work, we create opportunities for as many others as possible to participate, especially people from the areas in which we work. If the research can also facilitate good local, national, and global discussion about adapting to changes in the Arctic while being considerate of marine mammals and Arctic people, that will be a great success.



  1. […] time readers may have noticed how often acoustics comes up in the study of the ocean. This is no coincidence and there are a myriad of […]

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