Associate professor and marine acoustician Ana Širović is about as close to a whale whisperer as one can get, using sound to study marine animals – some of which are seriously massive. As she tells us, dealing with 90-foot animals comes with its own unique challenges and can take you in unexpected directions.
Six years ago, she got involved with the production of Joshua Zeman’s The Loneliest Whale: The Search For 52, seeking a whale with a call like no other. As she explains, the film provided an opportunity for some insightful data collection, and who doesn’t love a quest?
How did you come to be involved with The Loneliest Whale: The Search For 52?
At the time, I had a funded research project to investigate call production rates by blue and fin whales in Southern California. My collaborator on the project was master whale-tagger John Calambokidis, who was also at sea during the filming, and his task in our project was to deploy acoustic tags on the whales.
I do not recall if it was John or Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s (where I was a scientist at the time) Development Office that first told me about Josh Zeman’s quest to find the “52Hz whale.” But ultimately, John and I decided that such a quest, while very challenging and with low likelihood of success, could also help us augment the data collection for our ongoing project. Knowing we would still obtain useful data, even if we didn’t find the “52Hz whale,” we decided it was worth giving it a go.
What do you do?
I am currently an Associate Professor in the Marine Biology Department at Texas A&M University at Galveston.
What did it take to get here?
A life-long love of the sea, a PhD in oceanography, and a fascination with long-term ocean sound data.
What's the most common misconception about your line of work?
That I swim with dolphins or dive for my work. I dive recreationally, but I have never swum with dolphins. While I have had many great field experiences at sea and spend some time on the water, most of my work is conducted at a computer, analyzing data and writing scientific papers.
Proudest moment in your career?
I feel quite proud and happy every time we successfully recover an underwater recorder. After dozens that I have deployed and recovered over the years, you would think that it would become routine, but most recorders we deploy spend 6 or more months in very deep waters (1,000 meters [3,281 feet] or more). So I am always impressed, amazed, and happy when we get the recorders, with their precious data, back on deck for analysis.
Any hairy tales from life on the water?
One of the more memorable moments came in one of the earlier times when I was at sea with John Calambokidis, trying to tag blue whales. Safety is paramount in these efforts, as we approach a 90+ foot [27+ meter] whale on a relatively small rigid-hull inflatable boat; we are always strapped to the boat via a harness, wearing a helmet.
The process of tagging requires this small boat to get right next to the whale during its short surfacing interval, to be able to attach a tag on its back as it surfaces using a very long pole. This requires fast boat maneuvers and quick action. One time, as the boat sped up to get close enough to the whale as it surfaced, the strap on my harness broke – and even though I was trying to stay planted in my spot, I went flying back across the boat and into the driver console.
The next few seconds played out in slow-motion in my head. I saw the whale surface as I was two steps away from the position where I needed to be to tag it. I moved forward while watching its back slowly surface out of the water, and I managed to shove the pole forward and stick the tag on the whale just before it disappeared into the deep. Then I fell back onto a seat next to the console, world coming back to full speed, amazed at all that just occurred, and the fact that I was not hurt in the process.
What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?
Learn how to code. The programming language doesn’t matter too much, but I think coding is the most useful skill a scientist today can have. Especially anyone interested in underwater sound more generally, or whale acoustics specifically.