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An Aquarium Explorer Abroad

Karen B.'s avatar


Tuesday, October 21, 2014


An Aquarium Explorer Abroad

Kangaroo crossing signs dot the roadways, but it’s a myth that water drains the other way around. I’m in Queensland, Australia, on the northeastern coast of the continent. My name is Karen Backe, and I’m an educator with the Aquarium of the Pacific. I flew from Los Angeles to Sydney and traveled 15 hours north by land along the coast. Along the way, by bus and train, I met up with more and more whale researchers. We were easy to spot if you knew what to look for – hiking backpacks, whale tail necklaces, t-shirts that read things like “What genius decided to call them ‘killer whales’ instead of ‘sea pandas’?” and an air of excitement – we were all headed for Peregian Beach, and a project called BRAHSS.

BRAHSS [pronounced like ‘brass’] is an acronym for the Behavioural Response of Australian Humpback whales to Seismic Surveys (more on the exciting work being done here coming soon). All told, 93 people have converged on a small surf town, including chief and project scientists, project coordinators, boat skippers, marine mammal observers, computer and communication specialists, acoustic scientists, whale taggers and biopsy collectors, data and equipment specialists, party chiefs, a health and safety officer, and an army of volunteers from all over the world. Together, we are embarking on one of, if not the, largest and most complex whale behavioral study ever undertaken. There are five small boats, a large ship which will be the source of the sounds produced during parts of the experiment, two land-based observation stations each supporting three separate observation teams, an acoustics lab supported by five recording buoys listening to the trials and the whales, analyzing the world beneath the waves, and a headquarters from which the trial director will conduct the massive symphony of research underway.

With this many people to house and feed, the BRAHSS project has filled a big piece of Peregian Beach. The locals know and recognize the bright blue sun hats, huge research buoys being assembled in the yard, and the parade of boats parked in the streets. Living at the volunteer (or “vollie” as the Australians say) base station is a hoot and a half – we are housed in groups in a series of units along adjoining streets, and all food and cooking are communal; this means everyone is constantly in and out of everyone’s kitchens and living rooms, talking over the data collection, relaxing and swapping stories of field work and other adventures.

As the ice is broken and project systems begin coming online, an air of excitement hangs about the place. Even on our time off down at the beach mother and calf humpback whales can be spotted just beyond the surf, and everything is being readied for the huge research project about to begin - BRAHSS 2014.

Stay tuned for more updates!!!

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