Mechanical Whales: Research by two
UMaine students hopes to unlock the underwater secrets of the world's
research, Becky Woodward and Jeremy Winn hope to better understand
the maneuverability, speed and efficiency of whales.
Photo by Tonya Peterson
Graphic by Becky Woodward
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Whales are part of our culture. Through
movies, photos and whale-watching cruises, millions of people have seen
the world's largest mammals gliding at the ocean surface or showing off
their signature tails or flukes. We've even recorded their eerily
But considering that whales only spend about 2 percent of their time at
the surface, how much do we really know about them?
Two University of Maine students are among a small number of researchers
worldwide who are using new technologies to reveal the secrets of whale
Becky Woodward, a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering, and her
husband and colleague Jeremy Winn, an undergraduate in the School of
Marine Sciences, have collaborated on whale research for three years.
They are working with Mick Peterson, UMaine associate professor of
mechanical engineering, to study how whales maneuver and how their
physiology allows them to search for food at the surface and in
Their research is funded by the Maine Science and Technology Foundation
and UMaine through the Canadian-American Center, Sea Grant and the
GK-12: Sensors program in the College of Engineering.
Woodward and Winn, who grew up in Virginia and Montana, respectively,
worked for the Coastal Ecosystem Research Foundation, a nonprofit
organization in British Columbia that combines marine mammal research
with ecotourism. Prior to that, Woodward worked with Peterson on the
biomechanics of horses for her master's degree at Colorado State
University in the mid-1990s. Woodward and Winn came to UMaine in 2000.
"Each whale species has a unique shape and size — different
morphological features that allow them to effectively fill their
particular ecological niche within the world's oceans," Woodward says.
Her goal is to perform a comparative study between whale species to look
at how body shapes may affect maneuverability, speed and efficiency. She
also may look at why some species may be able to avoid ship strikes or
fishing gear entanglements better than others.
The key to their research is a $10,000 electronic monitoring device
invented at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
Known as the DTAG, the foot-long device includes a variety of motion and
acoustic sensors. It is attached by suction cups to a whale's back and
is set to release automatically. An onboard transmitter allows
researchers to track the animal. After the instrument releases and
floats back to the surface, researchers can follow the signal to
retrieve the device and its valuable data.
In their research, Woodward and Winn successfully deployed the DTAG on
blue whales in the Pacific and humpbacks in the Atlantic during the 2002
field season. Thus far, their study has taken them to the waters off
British Columbia, California and Newfoundland. The project has the
potential to contribute to our understanding of fundamental whale
biology and provide clues about reducing human impact on the marine
From an engineering perspective, the study also will provide a better
understanding of the mechanics of underwater maneuvering that can be
applied to new designs for underwater vehicles.
With more than 160 dives now recorded, Woodward and Winn have learned to
interpret motion sensor data from the tag. The pitch record of fluke
stroke patterns helps to estimate the whale's energetic efforts. In
addition, characteristic dive profiles are starting to emerge for
different behaviors. Dives can be sorted into foraging, feeding or
traveling categories based on the shape of the dive, and stroke and
glide swim patterns.
"The truth is we don't really know what the whales are doing
underwater," says Winn. "But even with its limitations, this data is
more than anyone has ever seen before. As we learn to better interpret
the data, we will expand our insight into whale behaviors."
On the water in an inflatable zodiac, Woodward and Winn work as a team.
Approaching a whale is risky. While one of them guides the boat, the
other uses a 20-foot pole mounted on the bow to place the DTAG on the
animal's back. From then on, they are committed. They must follow the
whale and record details, such as when and where it surfaces, its
behavior, and whether other animals are in the vicinity.
They are well equipped for this work. They wear insulated survival suits
and carry video cameras, including one for underwater use. They also
pack a digital compass, radios, a GPS, range finder, and even spare
parts for the DTAG and the boat motor.
"Every time we go out, every time we put a tag on, we have to hope that
the whale doesn't head out to sea or that a big fog bank doesn't roll in
and make it impossible to follow the whale. Once you put a tag on, you
have to follow it until it comes off," says Woodward. "It's a bit
nerve-racking to have a $10,000 piece of equipment riding around on the
back of a whale."
Once a DTAG failed to release on a blue whale in the Santa Barbara
Channel off California. After following the animal for more than six
hours, sea conditions deteriorated, and Woodward and Winn were forced to
head back to shore for a long night. But luck was with them in the
morning; they detected the radio signal and retrieved the device with
its seven hours of data — the longest DTAG deployment on a blue whale.
Woodward and Winn now continue their investigations at UMaine. With Mick
Peterson, they have formed a cetacean research group that includes John
Riley, a bio-resource engineer and faculty member in the School of
Marine Sciences; Anna Demeo, a marine sciences student from Southwest
Harbor; and Sean Todd, a faculty member at the College of the Atlantic
in Bar Harbor.
Woodward and Winn say they want to provide students and the public with
opportunities to share their excitement. "We hope to use the research as
a teaching tool — a way to tell people about the whales," says Winn.
by Nick Houtman