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UMaine Today Magazine

Student Focus

Christie Mahaffey and Kaitlyn Allen
UMaine doctoral students Christie Mahaffey, left, and Kaitlyn Allen are conducting research to find new ways to protect whales from ship strikes.

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Navigational noise

UMaine graduate students study acoustics in an effort to minimize whale injuries and deaths caused by ship strikes

The crew heard the impact and felt the ship shudder as it sailed along the Atlantic coast in early fall, but there's no such thing as slamming on the brakes when a 250-foot vessel is operating at cruising speed. As the ship gradually slowed to a stop, the crew spotted the source of the collision. Lodged on the bow was the broken body of a 25-ton right whale.

The 30-foot cetacean, one of perhaps 300 in the North Atlantic's critically endangered right whale population, had fallen victim to a phenomenon that policymakers, conservationists and scientists are struggling to control. That threat of ship strikes that looms large for many whale species has prompted two University of Maine graduate students to look for new ways to protect the world's largest mammals from the unforgiving hulls of commerce.

Kaitlyn Allen and Christie Mahaffey are conducting doctoral research in the university's unique ocean engineering program. By examining the acoustic signature of large ships, as well as whale biology and movement patterns, they hope to better understand the circumstances that can lead to ship-whale collisions and to develop new strategies to reduce the number of whale deaths and injuries.

"Because of the location of acoustic shielding and the overall design of the ships, most ships in the Bay of Fundy give off little or no sound for the first 10 meters depth and the first 500 meters in front of the ship," says Allen, who completed a two-year study in May with UMaine Professor of Mechanical Engineering Michael Peterson. "That's a pretty big blind spot as far as whales are concerned."

Allen and Peterson discovered that there are multiple factors that contribute to the number of whales killed or injured by ships each year, not the least of which is the likely misinterpretation of acoustic feedback by the whales themselves.

Whales navigate using sound, finding food and avoiding danger based on auditory information. Because most ships emit their loudest signal perpendicular to their line of travel, whales likely misinterpret the speed and direction of the motorized threat, vastly increasing the likelihood of collision.

"The acoustic signature of the ships may cause whales to actually swim in front of the ship because of a misinterpretation of the sounds," Allen says. ""Most of these ships are so big — over 120 meters long — they can push a whale all the way into port and the only thing they notice is that the engines are running a little slow."

Allen hopes to focus her research efforts on developing an inexpensive sensor that could be mounted on large ships. The device would be designed to detect whales and to emit a signal that would drive them toward safer waters. The project is a perfect fit for the ocean engineering program, allowing Allen to combine her interest in engineering with her knowledge of whale behavior.

"I did my undergraduate work in the UMaine School of Marine Sciences, and I switched to ocean engineering for my doctorate program because I wanted to both work with the data and create new technologies to help solve the problem," she says.

Mahaffey also was looking for interdisciplinary graduate study. After completing her master's degree in human ecology at the College of the Atlantic, she came to UMaine to expand her research that used GIS to look at the intersection of travel routes of whales and ships. 

"We then used computer modeling to identify hot spots for ship strikes," Mahaffey says. "I'm particularly interested in looking at finback whales and how they use sound. Finbacks are one of the most common species to be struck by ships and no one knows why. By looking at both acoustics and behavior, I hope to be able to better understand how the whales are affected by human-generated noise."

Mahaffey will be working with Peterson and Sean Todd, director of Allied Whale at the College of the Atlantic, to examine how finback populations respond to ship sounds and sonar.

"I have always been interested in both the biological sciences and the physical sciences, and this is a great way for me to bridge the gap between those interests," says Mahaffey. "We need more opportunities for people to pursue different disciplines if we hope to find workable solutions.'

Recognizing that public education is a critical component of protecting whales and other marine creatures, Allen, Mahaffey and Peterson are working to implement an outreach program for students in Maine's public schools. They are collaborating with Becky Woodward, who received an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and marine sciences last March. Woodward's research compared swim performance in four species of baleen whales.

The ocean and mechanical engineers have secured seed money to develop hands-on and Web-based materials to help students of all ages learn more about whales. The researchers also hope to work directly with school groups to increase understanding of marine mammals and the many problems they face.

Mahaffey is already getting the word out to middle school students, teaching science and engineering 15 hours a week at the Indian Island School in Old Town, Maine, through a National Science Foundation fellowship in the GK–12 Sensors! program.

"Talking about ship strikes is a great way to bridge biology, physics, economics and policy in a real-world context," says Mahaffey. "We really hope to get students excited about protecting whales."

By David Munson

Cultural Experience

Louis Fortin
Louis Fortin

In his second semester at the University of Maine, Louis Fortin switched his major from computer science to anthropology to study history and cultures.

Three years later, the Monmouth, Maine, native was in southern Peru's Andes Mountains, assisting with research by one of the world's leading authorities on South America's earliest inhabitants and the influence of climate on their cultural development.

Fortin was a field assistant to the UMaine research team led by UMaine Professor of Anthropology and Quaternary Studies Daniel Sandweiss. Also on that summer 2004 expedition were undergraduate Benjamin Morris and graduate student Kurt Rademaker.

As part of an ongoing investigation, the archaeologists are studying prehistoric settlements to learn how the first inhabitants arrived and lived in South America. In particular, the researchers are looking for links between coastal and highland paleoindians.

Among their findings at a 3,700-year-old excavation site near Alca were ground stone tools that still had traces of maize and vegetation from the Amazon. The discovery confirmed that highlands inhabitants consumed corn 1,000 years earlier than previously believed. It also opened the possibility of interaction between people of the Andes and the Amazon.

That first summer of fieldwork, Fortin learned about the history and culture of paleoindians and their descendants, including their use of obsidian, the volcanic glass made into weapons and tools.

For the past two summers, Fortin worked in Peru with Rademaker and glacial geologist Gordon Bromley, both UMaine Ph.D. students in the Climate Change Institute, and Claire Todd of the University of Washington, doing field surveys of the glaciated volcanic mountains. Amid the glacial landforms of Peru's Nevado Firura and Nevado Coropuna, the team mapped archaeological sites, which are among the world's highest elevation paleoindian settlements.

Their research explores the relationships between climate and environmental change, and the early paleoindians settlement of South America at the end of the last ice age.

This fall, geoarchaeology is the focus of Fortin's graduate research in the Climate Change Institute.


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