UMaine doctoral students Christie Mahaffey, left, and Kaitlyn Allen
are conducting research to find new ways to protect whales from ship
Links related to this story
UMaine graduate students study
acoustics in an effort to minimize whale injuries and deaths caused by
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
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
"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 GK12 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
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
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.