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The Ocean is Calling: My Journey with NOAA and Underwater Listening

Written by Brijonnay Madrigal


Ever since I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist. I always loved the ocean but my desire to become a marine biologist started with a National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) marine science camp I attended when I was in the 6th grade. I remember how captivating it was to hear the scientists talk about underwater research and how excited I was that people had these amazing jobs that allowed them to explore the ocean and learn more about the questions that fascinated them. I knew from that moment forward, I was going to make a career in marine science someday. This experience, coupled with an interaction with dolphins in Mexico when I was a kid, ignited my interest in studying marine mammals. As I got older, I found that my interests lied in marine mammal communication. What are these animals thinking? What do they say to each other in their underwater world? What can we as humans learn about these animals through their communication? Essentially, I wanted to speak dolphin! These are the questions that led me to start telling people “I want to study marine mammal acoustics!”.

Figure 1. Ocean for Life, 2011

When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to be a student in a marine focused college-in-high school program called the Ocean Research College Academy (ORCA). ORCA allowed me to have an incredible hands-on learning experience and participate in monthly research cruises where we had the opportunity to use a variety of instruments to assess water quality, sediments and even conduct bird and mammal surveys in Possession Sound. Being on the water and being actively involved in research in the field as a high schooler, really allowed me to see what being a scientist meant and I was hooked. During my junior year of high school, I was selected as a participant for the NOAA Ocean for Life program where I had the incredible opportunity to meet students from around the world while learning about ocean science, developing cross-cultural relationships and learning about the importance of stewardship and conservation to protect important places like the national marine sanctuaries (Figure 1). These incredible opportunities motivated me to continue pursuing my passion and I applied and got accepted at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa Marine Biology program! My dream school! For most of high school I had my sights set on going to UH and experiencing the ocean in a completely different climate than the marine environment I had grown up with in the Pacific Northwest. Moving across the Pacific Ocean was a huge change, but I was so excited for new experiences and I dove right in!


After my freshman year, I completed a summer internship with the Southeast Fisheries Science Center in Miami, Florida through the NOAA Ernest F. Hollings Scholarship program. This is really where I had my first experience with marine mammal acoustics in practice. I used towed array data from boat based surveys to localize and determine the abundance of the sperm whale population in the Southeast United States. This work contributed to overall population assessments and monitoring of this once critically endangered species. This internship is where I really learned what studying acoustics meant (and how much coding and computer programming was involved)! But I was excited to learn more about this field! Throughout the next three years of undergrad, I gravitated toward the Marine Mammal Research Program. To pursue my passion for marine mammal acoustics I had the opportunity to work as an intern and later as a research assistant for PhD student, Lee Shannon. I manually detected Hawaiian spinner dolphin whistles in passive acoustic data to assist in Lee’s doctoral work to determine dolphin presence in sonar detonation areas off Oahu. I made every effort to be involved with the lab and come out to Coconut Island…even if it meant 3-hour bus rides to get there. All the amazing experiences I gained during my time at UH as well as numerous internships, really solidified my desire to continue to pursue graduate school because I had a thirst for learning more about marine mammal acoustics and I wanted to find out more about this field in a way I didn’t have as much freedom to explore as an undergrad. I joined Moss Landing Marine Laboratories (MLML) as a Master’s student in the Vertebrate Ecology Lab in 2016 and worked under the advisement of Dr. Alison Stimpert, a MMRP alum. For my thesis, I developed a vocal catalog of killer whale pulsed calls recorded in the Southeast Chukchi Sea. I also determined ecotypes present based on their call frequency ranges, or overall “pitch”. Little is known regarding ecotypes present and little vocal repertoire information is available for killer whales in the Chukchi Sea so my thesis serves as a baseline for future acoustic work on killer whales in the Arctic.

Figure 2. Platforms used to deploy hydrophones on the seafloor in the Channel Islands as part of the Untrawlable Habitat Strategy Initiative. (Photo Credit: Brijonnay Madrigal)

During my time at MLML, I had the opportunity to really diversify my acoustic background. I worked for the NOAA SWFSC Fisheries Ecology Division in Santa Cruz as a research assistant to characterize survey vehicle noise from rockfish surveys in the Channel Islands through the Untrawlable Habitat Strategy Initiative (UHSI). This opportunity allowed me to even go out to see for 2.5 weeks! What an amazing experience to live on a boat for an extended period of time and deploy hydrophones on platforms (Figure 2) on the seafloor. One of my favorite experiences at MLML, was leading a pilot study to record Risso’s dolphin (Figure 3) in Monterey Bay to describe their repertoires. I drove a Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boat (RHIB) to locate Risso’s dolphin in the Bay and worked with volunteers to deploy a single cable hydrophone around animal groups to record their vocalizations as well as collect photo ID and behavioral data (Figure 4). Unfortunately, as I spent more time on boats I discovered I get very seasick! But I guess it was too late to change my career path now! However, even if I felt sick on especially rough days with a lot of swell, I always had a smile on my face because being on the water is truly my happy place and studying dolphins everyday was truly a moving experience for me.

Figure 3. A group of Risso's dolphin (Grampus griseus) in the Monterey Bay, California (Photo Credit: Alison Stimpert)
Figure 4. Risso's dolphin fieldwork in the Monterey Bay (Photo Credit: Alison Stimpert)

During my time at Moss Landing, when I was not knee deep in acoustic data, I worked for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center as a Volunteer Coordinator where I had the opportunity to work closely with volunteers and educate docents, school groups and the public about the sanctuary and the importance of the system. My involvement with the sanctuaries and desire to pursue a PhD led me to apply for the NOAA Dr. Nancy Foster scholarship. A week later, I defended my thesis in December 2019 and moved down to San Diego the next month to start a job with the National Marine Mammal Foundation (NMMF). I was working with the NMMF Sound and Health team to acoustically monitor Navy bottlenose dolphins to determine if dolphin signature whistles are indicators of health. While I was working with NMMF, one day I got a call from the NOAA Dr. Nancy Foster Scholarship team. They told me that I was a recipient of the 2020 Dr. Nancy Foster Scholarship. I was speechless… I actually started crying I was so happy. It was truly a dream come true. I felt so fortunate to have the opportunity to return to school which would not have been possible without this amazing scholarship.


Now, it is surreal that I find myself back in Hawai’i, pursuing my passion and following my dreams. For my PhD research I will be working with my PhD advisor, Dr. Aude Pacini in collaboration with the NOAA PIFSC Cetacean Research Program and the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries to use long-term passive acoustic monitoring to understand the acoustic behavior and potential effects of anthropogenic noise on false killer whales and short-finned pilot whales in Papahānaumokuākea National Monument and the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. I seek to better understand the impacts of anthropogenic noise on acoustic behavioral aspects such as vocal repertoires and rates, to inform management and conservation efforts of these resident species within protected areas in the Hawaiian archipelago. The amazing opportunities I have been so fortunate to have with NOAA and the MMRP have led me to this point. The connections I have made have been invaluable to me and the support of so many people throughout my early career have really shaped my path and allow me to be here today as a PhD student. I look forward to joining the MMRP this year and to have the opportunity to work with such an incredible group of scientists!

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