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Listening to a Changing Gulf

August 26, 2021

NOAA and university scientists deploy underwater listening devices in the Gulf of Mexico to study marine mammals, soundscapes, and noise impacts.

2021 research expedition team of Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Universidad Veracruzana scientists and students. The 2021 research expedition team of Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Universidad Veracruzana scientists and students with the R/V Pelican in the background. Team from left to right includes: Front: Bruce Thayre, Kaitlin Frasier, Eva Hildalgo-Pla, Gania Figueroa, Top: John Hurwitz, Kieran Lenssen, Natalie Posdaljian, Itzel Carballo. Credit: Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium/ Marshall Kormanac.

Over the next month, the R/V Pelican will transit around the Gulf of Mexico to visit 18 study sites in the deep ocean waters of the U.S. and Mexico. During this time, scientists on board will recover 14 moored underwater listening devices that were deployed last summer to record ocean sounds. The team will then reset the instruments to record for another year and deploy them at some of the same sites. They will also deploy some at new sites. These data contribute to our understanding of how cetaceans (dolphins and whales) and noise vary over time and space in the Gulf of Mexico.

2021 R/V Pelican planned trackline.
Planned 2021 research expedition trackline and HARP sites to be visited by scientists and students on the R/V Pelican. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

The R/V Pelican left Cocodrie, Louisiana on August 20 to begin the second of 5 years of data collection throughout the highly industrialized Gulf of Mexico. This research expedition supports several collaborative projects to increase our understanding of:

These projects and associated research expeditions also serve as a training opportunity to support the next generation of scientists. Scientists and students have just begun the 2021 research expedition on the R/V Pelican. The students are sharing their adventures in a blog as they travel the high seas learning how to service the acoustic moorings and collect visual and acoustic data.

Follow us on the trip through our blog.

Image of High-frequency Acoustic Recording Packages.
The moored underwater listening devices being used in this study are High-frequency Acoustic Recording Packages (HARPs). Upon recovery, they often have biofouling, where marine life has begun growing on them (left). As part of the servicing, batteries are replaced, data disks are recovered and replaced, and biofouling is cleaned up, then they are ready to deploy again (right). Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography/Kaitlin Frasier.

Studying the Effects of Deepwater Horizon

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill had substantial impacts on the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem, marine life, and Gulf coast residents and visitors. At least 20 species of cetaceans live in these oceanic waters, including endangered Rice’s whales, endangered sperm whales, dwarf and pygmy sperm whales, several species of beaked whales, and numerous species of dolphins. 

The oil spill affected many of these species. The current research projects provide data needed to understand if the species are recovering from oil spill effects. They also support the development of restoration projects, such as reducing impacts of human-produced noise, to accelerate affected cetaceans’ recovery.

Two Cuvier’s beaked whales in a rare sighting during excellent sea conditions.
Two Cuvier’s beaked whales in a rare sighting during excellent sea conditions. Cuvier’s beaked whales have cryptic surfacing and dive for 45-60 minutes at a time making them difficult to see at the surface. Long-term passive acoustic monitoring is one of our best tools for studying this species. Credit: NOAA Fisheries (MMPA permit number 779-1633).


These projects bring together an international team of scientists from:

Funding of these projects and field work is provided by: