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Sights and sounds


Kaitlyn Mullen was 3 years old the first time she clearly saw a whale.

“Do you know they ‘see’ by making and listening to sounds?” her grandmother asked her.

Mullen was captivated. Growing up near the Richmond, Virginia coast in a family rich in fishing heritage, Mullen was already in love with nature. But this new information about whales resonated with the youngster who had just undergone corrective eye surgery.

“Wow, this thing ‘sees’ the world the way I see the world, by hearing,” she thought. “I wonder if I can talk to this — and if it has stories.”

In the years to come, whales and their ocean habitat were never far from Mullen’s mind, even when, at 17, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee to pursue a music career.

In 2002, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music business administration and marketing from Belmont University. Through internships and connections she made at Belmont, she achieved success as a recording artist and songwriter. She was signed to a publishing company and made a couple of independent country-folk albums.

“When I went to Nashville, it was kind of an either/or choice to make,” says Mullen, a University of Maine alumna based in Bar Harbor who today is one of the world’s leading marine mammal observers and passive acoustic monitoring operators. “When I was done with music and that world, I started looking at research and wondering if whale vocalizations have musical components to them.”

Mullen worked as a song publisher and real estate advertising manager until she left Nashville to return to school for marine sciences. She chose UMaine because she was looking for an affordable, nationally ranked program that offered more than marine biology. UMaine offered strong oceanography and Earth science programs that would allow Mullen to learn about marine mammals, as well as their environments.

As an undergraduate, Mullen interned with the College of the Atlantic’s marine mammal research group Allied Whale, identifying individual whales using photos, and collecting biopsy samples of finback and humpback whales. While tending bar at a local hotel the next semester, Mullen was offered a summer job at the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co., as a whale watch naturalist, where she continued collecting photos and identifying whales, using the whale watch boats as research platforms.

Mullen graduated with a bachelor’s degree in marine sciences in 2005 and a Ph.D. in ocean engineering in 2013. Her dissertation focused on the acoustics of ships in relation to the growing problem of baleen whales getting hit and killed by the vessels. Mullen used marine mammal biology, ecology, physics and acoustic engineering to record and characterize marine mammal vocalizations, as well as develop and test a prototype solution for whale-ship strike mortality.

“It didn’t make sense to me because when you look at big baleen whales, they’re the ones that hear at really low frequencies — long wavelength sounds — which is exactly the kind of sound that big boats make,” Mullen says. “If they primarily use their ears to survey their world, then they should be able to hear these things coming. Big boats are louder than jet planes in their own environment.”

Mullen worked closely on the project with Michael “Mick” Peterson, a UMaine mechanical engineering professor with an innovative ability to combine experts from seemingly unrelated disciplines to solve research issues. In one meeting, Peterson brought in a traffic flow engineer, saying “This is what he does all day. He deals with random objects that interrupt the flow of traffic. Let’s talk to him.”

Mullen and her team looked at how ships are built, where their sound sources are located and how those factors influence the sound that’s produced, depending on the environment. She specifically examined Maine’s rugged, granite ocean floor that changes depth quickly. She found that when the depth changes abruptly, the boat’s quietest part is directly ahead of it at the surface.

“If you’re listening to a boat coming toward you underwater, like baleen whales would be doing, they actually think they’re jumping out of the way when they’re swimming into that space ahead of an oncoming ship, where they’re getting killed,” she says.

Mullen began developing a sound source that would mimic a boat and be placed in front of the ship, making that area louder than the sides or back. The first prototype was tested as a portion of her thesis and performed successfully, raising the total amount of noise created in the area immediately in front of the boat.

Prototypes will include improvements for reducing sound source drag and increasing volume by focusing the low-frequency components of the source using array geometry, similar to hip-hop concert technology that focuses bass.

Mullen’s music background factored into one of the most common challenges researchers face — the affordability of conducting research. In her studies, she used recording equipment made for musicians instead of scientific equipment, which cut the budget almost in half.

“Recording underwater is not that much different than recording live,” Mullen says. “All the principles are the same, and many postprocessing techniques are similar.”

Mullen credits UMaine with helping her find community partners that were welcomed into the academic setting.

“UMaine has an extremely nurturing academic environment,” she says. “It is a research institution, but there’s freedom here that you don’t have at a lot of research institutions to pursue your own ideas.”

While earning her Ph.D., Mullen worked in Bar Harbor as a whale watch naturalist, research associate with Allied Whale, marine mammal observer, education software consultant, and tour boat captain and company manager.

Her time managing Acadian Nature Cruises also prepared her for her research.

“It doesn’t matter if you go into research or business on your own, but at the end of the day you still have to manage a project budget, you still have to manage people, and you still have to market yourself,” she says, adding that knowing boat maintenance proved to be an invaluable skill for a field-based marine scientist.

UMaine continues to be a resource for Mullen, who applauds the university for working with the state’s coastal community.

“UMaine does some great research, and it helps foster research in smaller academic institutions, like College of the Atlantic or Maine Maritime Academy, which are both on the coast. And by fostering those partnerships, people like me who are so invested in the community can then reach out and bring the community into a lot of the same projects,” she says.

In the past year, Mullen has continued her job as tour boat captain and company manager in Bar Harbor. She also works as an international marine mammal observer and passive acoustic monitoring operator during seismic exploration for oil, a method used to determine how far down oil may be located.

Mullen travels the world to look for whales near the ocean surface as a marine mammal observer. Across seascapes, she determines the animals’ locations based on the loudness of their vocalizations by passive acoustic monitoring.

She searches for animals to protect them from the extremely loud air guns — about 260 decibels — used to detect oil.

“(Seismic reflection) is a better way of doing it than drilling and putting pockmarks all over the ocean, but it’s certainly not perfect,” Mullen says. “Two hundred and sixty decibels of sound would deafen most humans and probably deafen most marine mammals if they were extremely close.”

Depending on a country’s guidelines, when Mullen spots marine mammals within 500 meters of the air guns, she has the authority to either stop the survey or reduce the power to 90 decibels, preventing hearing damage.

For the past five years, Mullen has worked in the Gulf of Mexico, and off the coasts of Tanzania, Comoros, Mozambique, Madagascar, South Africa, Peru and Saba Island in the Netherlands Antilles. She also has volunteered to help the small community on the Caribbean island of Saba find resources and develop skills to spot and identify humpback whales returning to the area.

For three years, Mullen has worked with the Saba Conservation Foundation’s Sea & Learn Program. The data local people collect have aided Allied Whale, which studies the North Atlantic humpback whale.

Information from Saba helped the researchers discover that different feeding populations of whales spotted in the North Atlantic may use separate portions of the Caribbean as breeding grounds.

“We do have a good idea of where they breed and where they feed. But the in between is fairly a blur,” Mullen says. “We’re not sure what drives them and we’re not sure, in the case of some of them, what they eat in different environments. These are really basic questions, and there are very few animals in the world for which those kinds of things are unknown.

Image Description: Kaitlyn Mullen

Image Description: When not traveling the world, Kaitlyn Mullen is a tour boat captain, naturalist and manager for Acadian Nature Cruises in Bar Harbor, where Egg Rock and other islands are included on lighthouse, puffin and seabird cruises.

Image Description: Kaitlyn Mullen at the helm of her tour boat


Fall/Winter 2015

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