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Rugged Tablets from MobileDemand Plays Key Role in Whale Research

nat-geo-bannerMarine Ecology and Telemetry Research (“MarEcoTel”) appeared in Whales of the Deep, an episode of the National Geographic series Destination WILD. 

The episode highlights scientists who are studying marine mammals’ underwater activities. Biologist Erin Falcone and her partner, Biologist Greg Schorr, are seen using the MobileDemand’s xT7200 for data collection on a small open boat in the ocean. Falcone and Schorr manage MarEcoTel, a non-profit organization whose mission is to support the conservation of marine species and populations. The organization is also developing tag technology to facilitate data gathering for these types of projects. 

Beginning in the late 1990s scientists began documenting deep-water whale species stranding on beaches following nearby use of powerful military sonars. Understanding the mechanism behind these strandings drove Falcone and Schorr to begin a project in 2006, studying Cuvier’s beaked whales on a military training range. Today Falcone and Schorr use the xTablet T7200 to gather data as part of that project. Falcone and Schorr are hoping that a better understanding how military sonar affects the beaked whales will help identify a solution to protect the whales. 

The data MarEcoTel is gathering includes both longer migration patterns, day-to-day movements, and diving behavior of beaked whales. As part of the project, Falcone and Schorr are also taking pictures of the whales to build individual life histories, which will allow them to estimate things like reproductive rates and population size. One of the challenges of the study is how to gather enough data, as tracking these mammals is incredibly difficult. These beaked whales typically surface for just 90 seconds two or three times per hour and can remain submerged for more than two hours at a time. In fact, they hold the current mammalian dive record - an astonishing two hours and forty-three minutes. Falcone and Schorr collect the data by attaching a small satellite transmitter tag to a whale’s dorsal fin with surgical-grade titanium darts. The tag provides up to three months of data collection. 

Falcone and Schorr are working in cooperation with the US Navy; their work site is a military training range near an island off the coast of southern California. The Navy provides information to MarEcoTel on when and where sonar is used for training exercises. Falcone and Schorr stay on the island for one-to-two weeks at a time, spending daylight hours on a boat in the ocean collecting sighting data, photographing beaked whales they encounter, and tagging when circumstances permit. 

“While many of our data fields populate from the GPS or dropdown menus, we manually enter a variety of data related to our survey effort, weather conditions, and marine mammal sighting as numbers or numeric codes,” said Falcone. “For example, we estimate the minimum, maximum, and best guess at group size for each group of whales we encounter, and we describe the spatial distribution of animals at the surface as an x-y dimension. MobileDemand rugged tablets allow us to enter that data very quickly, accurately. The tablets are sunlight-viewable and withstand the environment on the ocean. They work really well for us, year after year, in small, exposed boats.” 

MarEcoTel’s current grant will allow the project to continue for several more years. Falcone said when they started this project in 2006, she really didn’t expect to still be following Cuvier’s beaked whales 12 years later. “Our T7200 is well used. We also have a T7000 that is fully functional despite many years of heavy use.”