Guest post: Missing when you’re shooting at trouble


I am so very pleased to introduce my very first guest blogger: Emily T. Griffiths. I worked with Emily on the CalCurCEAS cruise earlier this month. We had adventures and misadventures and cookies. Lots of cookies. Emily’s background is in zoology and animal biology (undergrad) and marine biology (master’s). She worked as a research technician at the American Museum of Natural History and as a research analyst at Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology. For the last year, she’s been working with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center as wildlife research biologist. And on top of that she is super awesome to hang out with. Just sayin’.

In the last post Michelle went over how we use towed hydrophone arrays to localize and track vocalizing marine mammals as the survey vessel moseys down the transect line. Historically, visual surveys have been the meat and potatoes of marine mammal survey estimates. However, adding an acoustic component to marine mammal surveys can greatly improve the chances of detecting species presence. Both methods have their strengths and weaknesses. The visual team can only see an animal if they come up for a breath, while acoustics can only detect an animal if they decide to clear their throat. That’s why the combination of both is key. In the case of sperm whales, for example, when you combine visual and acoustic efforts on surveys the science team has a 92% chance of finding an animal if they are in the study area. Not too shabby.

But here’s the thing: hydrophone arrays break, like, all of the time. The arrays I’ve been sent out with on CalCurCEAS are the current result of more than ten years of research and development, but they are still a work-in-progress. We are constantly making changes and improvements, or fixing issues that seemingly arise just because too much time has passed since the last issue. I’m on this ship with most of the tools I would need if an array did stop working and, in a pinch, crack open that sucker and attempt to fix it.

This is the reality when you’re depending on high-tech equipment to support your research: it’ll break so often that you’ll become convinced it’s because you looked at it funny. Or because it’s afraid of water. Or it just wanted to be held. All of these considerations about inanimate machinery parade through your mind as you’re running through your fifth deck test because the damn thing works in the lab but not in the open air.

Mechanical frustrations are not limited to hydrophone arrays. Oh no. Fresh out of college, I got a job in a academic research-based microscopy lab. I was charged with learning the ins and outs of the new environmental scanning election microscope, or ESEM, and the thing was a lemon. ESEMs were cutting edge because the specimen wasn’t destroyed in the imaging process, a hot ticket item when you want to look at the finer details of fossilized rodent teeth. Which we totally did. However, ‘cutting edge’ is frequently synonymous with ‘high-functioning prototype’. I spent my first six months crawling around that machine, guided by the manufacture’s technician because I had a smaller frame and fingers. A machine based on infant technology cannot really be returned, many times they’re made to order. If you did manage to return it, the replacement could have the same, or even woefully different issues. This is a clear ‘the devil you know’ situation, and though the ESEM was never perfect, after a time not only could I mostly fix it by myself, I also got to take some really amazing pictures in the name of research. Like of the dinosaur bone I broke, but that’s a different story.

Later in my career, I spent a year assisting in field tests of an autonomous biological recording device designed to be half the weight and cost of the current leader in the market. Rather than discuss the boring troubleshooting details, here’s a list of notes without context from my notebook to represent the plethora of issues we were dealing with. These notes are presented in the order that I find funniest with my [comments]:

  • We need access to all. [All your base are belong to us.]

  • Good ideas save issues. [Brilliant.]

  • The LED indicators → What are they? [I was having a slow day, let’s hope.]

  • Buy batteries, ask Anne how. [Do I not know how to buy batteries?]

  • Adam = Rob

  • Red hat fifth model, under-ware. [I have no actual idea what this note means.]

  • High power rifles are not common. [Useful.]

  • Analysis plan → bunch of SD cards in the mail, now what? [I’m a highly trained scientist.]

  • A doodle, after several failed field tests, of a tombstone inscribed with “She tried.” *

Towing a hydrophone array behind a ship is a silly idea for many reasons, outside of pulling a delicate instrument underwater at 10 knots while powering it with electricity and expecting not to die. Ships are incredibly noisy, and they interfere with our data collection. On CalCurCEAS we are deploying working autonomous free-floating recording prototypes known as DASBRs (Drifting Acoustic Spar Buoy Recorder). It’s very exciting technology. These devices have a higher chance of recording animals which are ship-shy (and therefore are little known), can record in deep waters (current bottom mounted devices are limited to the continental shelf), and allow us researchers to get a better understanding of ambient noise levels in the ocean.

DASBR glamor shot, on deck, immediately prior to deployment.
DASBR glamor shot, on deck, immediately prior to deployment.

I’ve been working on the DASBRs for about a year now, and though we’ve certainly had successful deployments, we’ve also had our fair share of “learning experiences.” Which is expected when you’re trying to do something new. In the field you make good with what you got because you can’t anticipate everything, you can only try. Sometimes this means spending hours trying to figure out why an instrument can’t hold a charge (only to realize you didn’t realize the plug-in charger has an on/off switch). Sometimes this means using a clamp and a thumbtack to replace a screw in a hole so small, narrow and deep it’s like throwing a dart and hitting a bull’s eye 6 thousand miles away (I am a leaf on the wind) **. Sometimes this means duct taping tennis balls to the bottom of a chair to prevent the chair from moving around because you’re bored and annoyed at the ocean swell pushing you and your chair around.


Even though it’s frequently discouraging and deadening, the embarrassing truth is that troubleshooting is one of my favorite parts of the job. Yes, you miss more than you hit when trying to find the origin of an issue, and by the time you hit you’re so exhausted that it’s more elating to chuck the equipment aside for the day than it is that the problem is solved. Besides you know, in your heart of hearts, that it isn’t. It’s just lurking. However, I still love a good puzzle and learning new things. Sometimes I learn things that make my job easier. Sometimes I learn that I’m really crappy at troubleshooting. It’s all valuable and puts me in a better position the next time something breaks. Because it’s not a question of if, only when.

* To my credit, I read Breakfast of Champions after making this doodle, and was simultaneously thrilled that I had organically made a joke that Vonnegut had also made, but disappointed that I couldn’t really claim it as my own.

** I know, I know. This is totally shoehorned in here.  I may not be the Wash, but I’ll tell you what, it’s shiny.

One thought on “Guest post: Missing when you’re shooting at trouble

  1. Great, informative read with that humor I love. A science story that perks my interest because of the up close perspective> More??

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