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Looking to the Future

Listening to Whales in the Roaring Forties

by Pat Leonard

In his work over the last three years, Fred Channell has seen icebergs in Greenland and polar bears in arctic Canada, been stranded on a Pacific island and grounded in Africa, and visited 18 countries in all. In February, he took to the notorious “Roaring Forties” in the Pacific Ocean off Chile—in a sailboat—to set out instruments for a study of endangered blue whales.

“It’s the job of a lifetime,” says Channell, a field project manager in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Bioacoustics Research Program (BRP). “Thirty or more years ago, if I could have drawn you a picture of my dream job, it would look a lot like what I’m doing today.”

Fred Channell

In Chile, Channell’s task was to deploy six marine autonomous recording units in the Gulf of Corcovado around Chiloé Island. These units, which were invented by BRP engineers, will spend six months anchored to the ocean floor around the island to record the sounds of blue whales. It’s one of the few places in the world where these elusive whales gather in significant numbers to breed and give birth. The scientific work is part of a project led by Susannah Buchan and Rodrigo Hucke-Gaete, both from the Universidad Austral de Chile.

With nearly a ton of equipment on board, Channell, researchers, and the crew took off from the mainland in their 50-foot boat. The forties roared: a storm battered the western side of the island, stalling the boat’s progress and eventually driving the crew to the eastern shore. A second storm then shut down all ports in the region and left them stranded in an island fishing village for three days.

“It is a legendarily nasty piece of ocean,” says Channell. Despite these challenges, all the units were deployed and are even now recording the voices of blue whales. Channell says he’s hoping for a bigger boat when it comes time to retrieve the units in the even nastier winter month of June.

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