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SeaTech students on a Skype call with Josh Jones of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. (Brielle Schaeffer/KCAW photo)

Although graduation is this week, school is not over for some science students at Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka.  The class, known as SeaTech, is headed to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego to present their original research on beluga and narwhal bioacoustics.

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You’ve probably never heard a beluga whistle or a narwhal click. Not many people have. But Michael Mahoney’s students are experts on the bioacoustics of these mammals, after spending hours logging recordings of their sounds from the Chukchi Sea and Northwest Passage.

“We’re trying to figure out if they’re happy if they’re sad, like, if there’s more fish around, to see if their clicks and their buzzes represent what’s going on in the ocean around them,” said Natalia Smith, a 17-year-old junior from Elfin Cove.

The SeaTech class is not your regular science lab. The students are actually contributing to the research at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.

“You’ll have people who come to your classroom who say, ‘If you go to school for a really long time you can be a scientist like me, too,'” Mahoney said. “Scripps and the Whale Acoustics Lab says, ‘Why don’t you guys be scientists with us right now.’”

Using Skype, SeaTech students connect with the oceanographer John Hildebrand and Josh Jones, a graduate student in biological oceanography at Scripps, to talk about how researchers analyze the acoustic data to study the marine mammals.

Jones says the diversity of students at Mt. Edgecumbe, many who are from the villages near his study area, benefits the project. The students from subsistence communities have cultural ties to whales, having grown up around them or depending on them for food.

“That perspective, that sort of cultural and personal perspective on the animals really lends a lot to their insights on what might be going on in these otherwise numerical analytical processes,” he said.

And, Jones says, working with the SeaTech class is good for productivity.

“In a certain respect we work harder down here in our lab because we are trying to keep up with the students who are up there making steady progress on this research,” he said.

The Whale Acoustics Lab collects the sounds underwater with a high-frequency acoustic recording package, which is basically a computer and hydrophone anchored to the sea floor. The system can record underwater sound continuously for a year at a time.

Mahoney says the students go through the tape with a computer program to identify any patterns in sounds made by the whales at different times of year. The work looks to see effects of climate change and human activity on these animals.

“We can know when ice formation happens, we hear ice sounds,” he said. “Or lots of other environmental sounds. We can hear anthropogenic sounds, sounds that humans make so we can hear ships that pass over or any of those types of things.”

Jones says the Scripps/Mt. Edgecumbe partnership has been going on for about 10 years. He started the program as an undergrad interested in science outreach and with roots in Sitka, having worked at the Baranof Wilderness Lodge.

As the program grew, several of Mahoney’s former SeaTech students have presented at other symposiums and even had their work published in scientific journals. A couple even chose to attend UCSD and got jobs at the Whale Acoustics Lab when they started.

In San Diego, SeaTech students will present their findings from the research they’ve been conducting during class, which is kind of a big deal.

Natalia is looking forward to the trip.

“It’s really cool,” she said. “I never thought it would be this big. I thought it was just we go into his class and we learn how to use these programs.  I never thought we would get to go down to San Diego and talk to all these important people in science and learn more about these animals.”

The students will also spend time on some Scripps Institution research vessels and, when the hard science is over, they’ll study the habitat of mice, talking dogs, and flying elephants during a visit to Disneyland.