Adam S. Frankel,
Marine Acoustics, Inc.

Was it the term paper he wrote on gray whales, the sea camp he attended in junior high, or all of those summers hanging out at the beach that drove Adam Frankel toward a career in oceanography and biology? Probably all of the above.

With a clear sense of direction, Frankel began his undergraduate work in the laboratory at the College of William and Mary, where he earned his bachelor of science degree in biology. After completing a rather frustrating study on the physiology of blue crabs ("they are very hard to keep in captivity"), Frankel decided to make a minor course adjustment. "I thought field work would be easier [than lab work]," he says, "and that is the biggest joke. In the lab, you just have to worry about the crabs. In the field you have weather, wild animals---the whole world."

Shortly after enrolling in the graduate program at the University of Hawaii, Frankel learned of a project in Glacier Bay, Alaska, to study the effects of vessel traffic on whale behavior. "When you're twenty-something years old and somebody says, 'Go to Alaska and study whales,' you tend to go in that direction," he recalls. "I spent six weeks in Glacier Bay. It was cold and rainy---a wonderful place to be. That was my introduction to humpback whales, and it was a good one."

The following winter, Frankel worked on a sound playback experiment with the humpbacks in Hawaii. "You play back a recording of natural or artificial sound to the animal in order to see how the animal responds," he says. "It's a good tool. They do it a lot with birds." The whales also have a "song" which covers a wide range of pitches and tones and can last from five to 45 minutes. "You have to be under water or very close to the animal to hear the song with the human ear," Frankel explains.

"Using acoustic location techniques, listening and looking, we are able to learn a lot about how [whales] use their environment [and] their habitat preferences," Frankel says. "Their song almost certainly has many functions in their social system, to increase distance between each other and, I believe, to advertise their position and possibly their quality as a mate. The same sort of direction that led to showy plumage, or sexual selection, probably led to evolution of the complex whale song."

The whales were in Hawaii during the winter for breeding, after their migration from Alaska where they had spent the summer feeding. The experiment utilized a recording of a humpback whale feeding call which the scientists believed would have no meaning to the whales because they were focused on breeding. "We were quickly proven wrong," Frankel recalls. Apparently, the recording chosen for the experiment was made by a female whale and, although the call was a feeding call, the males in the area were interested in breeding and detected only that the sound was made by a female. "We got a rapid approach response, where an animal up to a mile away will very quickly turn and swim at a high rate of speed directly toward the boat that is broadcasting the sound, sometimes generating bow waves," Frankel says. "Sometimes they will swim under the boat; sometimes they will circle it."

An interesting addendum to that experiment is the story of Humphrey, a whale that lost his way and swam up a river in California in 1985. A copy of Frankel's playback experiment tape was sent immediately from Hawaii to scientists in California. They played the recording as a lure for Humphrey, and he followed it all the way out into the bay.

Prior to Frankel's project, only one other scientist had done playback experiments with humpback whales. "That work continued for three more years," he says. "Then I got my master's in zoology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa."

Frankel completed his Ph.D. in oceanography at the University of Hawaii in Manoa in 1994. For the next six years, he served as a post-doctoral research associate at Cornell Bioacoustics Research Program, where he studied the effects of low frequency sound on marine mammals. "We will continue to learn more about how sound affects animals and be able to manage that," he says.

In 2000, Frankel joined Marine Acoustics, Inc., as senior scientist, first at the company's main technology office in Arlington, Va. When the Annapolis office opened a year and a half ago, Frankel was very happy to transfer. "I spent most of my life in small towns," he says, "and Annapolis, for me, is just about the right size. I like being near the water because that's what I do."

Currently, Frankel is program manager in the development of a simulation software product for Marine Acoustics, Inc., called the acoustic integration model (AIM). Applications include cause and effect studies of noise in the ocean, oil spills, "anything moving through an environment," Frankel says. "With this simple software, we can model what the ocean is like, what the animal population is like and what conditions are like at different locations and at different times of the year. We can then make predictions and be able to choose scenarios to minimize effects. In the same way, we can simulate how oil spills move, what techniques to employ in clean up and how to deflect animals away from the spill.

"There are lots of interesting scientific questions. Why do humpbacks sing? Why this and why that? It's very entertaining and fulfilling for me to face the challenge of answering those questions. But at the end of the day, any biologist who works with threatened and endangered species has the duty to do what he or she can for the animal, as well. That is important to me, and I think it should be important to everybody---and I'm able to still do both sides of the coin."

Martie Callaghan is a freelance writer and native Marylander who enjoys spending time with her five grandchildren.


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