December SEA Days: Scientist Q&A

Amanda Cummings is a staff researcher at Scripps Oceanography.

On the third Saturday of each month, a scientist from Scripps Institution of Oceanography or elsewhere in the community joins our special SEA Days program to share their exciting research with aquarium visitors.

Amanda Cummins is a staff research associate in the Marine Physical Laboratory at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in biology from Western Kentucky University and completed her master’s degree in marine biodiversity and conservation at Scripps, focusing her capstone/thesis work on cetaceans in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Q. What inspired you to become a scientist?

Wanting to do marine science was always something innate. As a child, my family always went to summer vacations in Florida and rented a condo on the beach. I was always in the ocean. When the rest of the family wanted to be up by the pool, I would be the one floating in the ocean with my little mask and snorkel. It was just a strong curiosity of what was out there. When I was in high school I went to Seacamp in the Florida Keys for a week. We learned coral reef ecology and some invertebrate identification. This experience made an ocean science career more tangible. It linked my curiosity with the science and got me to see how I could make a career out of marine science, instead of it just being a passion.

Q. What do you study and why is that important?

My current job is studying whale acoustics. I analyze the sounds in the ocean. Specifically that means we put underwater microphones called hydrophones into the ocean where they sit on the ocean floor for a long period of time. The next step is to recover those microphones and listen to what was recorded. I record what animals made sounds and when they made them. I also record man-made noise from ships, and Navy sonar or explosions. Scientists want to know more about the sound of the ocean because it is a good indicator of the overall health of our oceans.

Q. What is your favorite noise that you have heard?

There are some pretty bizarre sounds out there in the ocean! I study minke whales, which make a sound called the boing. For the longest time people thought this noise was man-made (that it came from a machine or ship) because it sounds very mechanical. Finally about a decade ago scientists were able to pare it with an actual minke whale.

Each type of whale makes different sounds, and that is one of the ways we can identify what type of whales are out there. We use a lot of hydrophones here in southern California, but we also have hydrophones around the Hawaiian Islands, in the Mariana Islands, Alaska, Washington state and in several areas of the Gulf of Mexico, monitoring how the area is recovering since the oil spill.

Q. What do you enjoy most about working here at Scripps Institution of Oceanography?

I love that I get to do a variety of things. Sometimes I’m conducting data analysis with my computer at my desk; other times I’m out in small boats doing dolphin and whale surveys along our coast.  I even get to go out to sea for 3-4 weeks at a time on our larger research vessels.

Q. What is the best part about being out at sea on a research vessel?

I like being up close and personal with the animals I study. Hearing them in recordings is one thing; but seeing them up close is different – especially experiencing how big whales truly are! I love the amazing sunrises and sunsets you see out far into the ocean. One time we saw a fin whale breach, which was just amazing because they are such huge animals and it was like watching a giant missile come up out of the water.

Q. What are the most important things for a future scientist to learn?

It is important to learn a variety of things like biology, physics, math and computers because everything is connected in science. Study hard and learn everything you can!

Q. What is your favorite whale species?

The fin whale is my favorite whale because they are huge! They are the second largest animal on earth and have a beautiful lower jaw that is two different colors – the right side is white and the left half is black.

Below are some photographs from Amanda’s research on dolphins. Can you see the difference between the individual dorsal fins?

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Scripps Institution of Oceanography UC San Diego