Encinitas Resident Makes Bio Waves

April 29, 2012, Judd

Remember how the hapless George Costanza of TV’s Seinfeld frequently lied about his occupation to impress others? Most of the time, he claimed to be an architect. In one episode (No. 78 of the series), George tries to play it off to a female friend of Jerry’s that he’s a marine biologist.

George enjoys a rare bout of good luck after he dislodges from a whale’s blowhole a golf ball that Kramer had earlier whacked into the ocean. George suddenly feels the rush of being a marine biologist. At the end of the episode, in his dramatic retelling of how he saved the whale, he says, “I could see directly into the eye of the great fish!”

But it doesn’t take a real-life marine biologist—like Encinitas resident Tom Norris— to know that whales are mammals, not fish.

Although he’s most likely not the only marine biologist who lives in town, he’s the only one who owns and runs a business that specializes in marine bio-acoustics.

His company, Bio Waves, is one of only a handful of private enterprises worldwide that conducts surveys of marine wildlife and monitors and records the symphonic, otherworldly sounds of whales and dolphins, which use echolocation to both communicate and gauge distance.

Norris has been to Hawaii approximately 25 times (sometimes for work, sometimes for surf), including the fringe islands in the northwestern part of the chain, where few tourists have ever ventured. His work has taken him to exotic islands such as the Galapagos and several uninhabited Lilliputian islands that don’t show up on your average home-edition world map.

Norris has the dream job, doesn’t he? Sounds pretty glamorous? George Costanza would be envious, right?

The truth is, says Norris, a good chunk of the time being a marine biologist isn’t that exciting.

“I’ve met dozens of people who have told me that they wanted to be a marine biologist in college, but for whatever reason—their parents or college advisers talked them out of it—they studied something else, which is fine with me,” says Norris. “If they all became marine biologists, I’d be out of a job.”

If you think being a marine biologist is glamorous, traveling the world’s oceans and petting whales on the top of their head every day, think again, says Norris.

“Imagine you’re at your desk and your boss dumps a bunch of water all over you and then tosses your files and papers all over the floor. … that’s what it’s like working on a boat sometimes. It’s a terrible environment for getting work done,” he says.

Norris, a graduate of Moss Landing Marine Labs, admits to sometimes being “bored out of [my] mind” when conditions are placid and marine mammals are not putting on a show. But the mind-blowing times he does witness—such as being on a 14-foot boat near one of the Hawaiian fringe islands and coming between a 40-foot male humpback whale aggressively courting a female—make it worthwhile.

“I thought the male humpback was going to ram straight into us,” says Norris.

There was also the time he viewed, from a low-flying small airplane, a pod of killer whales attacking a pod of sperm whales.

Work has taken Norris to some of the coldest and harshest environments in the world, such as Dutch Harbor, the fishing village in the middle of Alaska’s Aleutian chain, made famous on the TV showAmerica’s Deadliest Catch. Also in Alaska, he monitored bowhead whales in the Chuckchi Sea, near Barrow, the northernmost city in the U.S. and over 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

The field of sub-aquatic acoustics has been in existence for decades, getting a big boost in funding during the Cold War era when the U.S. Navy used a large network of seafloor hydrophones to monitor Soviet subs off the U.S. and U.K. coasts.

These days, the Navy contracts with organizations like Bio Waves to use their hydrophones to study the effects of sonar and sound on marine mammals. Ever since the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, marine
mammals have been federally protected from being killed or even harassed, including from activities and exercises the Navy conducts.

Norris claims that marine acoustic surveying techniques are on the verge of explosive growth.

“A lot of what we’re working on now is automated recognition for animal sounds. It’s not in real time yet, but we’re getting there. Eventually, we’ll be able to automatically recognize what animal we’re hearing,” says Norris, who recently hired Julie Oswald (also a local Encinitas resident), a recent Ph.D. graduate from Scripps Institute of Oceanography, who is developing computer algorithms designed to recognize dolphin species based on their whistles.

Now that’s a job that George Costanza would love to have.

Judd Handler is a freelance writer and wellness/lifestyle coach in Encinitas, California. He surfs uncrowded, fun reef breaks; plays instrumental alternate-tuning guitar; goes hiking in the backcountry; and is amazed on a daily basis by just being alive.