Principal Scientist, Offshore Wind Environment, Denmark

Frank Thomsen - of whales and sound

We chat with Frank Thomsen, Principal Scientist of our Offshore Wind Environment team, who has been working in marine and environmental research for over 30 years. Frank’s areas of expertise include acoustic communication in whales and dolphins, as well as investigating the effects of underwater noise on marine mammals and fish.


Q: Hi Frank, it’s so nice to have you on DHI People. What have you been up to recently?


Thanks, it’s great to be here on DHI People! I am just back from a seminar I organised in Cork, Ireland, on Ecological Modelling for offshore wind farms. I explained to local scientists, regulators and developers how we can use DHI’s models to identify impacts of the planned projects so that management measures can be taken early and swiftly to protect marine life while still realising the projects. Also, I recently published an article on offshore wind farm noise and fishes, together with my friend and colleague Arthur Popper from the University in Maryland, US.


Q: You graduated in 1999 in northern Germany and the topic for your thesis was the acoustic behaviour of marine mammals. What has led you to Denmark and DHI?


After I graduated, I worked for an environmental consultancy in my hometown Hamburg. I organised and conducted ship and airplane surveys on marine mammals and wrote Environmental Impact Assessment reports for offshore wind farm projects. After a few years, I moved to the UK to become a Scientific Program Manager for the Center for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas). There, I became more intensively involved in studying the effects of man-made noise on marine life. I stayed on ‘Her Majesty’s service’ for four years but then got an offer from DHI. So, I took the plunge back into the private sector! That was 12 years ago.


What I love about DHI is the breadth of knowledge and the passion of the people working here. This is not a place for ‘business as usual’! I am also thankful for the freedom that DHI has provided me in my daily work. And I live in Frederiksberg close to the zoo and can hear wolves, elephants and sea lions when the wind blows in the right direction!


Q: We know about your affinity with whales, and that you even paddled in a kayak alongside them in Canadian waters. Can you tell us why whales fascinate you and what made you go on that adventure?


From early in my childhood, I was fascinated by nature and animals. I grew up on an island in the river Elbe (northern Germany) and there was plenty of nature and open spaces for little Frank to explore. As a student, I saw my first orca in the dolphinarium at the zoo in Hamburg. The orca, a young female, hung out in a small pool. She was incredibly beautiful with the black and white colouration. The trainer wanted to get her to move into the adjacent show pool to perform tricks. When the orca took a huge mouthful of water and sprayed the trainer with it, I was sold. I decided right there and then, I would want to become an orca researcher.


As a university student, I took some months off to travel to Canada to work at Orcalab, a research station on Vancouver Island studying wild orcas. For my diploma thesis, I investigated orca whistles which are very faint and high-pitched sounds the whales use most often when playing with one another. I stayed two months alone in the wilderness to record whistles. The kayak was a great way to get close to the whales because it’s quiet and you do not disturb them. But I figured out very quickly that it was difficult to keep up with the whales because they are so fast in the water. Yet, I managed to get a few nice recordings and with the help from Dr John Ford, who was at the Vancouver Aquarium studying orca sounds for many years, I was able to complete my Diploma and then my PhD.


Q: In your 30 years of research experience, which findings in your work have left the strongest impression on you?


I am studying largely the same topic, whales and sound, even after 30 years. But my perspective has changed, from basic research to applied science trying to protect the animals.


Two things stand out that impressed me most: one is that we discovered that orcas that have otherwise different vocal dialects share a set of whistle sounds. It’s like a second language that they have in common, and which enables them to talk across foreign languages. Then DHI’s integrated model that includes hydrodynamic, sound and agent-based modelling which we built over the past 10 years has really contributed to a much better understanding of how wind farms and other noise might affect whales and fishes and what we can do to reduce impacts. This is cutting-edge stuff that only DHI can do.


Q: Complete this sentence: ‘If I weren’t a principal scientist working with marine life, I would probably be ….’


…a captain on a whale-watching boat on Vancouver Island.

'What I love about DHI is the breadth of knowledge and the passion of the people working here. This is not a place for ‘business as usual’! I am also thankful for the freedom that DHI has provided me in my daily work.'

Frank Thomsen

Principal Scientist, Offshore Wind Environment

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