Posted by: The ocean update | February 26, 2016

New tool to study sound in Monterey Bay (California, USA)

The underwater microphone is ultra sensitive and detects sounds produced by marine mammals that are outside of human hearing range (Monterey Bay Research Aquarium Institute --contributed). 

The underwater microphone is ultra sensitive and detects sounds produced by marine mammals that are outside of human hearing range (Monterey Bay Research Aquarium Institute –contributed).

February 26th, 2016 (Bethany Augliere). MOSS LANDING >> A new underwater microphone will help scientists study natural sounds and human noise pollution in Monterey Bay.

In July 2015, a team of researchers from the Monterey Bay Research Aquarium Institute and collaborators deployed the first permanent hydrophone in the depths of Monterey Bay.

The hydrophone records in real time, 24 hours a day, to give researchers a window into the sounds of the bay.

“We can’t really understand the ocean and its inhabitants without tapping into understanding sound, because sound is so essential to the way that they live,” said John Ryan, a biological oceanographer and lead researcher on the hydrophone project.

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is a federally area of protected ocean that spans from Marin County to Cambria. The hydrophone, about the size of a soda bottle, sits 3,000 feet beneath the surface roughly 19 miles from shore at Smooth Ridge. It is part of a cabled observatory system from Monterey Bay Research Aquarium Institute that provides full-time power for oceanographic equipment with a direct connection to land.

“You plug in headphones and you are listening to the middle of the bay,” said Brandon Southall, a marine mammal biologist and collaborator on the project. “It’s a direct link to the soundscape to the bay.”

Other than the thin surface layer, most of the bay lacks light and is miles deep, so studying the marine life can be tricky, said Andrew DeVogelaere, research director of the sanctuary. Bad weather or fog can make fieldwork on the ocean a challenge for biologists, he said.

“But you can listen all the time,” said DeVogelaere. “We at the sanctuary are very excited to have this hydrophone put into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.”

In a mostly dark sea, whales and dolphins use sound to communicate with one another and find food. Scientists have already detected voices of blue whales, humpbacks, gray whales and the elusive beaked whales. Biologists can’t effectively study beaked whales from boats or planes because they spend most of their lives diving, said Ryan.

“Sound is the best resource for studying some of these mammals because they are otherwise almost invisible,” Ryan said. “By listening to sounds that animals make, we can learn a lot about their lives.”

Scientists are in the beginning stages of analyzing the data. In six months, they have acquired about 12 terabytes worth of data. That equates to roughly 3,200 high-definition movies.

Now that the researchers have demonstrated the ability to identify vocalizing species,the next step is to answer important ecological questions, said Southall. Scientists plan to examine marine mammal presence seasonally and across multiple years, and how that relates to environmental conditions.

Scientists are also curious how human noise pollution is impacting communication channels of marine life, particularly sounds produced from shipping transportation, said Ryan.

The largest ship to dock at a U.S. port, the Benjamin Franklin, passed by Monterey Bay in late December. On Wednesday, it left Southern California and headed north to the Port of Oakland.

“We’ll be listening for it,” he said.

Hydrophone Exhibit

What : Free temporary exhibit of marine mammal sounds collected from hydrophone.

Where : Monterey Bay Sanctuary Exploration Center.

Address : 35 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz.

When : 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.

Information: 831-421-9993

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