At the edge of the ocean, all of our senses are engaged—the breeze on our skin, the scent of rotting seaweed, the sparkle of light on the waves. But dive in and things change. In shallow, coastal waters, water is often murky, even opaque. And the deeper you dive, the darker it becomes. It’s probably no surprise then, that for ocean animals, hearing is paramount. And it’s not just so for singing humpback whales. Lobsters, octopuses, fish, and more all use sound to communicate and navigate, to find each other, or to swim the other way.
Hakai Magazine invites you to join us and listen in under the waves. Discover some of the extraordinary soundscapes scientists are recording, the surprising ways that animals talk and listen, and how the unexpected patches of quiet triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic is driving a new commitment to hushing anthropogenic ocean noise.
Episode 1: Can You Hear Me Now?
Eavesdropping on marine motormouths during the world’s most expensive experiment.
When Elin Kelsey and the producers of The Sound Aquatic podcast first gathered in early 2020 to create a podcast about ocean sounds, they had no idea what an amazingly unique year 2020 would be for anyone listening in on the ocean.
In this episode, Elin takes a deep dive into the wonderful world of fish sounds and finds out what makes the anthropause—as some experts are calling it—the world’s most expensive experiment.
We open our podcast with an excerpt from a documentary that looks at how croaker fish puzzled navy military folks in the Second World War who picked up the fish’s unique sounds on hydrophones. Find the full documentary Sounds in the Silent Deep here.
In this episode, we were introduced to Marie “Bobbie” Poland Fish, a marine biologist best known for the incredible library of more than 300 species of marine animal sounds she collected during the 1960s. You can check out the library here. Here’s a review and more information on Helen Scales’s book Eye of the Shoal.
Elin Kelsey Listen to this …
Can you guess what that sound is?
Here’s a hint:
Old-time voice It was a late spring evening in 1942 when tests were completed and the night operators settled down for their first lonely vigil. Suddenly, red lights flared on the panel. Warning signals from those hydrophones in the bay.
Old-time voice What caused these strange sounds? No evidence of any unusual craft could be found, yet each evening the phenomenon occurred and soon became one of the most baffling mysteries of the war. The military turned to the scientists for help and at last the answer came with the clatter of the teletype. “Disregard unusual hydrophone signals; sounds made by schools of fish known as croakers.” Fish that talk.
Elin Kelsey Yup, that thing that sounds like a riveter? It’s actually a fish. A fish called a croaker.
So why were navy military folks in the midst of a war so focused on the sounds that fish make?
To prevent this …
[NAVAL MINE EXPLODING]
Elin Kelsey That massive explosion occurred during the Second World War when an undersea mine designed to detonate in response to the sound of an enemy ship’s propeller was mistakenly triggered by the powerful pulsing voices of fish.
[TOADFISH AND THEME MUSIC]
Elin Kelsey It’s the kind of colossal mishap that happens when we fail to realize that the ocean is a world based on sound.
[FADE IN CACOPHONY OF OCEAN SOUNDS]
Elin Kelsey My name is Elin Kelsey and this is The Sound Aquatic: The Ocean and the Anthropause.
Elin Kelsey In the past few years, researchers have been making astonishing discoveries about the ways fish, lobsters, and all kinds of other ocean animals use sounds. And about the damage caused by shipping networks, seismic surveys, underwater blasts, and other sources of ocean noise pollution.
[ANTHROPOGENIC OCEAN SOUNDS]
Elin Kelsey So in early 2020, I got together with podcast producers Ami Kingdon and Kat Pyne to start brainstorming a series all about ocean sounds.
Elin Kelsey How do they hear? Do they …
Ami Kingdon I don’t know how the fish hear. How do fish hear?
Kat Pyne Do fish hear? Do fish hear?
Elin Kelsey Well, they must if they are making these sounds. Right? But I’m, I’m trying to think about …
Ami Kingdon When I think of a fish, I don’t think of ears on a fish.
Elin Kelsey Yeah ’cause they don’t have those external pinnas do they?
Ami Kingdon No.
Elin Kelsey Like the parts that stick out of us? I don’t, I don’t think I’ve seen that on a fish, have I?
Kat Pyne That would look so weird on a fish. I can’t picture that.
Ami Kingdon That would be very weird on a fish.
Elin Kelsey Although I’ve seen many cartoon fish wearing sunglasses, which would require some sort of ear.
Ami Kingdon That’s a good point. We do need ears to wear sunglasses. I never thought of that before.
Elin Kelsey Hearing, it turns out, is a key sense for many, perhaps even most, ocean animals.
Elin Kelsey I think I understand that some fish grunt by, you know, constricting their swim bladders, right?
Ami Kingdon Yes.
Elin Kelsey So they’re not using their mouths. And I know for a long time, you know, it was very hard for us. If we see a beluga, those types of whales, to realize they’re not making a sound out of their mouth, they’re making a sound out of their blowhole, you know. So you see them with their open mouth and that’s where you put the little thought bubble, but that isn’t actually where the words come out.
Ami Kingdon Yeah. I mean, belugas have lips in their blowhole and then they hear with their jaws.
Elin Kelsey And there’s way more fish and way more marine invertebrates than there are mammals.
Ami Kingdon Absolutely …
Elin Kelsey So it’s, you know, really, we have a, minutely skewed idea about sound in hearing and noise and all of the things that we’re going to look at.
Elin Kelsey But just as we were getting started, a sound above the waves changed everything.
[NEWS CLIPS ON EMERGENCE OF NOVEL CORONAVIRUS]
Elin Kelsey Like people all over the world, we reacted to the COVID-19 lockdowns by pivoting. We quickly realized we weren’t just creating a podcast about remarkable fish voices, we were making it in the midst of a globally significant moment for ocean research. And because as people stopped moving around, ocean coastlines suddenly got quieter.
Our first call was to Christian Rutz.
Christian Rutz My name is Christian Rutz, and I am professor of biology at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.
Elin Kelsey COVID-19 lockdowns shut down human activity so dramatically, Christian and his colleagues gave it a whole new name, the anthropause.
[ELECTRONIC SOUND EFFECT]
Christian Rutz We know that it is significant and it is an effect that was felt all around the world.
Elin Kelsey Christian is also the president of the International Bio-logging Society. Biologging uses miniature electronic tags, which are attached to animals to track and uncover the hidden lives of wild birds, mammals, insects, and even fish.
Christian Rutz Many of our members fitted these tracking devices onto their chosen study species before COVID-19, not knowing that this pandemic was about to unfold. And we realized that this is an absolute gold mine of data where we can look at animal movements and behavior from before, during, and after lockdown, and see how animals respond to the presence or absence of humans.
We’ve been offered data for almost 200 different species, so we are talking tens of thousands of animals that have been wearing these tiny tracking devices ranging from small songbirds to large whales.
Elin Kelsey And you are dealing with such a mountain of data—do you have a way of expressing the quantity of data that you have?
Christian Rutz The word that comes to mind is “mind-boggling.” It’s an avalanche of data.
I think it’s fair to say that I haven’t slept much over the past four months, I mean these people have pulled endless all-nighters to launch this project because of the pace at which this opportunity arose and needed to be grabbed.
Elin Kelsey In the case of the coast, scientists could suddenly hear fish, crabs, whales, even plankton, without the ever-present din of recreational motorboats and other sources of ocean noise pollution.
Here in the Salish Sea along the west coast border of Canada and the United States, ocean noise dropped by more than 50 percent.
John Calambokidis By late March, when things had dramatically shut down, it was a whole other experience launching and going out and spending time. First of all due to the COVID restrictions I was operating solo. I was just out in my boat alone since we didn’t want to have multiple people in the boat and the boat launches were closed, none of the whale watch operators were going out. It was really a feeling that harkened back to 30 years ago when traffic was less.
Getting a chance to see whales in situations that are what you’d have to call more pristine I think is always heartening, in that sense, of course you’re there so now you’re not quite as pristine because you’re out there, and I always want to be cognizant and recognize my own contribution and presence and not pretend that there was nothing else there. Of course I was there!
Elin Kelsey Here’s why John Calambokidis, a biologist with the Cascadia Research Collective, was so eager to get out on the water.
John Calambokidis Partly because there was this dramatic decrease in vessel traffic. One of our interests was to collect skin samples by biopsy to be able to look at stress hormone levels.
Elin Kelsey Opportunities to quantify the impact of noise on coastal animals at a global scale—by seeing how they react when noise pollution drops—are incredibly rare. In fact, it’s only happened once before in my lifetime, and like COVID-19, it was also because of a tragedy.
[NEWS CLIPS OF 9/11]
Elin Kelsey Nearly two decades ago, when the planes hit the Twin Towers in New York, the world went into an instant and unprecedented lockdown. Planes were grounded. Borders slammed shut. In the Bay of Fundy, ship traffic dropped by 200 percent and underwater noise pollution decreased by six decibels.
That’s like a volume shift from this …
[SLIGHTLY QUIETER PIANO NOTE]
Elin Kelsey Okay, maybe that doesn’t seem like much of a difference, but imagine someone constantly running a vacuum in your house at six decibels.
John Calambokidis Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, they collected a series of fecal samples from North Atlantic right whales that then revealed dramatically decreased levels of stress hormones.
Elin Kelsey Essentially the whales’ stress levels dropped when the underwater ship noise did.
John Calambokidis And that surprising study of decreased stress levels was partly why, in this current round, we were trying to think, Is this another opportunity to look at that?
Elin Kelsey Some scientists have already reported changes in sounds and even behaviors of ocean animals during the first lockdowns.
Matt Pine, a researcher with the University of Victoria was excited by the response of dolphins to the COVID-19 lockdown back home in New Zealand in March 2020.
Matt Pine Auckland’s our biggest city, where a third of the country lives, has one of the highest boat ownership rates of anywhere else in the world. There’s coming up to 200,000 boats. We’ve got this very busy metropolitan area right on the doorstep of an ecologically significant embayment.
We had hydrophones in the water before lockdown, and we were measuring up to 70 percent of a 24-hour period containing boat noise. As soon as sunrise came to sunset, we have almost continuous boat noise.
But unlike other parts of the world, we entered a complete lockdown on vessel traffic. It wasn’t voluntary; it was enforced.
[BOAT ENGINE GETTING QUIETER]
Elin Kelsey Within days of lockdown, boat noise occurred for just eight percent of a 24-hour cycle.
Matt Pine So overnight, we’ve turned everything off.
Elin Kelsey Underwater noise in the harbor dropped 15 decibels in some areas.
Matt Pine We had a lot more people reporting marine mammals closer to shore, up rivers; we’re having animals where they don’t normally go because it is normally so noisy for them.
But what we are particularly interested in is the ability of bottlenose dolphins and common dolphins to communicate with one another in this much more quieter world.
During the lockdown, we were picking up dolphin whistles and call rates had increased, and that stuff, for far longer periods of time than we were before lockdown.
Right near the city, you can hear invertebrates crawling over the hydrophone, you can hear fish grunting, you can hear dolphins whistling, and waves crashing on a beach four kilometers away, and it’s just … it’s just, I’ve never heard an ocean without boats before.
This is an unprecedented opportunity because we can now have actual trends, correlations, and data that were just impossible to get before. I mean it cost billions of dollars; it’s the world’s most expensive experiment.
We won’t go back to how we were because now we know. One of the arguments I’ve always faced in the past is it’s all theory based—you think that would happen—but now, of course, we’ve got the actual numbers.
Elin Kelsey The world’s most expensive experiment! Imagine a scientist proposing to shut down the world’s coasts to see what happens when the noise is gone. No wonder researchers jumped at this grim, but once-in-a-lifetime, chance.
The reason the ocean anthropause is such a big deal is because leading up to the lockdowns, more and more studies were revealing how much life in the ocean depends on sounds.
Matt Pine Yeah, everything, so from the zooplankton that use sound as orientation cues, to the fish that use them to avoid predators to find mates, to the marine mammals that use sound to eavesdrop on their prey and use vocalizations to maintain the group, to your whales that will sing and listen to their environment during their migration. So everything is linked to that soundscape, and all animals are impacted sort of across the board.
Elin Kelsey As our producer, Ami, explains, the science of listening underwater really took off around World War Two.
Ami Kingdon After the war, the navy kind of really upped their game in terms of trying to figure out, well, what fish make noises? How do they make noises? When? So they actually got a woman called Bobbie Fish. Very good name.
Kat Pyne That is so on point.
Elin Kelsey That was her real name?
Ami Kingdon That was her real name, Bobbie Fish. Not the wrestler. There’s a wrestler called Bobbie Fish right now. Who’s active. I just want to be clear! The US Navy did not send the wrestler Bobbie Fish. And she went up and down the east coast of the US and she recorded all of these fish sounds.
[MUSIC FROM CAR STEREO]
Helen Scales In December 1963, a woman with short curly hair sat behind the wheel of a gray Chevrolet sports wagon as she drove north from Rhode Island, along America’s eastern shore towards Maine.
The car was packed with gadgets. There were banks of waterproof microphones, spools of cables hundreds of meters long, two-way radios and walkie-talkies, battery packs and generators, a collapsible aquarium tank made of canvas, and an aluminum boat strapped to the roof. This was a fast-response mobile listening station, on a mission to find noisy fish. The driver’s name, it just so happened, was Marie Poland Fish. She was usually known as Bobbie.
Elin Kelsey That’s Helen Scales describing Bobbie’s maverick sound collecting setup in her book Eye of the Shoal. Bobbie managed to record the sounds of more than 300 species of marine animals, from fish to mammals to shellfish.
And in so doing, helped antisubmarine vessel personnel to more accurately identify true enemy targets.
Today, there’s an international focus on marine bioacoustics—studying underwater sounds to understand the intricacies of how animals breed and find their way and conduct their gloriously complex lives in the ocean.
John Calambokidis Then on the other hand we have the huge benefits that have come in from new technologies. Ten, 15 years ago, it was the advent of high capacity, remote recording packages that can record the sounds of whales for months and months at a time, 24 hours a day. But then some of the tagging technologies—I’ve now probably deployed suction-cup-attached tags on close to a thousand different whales along the US west coast of many species. Some of the tags we’re deploying are recording 12 different sensors recording hundreds of times a second. So you are getting this incredibly high-resolution data. Sometimes hours of video with it as well that give us insights into whale behavior that we never had before—how they feed, how they move, how they respond to human threats. So those have been really advantageous things.
Elin Kelsey And the really beautiful thing is the more scientists listen, the more new sounds they discover.
Culum Brown I think research currently suggests around 50 percent or more of all fish species are communicating using sound. So it’s clearly a really important mode of communication for them. And probably people don’t realize that there are dawn and dusk choruses under water just as there are on land.
[DAWN CHORUS OF BIRDS]
Elin Kelsey How glorious is that? Beneath the waves, there are choruses of fish “singing” at dawn and dusk, much like the birds in spring.
Culum Brown My name is professor Culum Brown, and I’m a professor at the Macquarie University campus in Sydney. And I’m head of the fish lab.
Elin Kelsey You say that with great enthusiasm. I’m glad to see that. So you’re a fish lover, clearly.
Culum Brown I am a fish lover, and I’m not terribly concerned about what fish they are, as long as they are fishy.
Sound production in fishes is extremely diverse. The mechanisms that they use is far more diverse than any other organisms. So it’s pretty cool and it’s grossly underestimated, I think generally by the public.
Elin Kelsey Culum, could you just talk me through them really quickly? I know you mentioned the swim bladders and the muscles and, what, what other ones I know they can fart, right. To make gassy sounds. Yup. What other sounds do they do?
Culum Brown They can also grind their teeth. They can make noises using, so in their gills they have gill rakers as well, which they can also grind. They can make noises by moving their jaws around. All sorts of weird and wonderful ways of making noises. So, yeah, swim bladder–related vibrations, whether it’s muscles or whatever else. So, yeah, the diversity is huge and really we’ve only come to appreciate that, I would say, in the last three or four years. And it’s such an untapped area of research that basically you could go and look at any fish in any context and whatever you discover it would be new.
Elin Kelsey And it’s not just fish making sounds, scientists are rapidly discovering that it’s krill and crabs and coral and …
Christopher Clark, retired senior scientist from Cornell University, where he was the director of the bioacoustic research program, likens the discovery of sounds in the ocean to the infinite wonder of space.
Christopher Clark We now are recording, constantly documenting, more sounds that we do not know what they are than we know what they are. You dive into that universe of sounds, and yes, metaphorically you recognize some of the stars and the planets, but mostly you find yourself saying, “I’ve never heard this before. What on Earth is it?”
Elin Kelsey There are better ways to protect marine life, and ourselves, from a barrage of noise than a global pandemic, and we’ll be exploring those, too, in this series. But for now, I want to leave you with a little gift of listening, to what a fish might hear on a rainy day.
[RAIN FALLING ON THE OCEAN SURFACE]
Elin Kelsey Tune into episode two where we slip beneath the waves to explore how baby fish tiny enough to rest on the head of a pin listen their way to healthy coral reefs, and how some scientists are using reef soundscapes to combat the damage caused by climate change. It’s an episode that’s chockablock full of surprises about how ocean animals use sound to find their way home.
We’d like to thank Christian Rutz of the University of St Andrews Scotland; John Calambokidis from the Cascadia Research Collective; Culum Brown of Macquarie University; Christopher Clark of Cornell University; Matt Pine with the University of Victoria; the author of Eye of the Shoal, Helen Scales; and the Ocean Conservation Research group for their sound recordings.
This episode of The Sound Aquatic: The Ocean and the Anthropause was produced by Ami Kingdon, Katrina Pyne, and me, Elin Kelsey.
Our theme music is by Tobin Stokes. The team also includes Adrienne Mason, Jude Isabella, and fact checker Megan Osmond-Jones.
We are an endeavor of Hakai Magazine and are produced on the shores of the Salish Sea in Victoria, British Columbia.
Episode 2: How Not to Get Lost in the Ocean
Marine animals that navigate through whispers, songs, grunts, or clicks.
Sound travels far underwater. And it travels fast, too—about four and a half times faster than it does through air. So it’s no wonder animals use sound to find their way around. Imagine being able to “see” your way through pitch black depths just by listening to the waves, other creatures, or even ambient noise, such as mudslides; or being able to make clicks and use their echoes to build a picture of the space around you.
In this episode, we look at how marine animals from whales to fish (and even tiny fish larvae) use sound to navigate their world, using it for everything from finding a good place to call home to the next bite to eat.
In this episode, we meet Daniel Kish, who has been blind since he was 13 months old, to learn how he navigates using a form of echolocation he calls flash sonar. Here’s a 2015 TED Talk by Daniel Kish where you can listen to him tell his amazing story.
Elin Kelsey What would you do if you were lost in the woods?
If you’d planned to go off-grid, chances are you’ve got a map or an old-school compass. Or perhaps you’re one of those amazing folks who can chart their way by gazing up at the Big Dipper!
According to rescue workers, most of us pull out our phone and try to Google Map our way out of trouble.
Under the sea, animals don’t have any of these devices. Yet billions of ocean animals still find their way. How do they do it? Many use something you might not have thought of. They use sound.
My name is Elin Kelsey, and you are listening to episode two of The Sound Aquatic: The Ocean and the Anthropause. Click your red heels because this episode is all about finding your way home. After all, there’s no place like home.
Shima Abadi Okay, I’m going to start with an easy one.
Elin Kelsey Oh no, now I’m nervous.
[HUMPBACK WHALE CALL]
Elin Kelsey Okay, that I think is a whale sound. Is that right?
Shima Abadi That’s correct, it’s a humpback whale sound.
Elin Kelsey Okay, good, one for one.
Elin Kelsey I’m on a call with Shima Abadi, an expert in animal bioacoustics at the University of Washington and we’re playing a little game of “guess that ocean sound.”
Shima Abadi Okay, I’m gonna play this one.
Elin Kelsey Oh, can you give me a hint?
Shima Abadi It is a man-made noise.
Elin Kelsey Is it an engine, like a ship sound?
Shima Abadi Yes, it’s a ship noise. It’s a research vessel about 14 kilometers from the hydrophone. Okay, let’s play another one.
Elin Kelsey Okay, now that one to my ear sounds really a lot the same like the one I just heard. Is that also a ship sound?
Shima Abadi It is not. It’s rain, actually.
Elin Kelsey Shima has made her point, the ocean is a noisy place, a soundscape of fish grunts, crashing waves, wind, rain, and snapping shrimp! (We’ll come back to that one.) Oh, and then there’s sounds like these:
Elin Kelsey That’s the sound of the earthquake that erupted off the coast of Japan in 2011. You’re listening to an underwater recording, but not one recorded in Japan. This recording comes from a navy listening station in Alaska, 900 kilometers away from the epicenter. Clearly, sound travels really far underwater, and really fast—about four and a half times faster than it does through air. And something as simple as the sound of a raindrop can get super complicated when you add in ocean physics as our producer Ami Kingdon explains.
Ami Kingdon The way that rain makes sound is it creates a bubble in the ocean, the bubble oscillates and pops. If it’s a small bubble, it’s a high sound. And if it’s a big bubble, it’s a low sound. And so she’s like if you have big raindrops, they make a lower sound, but they also make a quieter sound because the, they create so much froth at the surface, especially if it’s windy that it did that sound can’t move through the water as well. And so you actually have like a dampening effect. Whereas if you have like a medium-sized rain on a very calm ocean, that’s going to be much louder because it’s going to come down and travel more through the water. And so there was this whole physics and this whole thing about raindrops on the ocean.
Elin Kelsey These properties help to explain why sound is the number one sense of choice for so many ocean animals. Sound is paramount, not just for singing humpback whales, but for everything, from tiny larvae, to octopuses, to fish. It’s understandable.
Dream with me for a moment. Imagine you are an ocean animal. Which of your senses matters most in this watery world?
Your glorious human eyesight wouldn’t help you much down here. Below 200 meters it’s functionally nighttime 24 hours a day. Even in shallower coastal waters, where many fish and other animals live, it’s often murky, silty, sometimes even opaque. You can’t see much at all. You would quickly discover your senses of taste and smell are limited, too. Smell does travel in the currents, but it doesn’t really carry very far or tell you in what direction something is happening.
However, if you are like most ocean animals that have been studied so far, smell and taste may not be able to help you much with navigation.
So, what’s left? Hearing! You quickly discover you can hear pebbles shifting on the ocean floor. And ice cracking. Mud slumping. Rain falling. You can even hear the sound of teeny tiny plants called phytoplankton—the “ping” of algae turning sunlight into energy adds to this glorious marine soundscape.
You can also hear other animals. You can hear whales calling. You can hear predators coming. You can hear crabs clacking. You can hear the entire ocean ecosystem.
Isabelle Cote I would suggest that anybody goes snorkeling and just hold your breath with your ears underwater and really focus on what you hear, and it’s just such a noise-rich environment underwater when you really start listening.
Elin Kelsey I’m chatting with Isabelle Cote, a marine biologist at Simon Fraser University. She’s got a theory that it’s possible to tell how healthy a coral reef is by listening to the sounds of the reef itself. A healthy reef is a loud reef.
Isabelle Cote So from the loudness of the sound that you can hear on a reef, particularly at night, you can deduce how much coral there is on the reef. So, we have basically a sound index to reef health. When you have a lot of coral, you tend to have a lot of what we call “architectural complexity.” You have lots of holes and crevices and lots of places for animals to hide, and that’s the relationship to sound. So the more habitat there is for those invertebrates, the more invertebrates there are, and the louder the sound the reef seems to be making.
Elin Kelsey Wow. And what kind of invertebrates are making the sounds and how do they do it?
Isabelle Cote Yeah, so the loudest ones, the loudest invertebrates on the reefs, are called snapping shrimps, and you very rarely see them. Actually, in my decades of working on reefs, I’ve never seen a snapping shrimp because they do tend to hide pretty deeply in the reef. The sound is a bit like when you pour milk in a bowl of Rice Krispies.
[MILK ON RICE KRISPIES]
Isabelle Cote They are a kind of shrimp that has a huge claw. As the claw closes, the water sort of cavitates and the bubble collapses, and that makes essentially a bang sound that is extremely loud, I mean extremely loud at the scale of the small shrimp. But sort of scaled up, people have said that it’s as loud as a jet plane taking off.
[JET TAKING OFF]
Elin Kelsey According to Isabelle, it’s not just researchers who can distinguish a healthy reef from a less healthy reef by the sounds it’s producing. Through an intriguing study she did in the Bahamas, Isabelle discovered that baby fish find their way to healthy reefs by listening.
Isabelle Cote So fish and invertebrates, marine fish and marine invertebrates, most of them spend the first part of their life cycle as little tiny larvae that float around, and eventually they have to settle somewhere. So they choose where to go. They have a certain amount of choice because most of these larvae, even though they’re just a few millimeters long, they do have swimming ability, and they do follow various cues to figure out where the best places to settle. And it turns out that sound is one of the cues that they use to decide to settle in one place rather than another one. So it’s a short distance cue—they probably use other things when they’re further away from their reef, they might use smell, for example, but as they get closer to a reef, sound kicks in and little larval fish can discriminate between the sound of a healthy reef and the sound of an unhealthy reef.
Elin Kelsey Yeah, that’s phenomenal. And can you tell me how those tiny larvae in general, if I’m thinking of something that’s only a few millimeters long, what aspect of their bodies is actually hearing?
Isabelle Cote Yeah, so they have inner ears, they have lateral lines. The lateral line is basically a pressure system and sound at the end of the day is a wave, right, and it causes pressure on the body of the fish, so they detect that in a way that we can’t really relate to because we don’t have that means of hearing, that whole body hearing.
Elin Kelsey Wow. Whole body hearing.
Isabelle Cote If you stood against a big speaker that’s very loud, you feel like you’re hearing with your whole body as opposed to just your ears, right, you can feel everything inside, especially the air pockets, your lungs and so on, you can feel the vibration. That’s my approximation maybe of what it feels like, I don’t know. I know when I run in the forest, in the spring, I often hear grouse, which is a low sound. But interestingly, I literally, I feel the grouse more than I can hear the grouse.
Elin Kelsey Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s that deep drumming and you feel the percussiveness of it.
Isabelle Cote Yeah, except in this case, things like snapping shrimp produce very high frequency sounds as opposed to low frequency sounds. I don’t think I can explain; I definitely can’t relate to the whole body hearing of high frequency sounds.
Elin Kelsey Well, if you could relate to tiny, couple of millimeters zooplankton, that would be really, really impressive.
Elin Kelsey Isabelle and her team wanted to prove whether it was sound, or some other characteristic, drawing these larvae to the reefs. She employed a rather notorious test subject to help her solve the mystery.
Isabelle Cote Like most other places in the Caribbean, about a dozen years ago or so, the Bahamian reefs were invaded by lionfish from the Indo-Pacific. And these are beautiful fish, but they are predators, and they eat a lot of very small fish. It got me thinking about the possibility that lionfish were altering the soundscape of reefs because, you know, they’re eating the sound-producing animals. So for several years, we’ve kept the number of lionfish really low on some reefs and on other reefs we hadn’t controlled them, so the numbers were higher. I didn’t realize at the time that most of this work was gonna be basically between 10 p.m. and three in the morning. And it was fascinating for what we ended up finding as well, which was that the reefs with a lot of lionfish were much quieter than the reefs without a lot of lionfish.
Elin Kelsey That’s amazing.
Isabelle Cote It’s kind of a double whammy effect. They’re eating the fish and they’re also making the reef quieter, so there’s fewer little fish coming in to replace the ones being eaten. That might be partly, just a small part of the explanation for why they’ve had such a drastic effect on some reefs.
Elin Kelsey Ocean soundscapes are like fingerprints of individual ecosystems. Tiny fish larvae are using the soundscape of a healthy reef to find their way to something good: a vibrant home.
Francis Juanes, professor of fisheries at the University of Victoria tells me that some researchers are now experimenting with using the way fish are attracted to healthy soundscapes to help coral reefs impacted by climate change to recover.
Francis Juanes So we know on coral reefs that if we play back the sound of a healthy coral reef in a degraded one, fish will come. They will settle onto that reef and begin the process of recovering that reef. And so again, that’s a very unique experiment in one location, but it suggests that sound could be used to, to make environments healthier.
Elin Kelsey Of course, wayfinding is about more than just knowing where you are and in what direction you’re heading. Once an animal finds a home, the next priority is finding a bite to eat.
This is Fernwood, a trendy little neighborhood in Victoria, British Columbia, that just so happens to be pretty much the same distance from my house, Kat’s house, and Ami’s house. Which brings us to that eternal dilemma:
Elin Kelsey Well, my lovelies, I think we should get a drink or a bite to eat or something.
Kat Pyne I’m starving. Where should we go?
Elin Kelsey In these COVID times, we’re just going to get some takeout. But there’s still a lot of hustle and bustle here. People in masks talking, meeting, laughing, catching up, living their lives while socially distancing.
Elin Kelsey You know but I do hear, like down around the corner it sounds like there’s some people having a good time. I just finished teaching a class so I could really enjoy that.
Elin Kelsey We end up picking a place to eat based on the cues of other people, people who have made this choice before and sound like they’re happy with it.
Pretty much everybody tends to go where the sounds are the most welcoming. And it’s the same underwater, too.
Seals and sea lions listen for the sounds of the fish they love to eat. Some fish, in turn, listen for the rustling swimming sounds of the little plankton they find delicious.
When it comes to finding food, there’s a particular group of whales that aren’t content with just passive listening. They use sound as a tool to zero in on their food.
Elin Kelsey Those clicks you hear? Those are the echolocation clicks of a hunting killer whale. And that silence? That’s the sound of a salmon getting chomped.
John Ford In the case of killer whales the detection of a chinook salmon in the distance acoustically with their sonar, we’ve calculated or estimated that they might detect a salmon with their echolocation, maybe at about 100 meters range in quiet conditions.
Elin Kelsey John Ford is a legendary killer whale researcher who’s been studying the sounds killer whales make, and the importance of sound to killer whale culture, for many decades. If anyone knows about the resident killer whales hunting fish along the BC coast, it’s him.
John tells me that resident killer whales actively adjust the energy distribution of their echolocation clicks depending on whether they’re orienting to their surroundings or zooming in on a tasty fish.
John Ford I think that they are so acoustically sophisticated and capable that when they come into an area and they’re using their social calls—their dialects to keep in touch and so on, or even their sonar clicks—that these all have a pattern of reverberation that is unique to a particular place, and I really believe this plays a huge role in the animals use of their habitat and recognition of where they are, their orientation, and it is by these multitude of, sort of, I guess, passive feedbacks they get from their acoustic environment.
Elin Kelsey Imagine being able to “see” your way through pitch black darkness by listening to ambient sounds and by producing and listening for echolocation clicks.
Well, it turns out that people can learn to use echolocation, too.
Daniel Kish I was born with retinoblastoma, which is cancer of the eyes. My eyes were removed by about the time I was a year old. By about the age of 15 to 18 months, I began clicking—or so I’m told. That click allows me, as a blind person, to see.
Elin Kelsey That’s Daniel Kish speaking at La Ciudad de las Ideas festival in 2015. He sees his environment as a series of images created in his mind based on what he hears using echolocation clicks he produces with his mouth.
Daniel Kish Recent brain scans of myself and some people I’ve worked with have shown that when you learn this technique it is the visual brain that is processing the sound. So, it’s not just what we hear, it is what we see in our brain. That was a revolutionary finding to brain science.
Elin Kelsey Daniel is so accomplished at producing clicks and listening for their echoes in much the same way killer whales, sperm whales, belugas, and other toothed whales do, that he’s able to hike unfamiliar terrain and even to ride a bike.
One of the most extreme examples of ocean animals using sound for wayfinding happens in a place called Cook Inlet, in Alaska.
Ami Kingdon Well, the first thing about Cook Inlet that you notice, that is very striking even above the water is that it is completely opaque. The water basically looks like a latte or like chocolate milk. The inlet is completely surrounded by this mountain range and all these streams are running off the mountains, all the time eroding away the land. We talk about how sound is very important underwater because vision is limited. Here, it’s not even a factor.
Elin Kelsey Ami Kingdon, our fearless podcast producer, traveled to Cook Inlet to report on a remarkable group of belugas who live in this complicated Arctic environment all year round. It’s not just the dark, frigid, opaque water they have to contend with, it’s the tides.
Ami Kingdon Cook Inlet has one of the highest tides in the world. Imagine that you’ve got this incredibly cold, very opaque and dark water, and the depth of it changes but you’re a beluga and you eat salmon and those salmon are coming out of all these stream mouths all along the edge of the inlet. So, you’re playing this game of timing, the whole time. And all of these creeks are rimmed by these sucking, spreading mudflats. And if you’re a beluga and you’re up there and the water drops, and you don’t know exactly what channel to swim out on, you’re going to get stranded and that actually happens a lot up there.
Elin Kelsey Cook Inlet belugas live in a funhouse of constantly shifting and changing conditions.
They navigate, using their superpower—sound.
Ami Kingdon And they are so good at finding their way around this inlet, they were constantly using that high pitched sound to sense the depth and they were constantly using—I’m not even sure what sense, honestly—to judge when the tides changed. And as they are swimming up there they are using their sonar to hunt for food that’s coming out and watch for branches and stuff that’s tumbling around.
Elin Kelsey Belugas are exceptionally vocal whales with a huge repertoire of sounds. They produce echolocation clicks, all kinds of whistles and pulse calls, and signature calls that help them identify one another in a noisy crowd. Belugas make all these sounds despite having no vocal cords. They “speak” through nasal sacs near their blowholes. In essence, they talk through their noses.
Ami Kingdon They make a lot of sounds above the water with their blowholes. They actually have little structures in their blowholes like we have in our throats and they are called phonic lips. They can make an insane array of sounds. I mean, it sounded like somebody throwing something down a culvert or some cats fighting and like a trombone. So, while I am listening to this ridiculous playful cacophony above the water, underwater you can hear a whole different range of sounds that they are making: the clicks and the buzzes and the whistles that are these high-pitched wayfinding sounds.
Elin Kelsey Ami is clearly in awe of belugas.
Ami Kingdon One of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen, in all of my time reporting, was what happened when—we were kind of getting towards the end of this whole stakeout, if you will; the tide was going to start rising again. We looked it up on our sophisticated tide tables that NOAA puts out. And so we knew that the tide was going to change at, I believe it was 6:43 that day, and all of a sudden, all the belugas, suddenly just started to swim away. And the researcher I was with says, “I betcha the tide just changed.” And so I pulled out my iPhone and I looked at the clock and it was to the minute, to the minute that the tide changed, that these belugas had sensed this.
Elin Kelsey Belugas are so completely dependent on sound that over millions of years, they’ve actually evolved a rather wonky skull shape to support their remarkable melons. Researchers at the Natural History Museum in London study the evolution of wonkiness. They say toothed whales, like belugas and killer whales, began to develop wonky skulls about 30 million years ago as they evolved the ability to echolocate in complex places.
And wonkiness is on the rise! Whales living in complicated acoustic environments, like the belugas in Cook Inlet, rely so heavily on echolocation they are developing ever more lopsided heads.
Next time you walk in your front door, take a moment to notice the familiar noises that tell you that you’re home.
And then, spare a moment to marvel—whether it’s listening for the loud snaps of a healthy coral reef or the crush of ice forming in the Arctic, at this very moment, animals all over the ocean are doing exactly the same thing.
They are listening to the sounds of home.
In the next episode of The Sound Aquatic: The Ocean and the Anthropause, we’ll immerse you in the sexy side of ocean sounds as we explore the crazy loud dating scene of plainfin midshipmen and what may turn out to be the chaste love songs of fin whales.
We’d like to thank Shima Abadi at the University of Washington, Isabelle Cote at Simon Fraser University, Francis Juanes of the University of Victoria, John Ford, scientist emeritus at Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
This episode of The Sound Aquatic: The Ocean and the Anthropause was produced by Ami Kingdon, Katrina Pyne, and me, Elin Kelsey.
Our theme music is by Tobin Stokes. The team also includes Adrienne Mason, Jude Isabella, and fact checker Megan Osmond-Jones.
We are an endeavor of Hakai Magazine and are produced on the shores of the Salish Sea in Victoria, British Columbia.
Episode 3: Plenty of Fish
Swiping right in the deep blue sea.
Ah, l’amour. Finding a mate is a big part of life for all animals and those beneath the waves are no exception. Of course, this search for love often involves—you guessed it—sounds. From the booming grunt of a fish trying to lure a lucky lady to his lair, to the mournful moan of a whale, sending out deep, loud sounds across ocean basins to potential mates from far, far away, this episode of The Sound Aquatic listens in on love beneath the waves.
Kieran Cox It’s a very low, like a hmmmmm. These calls can last for hours and the humming will go all night.
Elin Kelsey That person you hear, trying to be heard above the din of hums? That’s Kieran Cox, a PhD student at the University of Victoria. Chances are, you’ve had your own experience with noisy late night neighbors.
Kieran Cox And so it wasn’t until the ’80s when people were complaining about all this humming that was showing up at their houseboats and was it the navy or was it …
Elin Kelsey No, it wasn’t the navy. Turns out that crazy-loud humming was made by … fish. Plainfin midshipman to be more exact. Talkative fish, singing fish, canary fish … Indigenous communities living along the Pacific coast use many different names to convey the remarkable vocal capacity of breeding male midshipman.
The fact that fish, who rarely get bigger than the length of a stick of butter, make such loud noises caught the collective imagination of podcast producers Ami Kingdon and Kat Pyne and me.
Amy Kingdon It’s weird, it’s not a human, a quibble …
Elin Kelsey And those muscles that they have around their swim bladder that’s, that’s so that they can expand … surface and sink?
Ami Kingdon It’s actually to make noise.
Elin Kelsey So it’s acoustic, on purpose?
Ami Kingdon It’s like vocal cords. Yeah.
Elin Kelsey Wow. Yeah. But it’s in their bodies. It’s not anywhere near their throats.
Ami Kingdon No, it’s like, if you could make your stomach rumble a little bit on command.
Elin Kelsey As a pickup line.
Ami Kingdon As a pickup line, but you know, I’m sure there’s people that are into that. I know it’s one of those things that you hope doesn’t happen when you’re trying to pick people up.
Elin Kelsey Wow. So sound is hugely important to fish.
Ami Kingdon Hugely important.
Kat Pyne You know, and if at first your pickup line does not succeed, you have to remember, there’s plenty of fish in the sea.
Elin Kelsey When it comes to mating, fish—like birds—break into song. And, male midshipman aren’t the only fish using sounds to attract females. In fact, each year, the Colorado River delta comes alive with the deafening sound of millions of male Gulf corvina fish.
By rapidly beating their swim bladders with their sonic muscles, the males involved in this massive fish orgy create one of the loudest collective animal sounds ever recorded—it’s literally as loud as standing next to the stage at a rock concert.
[LOUD CROWD APPLAUSE]
Elin Kelsey My name is Elin Kelsey, and you are listening to episode three of The Sound Aquatic: The Ocean and the Anthropause. You may want to reach out and hug someone close because this episode is all about how ocean animals—everyone from fin whales to Arctic cod—use sounds to find that perfect mate.
[DAWN CHORUS OF BIRDS]
Elin Kelsey Ah, the dawn chorus. A sure sign of spring, and the start of an annual competition where male birds do their best to sing out their rivals and attract females.
Turns out fish do the same thing underwater, but with added complexity. Robert McCauley, professor of marine science at Curtin University in Australia, says some male fish not only call for mates, they do it while they are actively dispersing sperm during spawning.
Some choruses sing out in the day. Others call into the night.
Robert McCauley The fish choruses we record can be really amazing. You see some really strange things. For example, we did a trip down the west Australian coast, the middle of last year 2020, and we were deploying sonar buoys along the way every four hours. We passed a part of the coast, the Abrolhos Islands, and we had two fish choruses distinctly different, they were spatially separated. And then both of the choruses appeared to go around in big circles. I haven’t analyzed it properly, but it suggests either the fish school was moving, but it would have to have been moving quite rapidly to get the arcs we saw, or the sound was traveling through the fish chorus in a wave, like a Mexican wave in a stadium type thing. It just went around. So we just continually see phenomena like that which has never been reported before so it’s really, really interesting.
Elin Kelsey Lots of people appreciated the sound of birds singing in the quiet of COVID-19 lockdowns, and that got Kat, Ami, and me wondering if a similar thing was happening in the ocean. Was it easier for fish to find mates when the anthropause made coastal waters much quieter?
Elin Kelsey So I wonder right now during this anthropause where things are so much quieter because of COVID, less shipping, less everything. I wonder if it’s like a real bumper year for fish breeding.
Ami Kingdon I bet it probably is. Well, if you think about it, like you’re in a crowded bar and you’re trying to like, you know, sing your ballad to your lady friend over there in the corner, you know, your voice is going to carry a lot better if everyone’s a little bit quieter. So she’s going to hear you a lot better.
Elin Kelsey Wow.
Kat Pyne Otherwise you’re trying to yell across the bar. You look hot, what’s your number?
Elin Kelsey Turns out our playful banter was bang on.
Francis Juanes It’s called the cocktail party effect or the Lombard Effect that humans experience, in the days when we used to go to loud parties, that you find yourself talking louder in order to be heard. So fish do this, marine mammals do this, and they sometimes can speak at a different frequency so that their sound can be noticed by their conspecifics.
Elin Kelsey Francis Juanes, a professor of fisheries at the University of Victoria, is explaining how those humming midshipmen actually have to call louder and at a higher frequency to try to make themselves heard above noisy ships.
Francis Juanes So our most recent work is on a really wonderful species called the midshipman fish. This is a deep-sea fish that comes up into the intertidal on all our beaches in BC and a male builds a nest under a rock and starts humming this very particular call that it has …
and it uses this hum to attract females. And so we’ve done this experiment where we had artificial noise and showed that the male had to call louder and a different frequency. And we’re following up with experiments to see what the long-term effects of noise are because the male sits in the nest for a couple of months at a time and doesn’t feed for all that time. And so we think that noise is going to have a really important effect on this species.
Elin Kelsey Yeah. And that’s a sound that I bet a lot of people listening know, even though they might not realize it. That incredible humming sound. If you’ve been lucky enough to sleep on a boat, you know, along our coast, in the breeding season.
Francis Juanes Right. And it happens at a frequency that is quite low, but it’s the same frequency that a lot of the ship noise occurs at. So, there’s a potential for masking to be particularly important as well.
Elin Kelsey To a midshipmen, yelling louder than the crowd is an essential part of romance.
Reminds me of the iconic scene from the classic movie Rocky where our hero proves his strength in the boxing ring. He stands battered and bruised in the middle of the crowd, in the spotlight, and yet there’s just one thing on his mind.
[CLIP FROM THE MOVIE ROCKY]
Elin Kelsey Surprisingly, midshipmen are following a very similar plot line.
Kieran Cox Yeah, oh yeah, biting, you know stabbing with spines, like essentially wrestling—it’s a very brutal encounter.
Elin Kelsey All this violence, simply to hold onto the best nesting site from which to call a prospective mate.
Kieran Cox You’re this midshipman, April has hit, you enter the intertidal. You need to find a location that is going to be suitable for you. This should be a place where there’s going to be some sort of rocky outcrop where you can dig a burrow essentially and establish a good nest that you can defend. You then have to dig it, clean it all out, set yourself into this place, and then you have to defend it.
So I am sitting in my nest and I’m basically yelling, “I’m a great guy,” “I’ll look after your young,” “This is a great habitat,” “You should certainly come here,” “Don’t listen to those other guys,” “This is where you want to be.”
Elin Kelsey To a female plainfin midshipman, what matters is how impressive that male sounds.
Kieran Cox You have 400 eggs and you have to try to ensure that the maximum number of your potential offspring make it. So how do you do it? Right if you put them all in one nest, even if it’s a great male and the acoustics were incredible, what if he gets eaten by an eagle the next day? But if you could span that out and you give the top 10 males all some eggs, right, or you gave them out at different times, you can set up this scenario in which location, acoustics, male quality, all of these things are interacting and females being choosey is you know, to the better of the species.
Elin Kelsey In other words, the females are using the sound the males make to place their bets in a high stakes game of baby fish survivor roulette.
Sizing up another by the sound of their voice may sound slightly fishy, but it’s something you have in common with midshipman, perhaps without even realizing it.
Jordan Raine, a researcher at the vocal communication lab at the University of Sussex in England, studied how well we can estimate a person’s strength just by listening to the sound of their … well … roar.
Jordan Raine Historical accounts indicate that soldiers have roared in battle throughout history all the way through from the Roman army to the Red Army, we see it in various sports, whether it’s the New Zealand rugby team’s haka, or in wrestling. And also the US National Park Service even recommends roaring as a defense strategy against bears.
Elin Kelsey Jordan had actors, one at a time, roar at him at the top of their lungs in a small room. (The actors were told to imagine themselves in a war scenario where they were charging at the enemy.)
After collecting the sounds, he measured the actors’ height and body strength by taking an amalgamated measure of their hand-grip strength and bicep circumference.
He then played the recordings to about 100 listeners and asked them to judge whether the actor in the recording was stronger or weaker than them or taller or shorter than them.
Jordan Raine And under these conditions, we found that listeners are actually really good at judging strength and height from the voice.
Elin Kelsey When it comes to strong, powerful voices, no animal can rival blue whales and fin whales—the world’s biggest whales. We used to think blue whales and fin whales were solitary, but now scientists believe they use their loud, deep calls to hook up across distances too vast for us to see.
Just imagine how difficult it is to study the dating scene of a whale who may be thousands of kilometers out at sea and whose voice is so deep, you can barely hear it.
Erica Escajeda Unless you find a very, very loud example and then you have to have over-the-ear headphones turned up and then it just, it feels kind of like a, it was more like a feeling of vibration, and I call it a purr almost, ’cause that’s what it sounds like, a really deep purr.
Elin Kelsey Erica Escajeda is a PhD student working with the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington. She’s studying whether fin whales are moving into Arctic waters as a result of climate change. Of course, her first challenge is trying to find these elusive, giant whales.
One of the key ways she does that is by tracking what she suspects may be their love songs.
Erica Escajeda Because we’re so familiar with humpbacks, we think of these really intricate songs with different phrasings in there, but with fin whales it is very simple, it’s just “pulse, pulse, pulse, rest, pulse, pulse, pulse.” And those have actually been determined to be songs.
[FIN WHALE CALL OVER LOVE SONG]
Elin Kelsey We sped up that recording of a fin whale singing so you could hear him.
Instead of listening to the songs male fin whales sing, Erica uses a computer program that translates the sounds into pictures called spectrograms.
Erica Escajeda It’s kind of a lot like watching static TV. You see a lot of static, which is the background noise, but occasionally you’ll see a little, a little blip or, in the case of the fin whales, swoops and little squiggly lines, and then I’ll stop and listen to that, and I realize, oh, that has a humpback whale moan or, that’s a fin whale pulse or a gray whale moan. So, you come to recognize the shapes that you see visually as the calls. So luckily that, even though I can’t hear fin whale calls very well, I can see them very clearly.
There’s been recent research to show that blue whales in particular can change the frequency of their calls. In fact, we’ve been seeing lower frequency calls in recent years.
Elin Kelsey My thoughts immediately turn to ships. Big noisy ships. Are blue whales lowering their mating calls to try to be heard over ocean noise pollution?
Erica Escajeda And so when they were evolving and they settled on this low frequency behavior, there’s nothing else in the ocean that was making sounds at that frequency band. It was an acoustic niche, if you will, that was completely open to them. However, now with shipping, a ship noise, a lot of ship noise, is in that exact frequency band that they use to communicate, and so perhaps the whales are responding to that increase in lower frequency noise and then thus lowering that frequency of their calls.
Elin Kelsey Erica shares a more hopeful theory, too.
Erica Escajeda Another theory for why they’re changing their frequency is that these whales are recovering from overharvest due to commercial whaling, so perhaps there’s more competition, now there is more of them, and they have to distinguish themselves somehow and lower the frequency of their calls in response.
[BLUE WHALE CALL OVER LOVE SONG]
Elin Kelsey My heart leaps at the thought of blue whale and fin whale populations beginning to recover. And the idea that as their numbers grow, some males might be choosing to sing at lower frequencies to stand out from competitors who are singing higher frequency songs. I think of them sending their love songs far and wide across the ocean.
Erica Escajeda Under ideal propagation conditions in the ocean, blue and fin whales can be heard across like 1,300 kilometers in an ocean basin, so it could be as short as maybe 56 kilometers depending on where you are to as long as like 1,000 kilometers. And so, depending on if those whale calls somehow enter what’s known as the SOFAR channel, then those calls can potentially travel across the entire ocean basins easily.
Elin Kelsey The SOFAR channel? It turns out it isn’t just romance carrying those voices, its physics. The SOFAR channel is a layer of water about a kilometer below the surface of the ocean. Here, the temperature and pressure of the water converge to create the ideal conditions for sound waves to travel.
Blue whales and fin whales use this deep-water channel to propel their booming voices sometimes 1,300 kilometers across an ocean basin.
According to researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, blue whales actively dive deeper when they are singing. By changing the depth, they change the distance over which they are communicating. Whereas individual calls are probably used to communicate with animals nearby, their deep-water songs can reach whales much farther away.
As John Calambokidis of the Cascadia Research Collective puts it, blue whale sounds are simply, astonishing.
John Calambokidis You know, blue whales produce one of the loudest sounds of any animal and it can travel for tens—and in the right circumstance—hundreds or thousands of miles.
The main fundamental frequency is below our hearing. It was still—the upper harmonics would sound really low to us—were still loud enough to knock my socks off. Listening for whales or hearing whales has always been a really thrilling part of my work.
Elin Kelsey It’s easy to get lost in the details of sound waves, and to forget how much super basic information we still don’t know about ocean animals—even ones as big as two and a half school buses.
Erica Escajeda One of the things I’m really interested in studying is kind of the onset of singing and when does it start in relation to the breeding season. Unfortunately, we don’t really know much about fin whale breeding behavior. We don’t know where they breed, when they breed. There are some hypotheses that they perhaps breed as they’re migrating south or even in the feeding grounds and then start migrating. But we don’t know for sure.
To our knowledge, we have no evidence to show that females make any sounds, which is really interesting to me.
Elin Kelsey In the Arctic, where Erica is studying fin whales, Arctic cod—a single type of fish—make up a whopping 75 percent of all the energy that moves from tiny zooplankton to seals, belugas, and seabirds. Arctic cod are a huge deal to the entire Arctic ocean ecosystem.
They are super cool fish—in fact they literally produce their own antifreeze proteins. They’ve been studied a lot. Yet it was only in 2018 that scientists discovered Arctic cod make sounds, as our producer Ami Kingdon discovered when she spoke with Matt Pine, a researcher with the University of Victoria.
Matt Pine Well, ones that have been described are mostly grunts, and grunts are quite sort of literally what they sound like, it’s like a grunt.
And a knock is just like a knock, like if you knock on a door or something like that is very short, it’s a bang bang bang.
Ami Kingdon Like a [knock sound] kind of noise?
Matt Pine Yeah, exactly, yeah. That kind of knocking sound. Yeah, and a grunt is just like … kinda growl literally like a grunt and I mean they’re not particularly loud, that’s the thing that was interesting to learn is these fish are quite cryptic in the sound production.
[RINGED SEAL SOUND]
Elin Kelsey Matt isn’t the only one listening for Arctic cod. Seals, like the ringed seal you just heard, are listening, too. And that presents a dilemma from a male Arctic cod’s point of view. Do you sing out to attract a mate in the dead of winter, in the dark Arctic ocean where sound is the only way a female can find you, or do you stay quiet to avoid being gulped by a hungry seal?
Matt Pine Seals are pretty good at eavesdropping on their prey, so as soon as a fish makes a sound, its location is now known. So, it’s not really in their advantage to make too many sounds in terms of being picked off by hungry ringed seals, but when it comes time to breeding, the trade-off between passing your genes on versus being eaten is good enough for them to risk it.
Elin Kelsey But what happens when ocean noise pollution forces Arctic cod to sing even louder or more frequently just to make themselves heard by potential mates? That’s the frightening scenario Matt’s work is really all about.
Arctic sea ice is disappearing rapidly as a result of climate change. As the water opens up, it brings more ship traffic, and the noise pollution that comes with it.
Matt Pine Yeah, that’s sort of our main sort of concern at the moment is what does 2050 have in store? I say 2050 because by 2050, the models are predicting that in the summertime, that Northwest Passage, that area of water between sort of eastern Canada all the way up over the top past Alaska and the Chukchi into the Pacific, will be ice-free in the summertime, so now we’ll be able to send ships and freight right over the top of the Americas instead of either through the Middle East or South or Central America through the Panama Canal, which is obviously hugely advantageous economic-wise, but what that means is the soundscape is going to change quite drastically in the next coming, you know, couple of decades.
Matt Pine Up in the North, it’s sort of that last untouched area. You know it’s still very quiet, it’s probably some of the quietest waters in the world.
Elin Kelsey I think of what Matt is saying about Arctic cod: that if you’re small, sound can give you away and get you eaten. It’s amazing to me that all these sounds are necessary. Each croak is a risk, each grunt is a gamble, and the stakes are your genes’ chance at getting passed on.
Matt Pine Essentially all species, in some way or another, some shape or form, depend on sound at some stages during their life, because it is that one cue that travels in all directions over hundreds of kilometers with minimal attenuation, unlike light and smell and vibrations, that now we’re starting to be concerned about the changes to a soundscape.
From the zooplankton that use sound as orientation cues to the fish that use them to avoid predators to find mates, to the marine mammals that use sound to eavesdrop on their prey and use vocalizations to maintain their group when they navigate, everything is linked to that soundscape.
Elin Kelsey The ocean is filled not just with noises, or sounds, but with voices. All of these creatures calling out to each other, trying to attract one another and communicate something critical. I think back to the soundscapes of reefs, and suddenly, it seems less like a din, and more like a song. Maybe a collection of songs. The ocean is a living collection of love songs.
Tune into episode four to hear the tender whispers of whale baby talk. Join us as we unravel how the sounds ocean animals make both shape and reveal the remarkable cultures that exist beneath the waves.
We’d like to thank Kieran Cox at the University of Victoria, Robert McCauley at Curtin University, Francis Juanes of the University of Victoria, Jordan Raine at the University of Sussex, Erica Escajeda at the University of Washington, John Calambokidis from the Cascadia Research Collective, Matt Pine with the University of Victoria, and Shima Abadi at the University of Washington.
Thank you to CBC Radio’s Quirks & Quarks for the use of their recording.
This episode of The Sound Aquatic: The Ocean and the Anthropause was produced by Ami Kingdon, Katrina Pyne, and me, Elin Kelsey.
Our theme music is by Tobin Stokes. The team also includes Adrienne Mason, Jude Isabella, and fact checker Megan Osmond-Jones.
We are an endeavor of Hakai Magazine and are produced on the shores of the Salish Sea in Victoria, British Columbia.
Episode 4: Learning to Speak Whale
Whale clans teach and transmit culture using their own unique dialects.
“Culture” is a tricky thing to define—anthropologists still don’t totally agree what comes under its umbrella. But by any measure, it’s getting clearer and clearer that humans aren’t the only ones who have it. And below the waves you’ll find some of the most famous and mysterious nonhuman cultures of all.
What were the 1970s without the iconic recordings of Roger Payne on the vinyl album Songs of the Humpback Whale? In episode four, we gave you a preview of these recordings but for your relaxed listening pleasure, find the full album here.
In this episode, we followed the work of Carole Hyacinthe, a research fellow at Harvard Medical School who studies the acoustic culture of blind Astyanax cavefish in Mexico using infrared cameras paired with hydrophones. To gain access to these cavefish, Hyacinthe (shown in the blue helmet in the photos below) rappels down a 68-meter rope into the cave. Photos below by Sylvie Rétaux.
The audio of Hyacinthe’s cavefish recordings was used under the following Creative Common license: DOI: NATURE COMMUNICATIONS| (2019) 10:4231
Elin Kelsey Baby talk. It’s an enchanting language.
[SOUND OF HUMAN BABIES AND MOTHERS FROM DIFFERENT CULTURES SPEAKING BABY TALK]
Elin Kelsey No matter what culture you grew up in, you learned to speak this way, too—by listening to your mother or the people you live with. The same is true for resident killer whales in the Salish Sea along the west coast of British Columbia and Washington State.
[SOUNDS OF BABY RESIDENT KILLER WHALES]
Elin Kelsey Baby resident killer whales learn their pod dialects from their mothers and their close kin. Surprisingly, not many other animals do this.
John Ford Whales are among the very few mammals that have the ability to learn sounds that they hear in their environment and to reproduce them.
And so that ability of the animals kind of opens the door to, I think, more advanced ways of using sound underwater to keep in touch over long distances, to have a family badge that indicates who that animal is because it’s learned the particular sounds from its mother and its close kin. And by learning that, they acquire and keep that dialect, it seems, for their lifetime.
Elin Kelsey My name is Elin Kelsey, and you are listening to episode four of The Sound Aquatic: The Ocean and the Anthropause.
It’s 2021, and everyone is talking about cultural diversity.
[BLACK LIVES MATTER CHANT AND ANTI-ASIAN HATE CRIME NEWS CLIP]
Elin Kelsey Culture drives every aspect of our human societies.
Believe it or not, there is culture in the ocean, too. In this episode, we’ll be exploring how the sounds that ocean animals make both shape and reveal the remarkable cultures that exist beneath the waves.
Elin Kelsey Dr. John Ford has been listening to resident killer whales for more than 40 years. He’s the person who discovered the role that vocalizations play in the cultural evolution of these whales.
Culture shapes what and how killer whales eat, what they do for fun, even their choice of mates.
Elin Kelsey I know John, when I first knew you, your ability to hear those different dialects was so attuned that in the early days, you were much stronger than a computer. Is that still true?
John Ford So, well, my ears aren’t what … My ears aren’t what they used to be, unfortunately, because too many years in noisy boats has damaged my hearing, and I can’t quite hear those high frequencies like I used to, but I’m working with some very talented young colleagues and students who have really good hearing and it’s a bit depressing when they’ll bring something up on the computer screen and say, “Hey, listen to this, will you,” and I put the headphones on and hear nothing! So I say, “Well, could you turn it up a little bit?”
Elin Kelsey Before we go any further, it might be helpful to have a quick killer whale refresher.
[RINGING SCHOOL BELL]
Killer whales are second only to humans as the most widely distributed mammals on Earth. They inhabit all of the world’s oceans.
In biodiversity-rich areas, scientists have discovered different types of killer whales with distinct cultures sharing the same waters.
For example, three distinct types of killer whales live off the west coast of Canada and the United States. These resident, transient, and offshore killer whales are all the same species yet they have very different cultures. They live in distinct social groups, practice different greeting ceremonies, have different vocal dialects, and hunt different prey.
Transients (also known as Bigg’s killer whales) eat marine mammals—seals, sea lions, and porpoises. They travel in small, quiet groups that rely on stealth to find their prey.
We know the least about offshore killer whales, but we think they eat mostly fish. They travel in big groups, 30-strong, and they’re noisy! They like to talk a lot.
The best understood of the three types are the resident killer whales that John was talking about. Resident killer whales live in close-knit family groups led by the oldest adult female. Both males and females remain in their resident pods for their entire lives.
What’s fascinating is that transient and resident killer whales never interbreed. Genetic differences between the two types go back at least 700,000 years. This genetic separation is driven by cultural differences, and as John is about to explain, one of the main ways those cultural differences are maintained is through sound.
Each resident pod has its own unique dialect made up of about a dozen discrete calls.
John Ford It’s somewhat like learning a human language, I think, in that there’s a lot of nuances in the sounds that are important to be able to make those identifications of what’s actually being said or being called by the whales.
Elin Kelsey You’re a very unique person in the sense that you have a 40-year fluency listening to a specific population. Are there things that you’re constantly listening for now that you weren’t before … as your fluency has increased and your understanding because of that fluency?
John Ford Well, what I’m really curious about is why these family-specific repertoires of calls are so persistent. They made recordings back in the early 1950s of killer whales. They had no idea who or what type—of course we didn’t know anything about them in those days—but they sound just basically the same as they do today. This one recording …
Elin Kelsey Listen to how similar this call from 1958 …
[KILLER WHALE CALL]
Elin Kelsey … sounds to this recording from 60 years later in 2018.
[VERY SIMILAR KILLER WHALE CALL]
John Ford For females in a matrifocal society like the resident killer whales, they’re the dominant animals, and so anybody in her group is not very likely to change the dialect because she’s the matriarch. Granny is still making those sounds. And so I think we need to look at killer whale dialects in terms of cultural generations in a way, rather than biological generations, which might be only 20, 25 years, but a cultural generation would be the time period that a matriarch would have social influence and dominance over her group, and perhaps when she dies, maybe they’ll be some sort of accelerated change in the dialect, but so far, most of the key calls sound just the same today as they did back then.
Elin Kelsey John tells me that the transient killer whales, unlike the residents, have a much more dynamic and fluid social system. They share a particular set of sounds across the whole population. They don’t seem to have family-specific dialects, probably because they don’t have permanent families.
John Ford But within the resident form, they are very unusual animals in many respects because they kind of break a lot of the social rules. As far as we’ve seen in 45, almost 50 years of monitoring the population here on the west coast, no individuals have ever been seen to leave the group into which they were born and join another group. Which raises the question: how do they prevent inbreeding?
Elin Kelsey Resident killer whale females prevent inbreeding with closely related males by choosing mates with “foreign accents.”
John Ford Males will mate with females or females will accept mating males from outside the kin group. It’s likely that the dialect serves as an outbreeding mechanism. So whales might be attracted to mating partners that have a foreign accent if you like.
Elin Kelsey By choosing males whose calls do not sound like their own, resident killer whale females can engage in healthy genetic mixing and live as permanent members of tight-knit family groups.
John Ford So it’s kind of an amazing system that is, I think, without precedent. It’s taken many decades to really unravel.
Elin Kelsey I asked John how he got the openness of mind to recognize how killer whale vocalizations manifest this unique culture.
John Ford When it became apparent over the early years of this work that these were essentially acoustic cultures—culture being behavioral traditions that are passed on across generations by learning—then it became a little tricky again because as soon as you start talking about nonhuman cultures, some people don’t really accept that.
Elin Kelsey John found his courage to claim killer whales had cultures by leaning on scientists that were listening to birds.
John Ford And I was emboldened to do that because the bird scientists, people studying bird song, were using those terms. And nobody really raised an eyebrow, but as soon as it was with another mammal, then there was more scrutiny. And now, of course, through a lot of efforts by some of my esteemed colleagues, like Hal Whitehead for example, has really been the leading champion of showing the importance of culture in the lives of cetaceans. He studies sperm whales primarily and they are very cultural in what they do. And there’s been a real increase in interest and awareness in recent years of the importance of culture in conservation. A lot of reliance is placed on traditional knowledge that is passed on across generations, or within, laterally, among different populations and it’s really important to preserve these cultures.
Elin Kelsey The trouble with making a podcast in a pandemic is that when a researcher sends you a file of crazy cool sounds, you’ve just got to share them, which means when your daughter comes into the kitchen for a drink …
Elin Kelsey All of these sounds are made by the same ocean animal.
[ELIN’S DAUGHTER REACTING TO DIFFERENT WALRUS SOUNDS]
Elin Kelsey Those unbelievable sounds? All made by, yep, walruses.
And those are just the sounds they make above the water.
Isabelle Cote You will not believe what walruses sound like underwater!
Elin Kelsey Remember Isabelle Cote? The researcher we met in episode two who studies how baby fish find their way to healthy coral reefs by listening? Turns out she did her master’s research on walrus vocalizations in the north. Here she is explaining what she found to our producer, Ami Kingdon.
Isabelle Cote My project was supposed to be, to look at whether you could identify individuals from their vocalizations. It’s a series of knocks like [she knocks on desk] and then they strum like [dring!] like a guitar and they make a bell sound. I could recognize individuals and that there were regional dialects. I got recordings from two or three places in the Arctic and they sounded different.
Elin Kelsey Male walruses modify the patterns of their underwater songs and change what they are singing over the course of a few breeding seasons.
The ability of male walruses to create new songs over time is reminiscent of the most famous underwater singers in the ocean—male humpback whales.
[HUMPBACK WHALE CALLS]
Elin Kelsey That iconic recording is off the vinyl album Songs of the Humpback Whale. Released in 1970, it’s still the best-selling environmental album in history—and it’s credited with helping to kick off the modern day environmental movement.
The album was the brainchild of the eminent scientist Roger Payne. He and his then-wife, Katy Payne, were also musicians, which enabled them to recognize that the seasonal sounds male humpback whales were making were actually songs.
Christopher Clark, Katy’s long-time friend and colleague at Cornell University, describes what it took for them back in the 1960s to prove that humpbacks really were creating songs made up of persistent and repeating patterns of notes.
Christopher Clark To build that image, Katy and Roger had to use a machine that would produce a picture on a piece of paper that showed just a two-and-a-half second voiceprint. They made hundreds of these individual pieces of paper and taped them together into long strips and put these strips in rows, one above the other up on the side of their barn, and when they stood back and looked, voila. They could see the pattens they were hearing when they listened. They could see the song as a musical pattern.
[HUMPBACK WHALE SONG]
Elin Kelsey Humpback whales as far apart as Mexico, Hawai‘i, Japan, and the Philippines essentially sing the same song—and each year it is a different song.
According to Katy, populations of singers progressively and collectively change the sounds and patterns within their songs throughout their lives and across generations.
Katy Payne But if you keep listening for months on end, and then for years on end, you discover that the song—each facet of it—is continually evolving to something slightly different. And all the whales in the ocean—or in that singing population—are changing their song in the same way. So that was something I discovered, and at the end of the day, I had studied 32 years’ worth of songs, many of them in two different populations.
Elin Kelsey There’s a lot about the way humpbacks riff off each other’s songs that reminds me of the sea shanty craze on TikTok.
[SEA SHANTY SONG]
Some say singing sea shanties helped folks weather the COVID-19 lockdowns. Whatever the reason, millions of folks added their own twists to old classics just as humpback whales build on each other’s songs.
[SEA SHANTY SONG]
Elin Kelsey In just the past few years, studies of humpback whales living in the North Pacific Ocean reveal that population groups—once thought to be discrete—actually mix and mingle far more than previously thought. Once again, the evidence came by listening to their songs. Male humpback whales are actively interacting, literally remixing each other’s songs.
Listen carefully to this group of male humpback whales singing. The song starts with just one whale, but then a second and possibly a third one joins in.
[HUMPBACK WHALES SINGING]
Elin Kelsey You can hear the lower, more distant tones in the background which definitely indicates more than one whale.
Those male humpbacks sang this collective song late at night, in the late fall of 2018 close to the Fin Island Research Station located in Gitga’at Territory, Hartley Bay, BC. Here’s how Janie Wray, the lead researcher at the station, describes what she heard.
Janie Wray It’s pretty amazing to listen to a humpback whale compose a song. One whale will start up, maybe with just a simple up-down swooping-like call, he’s really just practicing at first, changing one bit or another. But then another whale will pipe in. And that whale may add just a soft “woop,” but then the timing changes. Two or three whales may do this together like musicians jamming, and it can all sound really random at first, but then suddenly it evolves into this long beautiful song that can truly melt your heart.
Elin Kelsey By tracing the origins and mixing of the songs, scientists are gaining a better understanding of the complexities of humpback whale culture.
Populations across the North Pacific are clumping up and splitting apart at different times in response to where their prey is or what the ocean temperature is or things we don’t even know yet. And, the same thing is happening in the southern hemisphere. Acknowledging these diverse cultures is necessary to understand and protect humpback whales.
If a population is actually comprised of different cultural groups, then conservation efforts that treat all humpback whales as if they are the same are insufficient and could lead to a loss of diversity.
Happily, the population of humpback whales is rapidly growing along the BC coast. In 2004, 42 individual humpback whales were identified in the Caamaño Sound to Douglas Channel region of the north coast. By the end of 2016, 10 times that number—420 individual humpback whales—were regularly using that area.
Humpback whale numbers further south, in the Salish Sea are also increasing. Humpback whale moms actively share their cultural connections to this historically important habitat with their calves, as John Calambokidis of the Cascadia Research Collective explains.
John Calambokidis As those whales return to the Salish Sea, they not only started returning every year, but mothers with their calves that were born there, those calves would be returning themselves. So you saw not only the rediscovery of this area, but then how that transmission, culturally if you will, you know, from mother to offspring, or from year to year with individual whales, then resulted in whales coming back, returning to those waters and now becoming a more loyal group of animals.
Elin Kelsey In December 2020, researchers announced the discovery of a new population of blue whales hiding in the Indian Ocean. While it may be hard to wrap your head around the idea that the largest animals on Earth could be hiding, what’s especially thrilling is that this population was discovered because of the unique songs they sing.
[SOUND OF NEW BLUE WHALE POPULATION]
Elin Kelsey A population of blue whales singing a completely new song is another thrilling indication that blue whales, too, are more culturally diverse than imagined.
Clearly, sound shapes the evolution of diverse cultures of whales, and those fabulous walruses, and even fish.
Culum Brown She’d been studying cavefish from Mexico, looking at the sounds that cavefish made. And she was able to record their sound and their behavior simultaneously. And she showed this amazing repertoire of sounds that they were making in all these different contexts. It was really incredible.
Elin Kelsey That’s professor Culum Brown, who we met in episode one. He’s telling me about work done by Dr. Carole Hyacinthe, a research fellow at Harvard Medical School. When it comes to researching fish sounds and culture, clearly, you have to have superhuman abilities.
Culum Brown The biggest problem is that fish are in water…
Elin Kelsey And we’re not!
Culum Brown They’re in water, in a cave in the dark, which makes it even more difficult. But hats off to this student, I mean, she got infrared cameras, got all of the gear, abseiled into some of these caves, and set up experiments in the caves. This is in addition to the stuff she had done in the labs. I mean, that’s just …
Elin Kelsey … raising the bar for the rest of the scientists out there. That’s amazing.
Elin Kelsey So, of course I couldn’t resist giving Carole a call to ask her what it’s like to rappel into a cave to study the acoustic culture of blind Astyanax cavefish.
Carole Hyacinthe You also may want to train a little bit before going, like in a gymnasium or something. The one I did, which was impressive to me was the Marino Cave because if my memory is correct, it was a 68-meter straight pit to go down on a single rope, then you have to think that you also want to go up at the end of your experiment, right?
Elin Kelsey Right!
Elin Kelsey What was it about these fish that made trips into dark, sticky mud, bat-guano infested caves worthwhile?
Carole tells me that these Astyanax fish come in two very different forms. The blind cavefish that inhabit about 40 caves in Mexico, and a sighted, colorful form that lives in rivers. If you keep a home aquarium, you would recognize them as the tetras you find in pretty much any pet shop.
The blind morph originated when some tetras were swept into and trapped within permanently dark caves. Today, they look and behave quite differently from the surface fish. Carole wondered whether their acoustic communication and its genetic basis also evolved to enable the cavefish to navigate and find food and mate in constant darkness. As these fish lost their vision, they have become far less aggressive in the cave conditions.
Carole started with underwater microphones and video recorders in the lab. She patiently documented what sounds the fish made and eventually concluded that both surface fish and cavefish make six categories of sounds—clocks, clicks, sharp clicks, rumblings, and so on.
Studying fish behavior without studying sound, Carole says, is like understanding only half the story.
Carole Hyacinthe When I don’t have the sound, it’s like watching a movie, understanding half of the story, a part of the story, but not the entire story of what is happening.
Elin Kelsey Once she had a handle on how both morphs were using sound in laboratory conditions, Carole headed into the wild to record cavefish in their natural habitats.
Carole Hyacinthe There are striking differences between the behavior of those fish. The differences that we see may be in part also related to the different habitats in which one, the fish lives, their environment may be related to their behavior in some way. And this behavior then will influence the sound production. And this is why we really think that if not an evolution of the sound itself, maybe an evolution of the use of the sound, in fact, between the two morpho types.
Elin Kelsey Carole discovered that how cavefish use sounds, what triggers them to do so, the “meaning” of their sounds, and their reaction to the sounds, is different than it is for the surface-dwelling tetras.
Culum Brown And she found that some of the noises that were used in one context for the surface fishes were used for a completely different context in the cave-dwelling species, or they’re really subspecies. So that, that’s really amazing. I mean, not only is there diversity within species, but depending on whether they’re living in caves or whether they’re living on the surface, they change the noise that they’re using. It’s really cool.
Elin Kelsey Does that start to get us closer to cultural difference?
Culum Brown It certainly speaks to the possibility that there’s some kind of cultural differences. But I think it’d be fair to say that as far as I’m aware, nobody has ever looked at cultural differences in sound production, but frankly, I’d be shocked if it wasn’t happening.
Elin Kelsey Is that because of your awareness of cultural traditions in ways other than sound?
Culum Brown Yeah, that’s right. I mean, we’ve known about culture and fishes, gosh, for a really long time now, probably 30 years almost, perhaps even longer. But I think we’ve increasingly realized how important culture can be. There are lots of contexts related to movement and migration, spawning grounds, feeding grounds, and, and all these sorts of things that are culturally inherited in fishes.
But I suspect that we’ll discover sooner rather than later, that culture is, is happening in a sound context as well. I think that we’re so early in our investigations that it hasn’t happened yet.
Elin Kelsey Culture is one of those things that’s kind of tricky to define even if you study it. Even anthropologists have squabbled over the term.
Interestingly enough, studying ocean animals has actually helped some scientists clarify what culture is.
Hal Whitehead studies the culture of whales and dolphins. “Humans,” he says, “are particularly interesting; our culture is incredible, there’s no doubt about that. In many respects, no other species matches ours. But in quite a few respects, they do, and that can help us, perhaps, to better understand our own culture. We look at the ways humans are similar to other animals, and at the ways they are different, rather than just saying, ‘We have culture and you don’t.’”
That’s meant a profound increase in our knowledge, as we discover the importance of sound underwater. The more we listen beneath the waves, the more we unlock not just the creatures, but the cultures, in the sea.
But what happens when these cultures have to compete with the cacophony of human-made noise?
Tune into episode five of The Sound Aquatic: The Ocean and the Anthropause to find out.
We’d like to thank John Calambokidis from the Cascadia Research Collective, Culum Brown of Macquarie University, Christopher Clark of Cornell University, Isabelle Cote at Simon Fraser University, Carole Hyacinthe at Harvard Medical School, Katy Payne of Cornell University, Janie Wray of BC Whales and the North Coast Cetacean Society, and John Ford, scientist emeritus at Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Thank you to On Being with Krista Tippett, Wild Bus Films, and OrcaLab for their contributions.
Our theme music is by Tobin Stokes. The team also includes Adrienne Mason, Jude Isabella, and fact checker Megan Osmond-Jones
Episode 5: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
The anthropause has shown us that we’re too noisy for the ocean’s animals.
By now, we know the ocean is anything but silent. Fish grunt, whales moan, reefs roar with the deafening sound of snapping shrimp, and even natural sounds like waves and rain can be heard throughout the ocean. But people have taken it to the next (decibel) level, with global shipping, oil and gas rigs and exploration, sonar, and fishing and recreational boats. Can we learn to be good neighbors and turn the noise down? On this final episode of The Sound Aquatic, we try to find out.
If you’re down to nerd out with global shipping data, this site shows you in real time, all of the ships around the world currently operating with an AIS (Automatic Identification System).
Anthropause was one of the words for 2020 as chosen by the folks behind the Oxford Dictionary. But, for the first time, it wasn’t the only word. More on the words that defined 2020 here.
For a taste of the kinds of sounds that permeate the coastal ocean, check out this interactive sound map that Hakai Magazine put together in 2017. We used recordings from our own backyard, from a cruise ship to a kayaker.
This free online library lets you listen to a wide variety of sounds that humans make underwater.
Elin Kelsey Overhearing conversations is one of life’s guilty pleasures.
In this time of social distancing, I really miss those snippets of strangers discussing their breakups at the next table, or plotting business takeovers in the airplane seat behind me.
I find solace in the realization that some conversations could only be heard because of COVID-19.
Christine Gabrielle So we have this hydrophone that’s anchored on the bottom of the ocean. So that’s an underwater microphone basically, has a five mile cable, runs all the way to a computer in my office here. And so I have a little speaker where I can listen to what’s going on in the ocean at any moment.
Elin Kelsey Christine is an expert ocean listener. Like a new parent who grows accustomed to the ordinary sounds coming through a baby monitor, Christine has spent years of her professional life listening to the sounds of Glacier Bay through a direct feed to her office.
Christine Gabrielle There are whales, you know, vocalizing back and forth. And it was just like this, you know, auditory scene that I feel really lucky to have been able to hear.
If there had been boat noise in the background, I would have a very low chance of being able to hear that.
Elin Kelsey The pandemic lockdowns kept so many cruise ships and other loud vessels out of Glacier Bay, Alaska, that for the first time ever Christine Gabrielle, a wildlife biologist at Glacier Bay National Park, was able to hear a mom and baby humpback whale whispering to each other.
[HUMPBACK WHALES WHISPERING]
Elin Kelsey Whale mothers and calves speak in whispers to avoid being heard by predators like sharks and killer whales. The rareness of this recording drives home just how noisy the ocean typically is.
And that’s what we’re exploring in this episode of The Sound Aquatic: The Ocean and the Anthropause.
My name is Elin Kelsey and in this episode we’re looking at how ships and the other noisy things we add to the ocean impact animals—and what we’re learning by listening when those noises suddenly stopped.
Elin Kelsey The sudden opportunity to listen to the ocean without the high levels of human-created noise has sparked a flurry of experiments, some fortuitous, some ingenious, and some unrepeatable under any other circumstances. A year later, scientists like Christine are just getting a glimpse of what all this data from the anthropause is telling us.
Many studies of ocean noise pollution have focused on whales—a wide range of species whose relationships to shipping traffic are fractious.
John Calambokidis We were doing a study looking at how blue whales respond to navy sonar. And we had deployed these suction cup attached tags on this blue whale off LA Long Beach. And while we were tracking it to do this other study, this ship comes through and goes right over the top of the blue whale. And we thought it was going to hit it. And we realized, Whoa, this is pretty crazy, what happened here?
And in tens of meters of distance from the ship, it dove down below the hull of the ship and was missed being hit by this really small distance by this change in diving behavior.
Elin Kelsey John Calambokidis is a research biologist with the Cascadia Research Collective. That shocking close call between a ship and a blue whale? It happens way more often than you might think.
John Calambokidis You know one whale we had a tag on for 10 days to look at fine-scale movements and it had 14 near misses with ships in that 10-day period. That whale with the 14 encounters was actually off of San Francisco Bay and there are three different shipping lanes that come into San Francisco Bay and it turned out that this whale was actually feeding moving around in all three of the lanes.
Elin Kelsey Fourteen near misses in 10 days! We rarely think of the ocean as a collection of intersecting superhighways, but with global freight demand forecasted to triple by 2050, we should.
Ami Kingdon Like there are superhighways of ships; they’re coming and going all the time. And you just think like, those whales are living beside a highway.
Elin Kelsey That’s podcast producer Ami Kingdon.
Ami Kingdon I don’t know about you—
Elin Kelsey But we’re in the middle of it in the case of the west, having around those shipping lanes.
Ami Kingdon Like if you buy a house and there’s a highway right outside, that’s generally considered a negative thing, right? Mostly because of the noise. And so you gotta think, like we just built an 18-lane expressway, two actually, because there’s two ports I think right beside each other, and that’s the main conduit for, you know, stuff coming in from, from Asia, from China, from Japan, from Korea, from Southeast Asia, all of that trans-Pacific stuff.
Elin Kelsey Global ship traffic more than doubled between 1950 and 2000, bringing exponential increases in noise pollution.
Imagine a soft din that began in the days of the 1950s rock and roll era …
Becoming a little more annoying during the ’60s revolution …
To flat out rude in the disco funk of the ’70s …
Reaching volumes you just couldn’t ignore in the gnarly ’80s …
And hitting truly obnoxious during the techno nirvana in the ’90s …
In the ocean, during every one of those decades, ship traffic noise doubled in intensity.
So what do we do to keep whales safer from ships and reduce noise pollution? For John Calambokidis the answer is clear: slow down the ships.
John Calambokidis Slowing down ships is sort of this impressive thing because it reduces the lethality of ship strikes, it dramatically reduces fuel usage, it reduces the amount of air emissions of pollutants, and it reduces the sound production. So it’s kind of like a win on four different fronts.
Elin Kelsey According to a report prepared for a meeting of the International Maritime Organization, a 20 percent reduction in ship speed would reduce underwater noise pollution by 66 percent, and the chance of a fatal collision between a ship and a whale by 78 percent.
When I ask Francis Juanes, professor of fisheries at the University of Victoria, where positive developments are happening, I’m delighted he picks an example super close to home.
Francis Juanes The Port of Vancouver has had a very successful program, asking ships to slow down on their approach to the port and it’s led to really, really reduce levels of noise. So we know that that can happen.
Elin Kelsey In addition to slowing ships down, there are ways to engineer them to be quieter from the inside out. Shipbuilders can physically isolate engines from metal hulls, and shape propellers in ways that produce less shock waves in the water.
Francis Juanes But, you know, it’s expensive. And so I’m sure that shipbuilders are not happy to do that immediately, but, but I see that as, as what will happen in the future, particularly if there’s legislation that requires them to do that.
There are quieter ways to do marine construction as well. There are ways to build bubble sheets, for example, so that the noise doesn’t travel as far as it might otherwise. There are ways to, to drill more quietly. So the technologies are there.
Elin Kelsey Isabelle Cote, the marine biologist at Simon Fraser University who we met in episode two, describes how much impact a single motorboat traveling above a reef can have on the delicate relationship between a cleaner wrasse fish and the fish that it is cleaning.
Isabelle Cote So we have this experiment where we’ve been watching cleaner fish for 20 minutes, and then we sent up a signal and then a boat came zooming over us for 20 minutes, and we found that that increased the amount of aggression that was going on between the cleaner fish and its clients. So fish go back to their normal behavior pretty quickly, but that again raised a bunch of questions about, well, what happens when these fish are in an area where there’s continuous, continuous background sound like that? Do they habituate or do they end up sort of being hyper-aggressive all the time? What effects ultimately, does that have on the fish sort of longer term?
[ELIN, KAT, AND AMI ATTEMPTING TO DO A TONGUE-TWISTER]
Elin Kelsey That famous tongue-twister is just harmless fun but the noisiest noises in the ocean are shockingly violent.
[SEISMIC AIRGUN BLAST]
Elin Kelsey That explosive underwater sound was made by a seismic airgun.
Ami Kingdon Is that the loudest thing that we make in the ocean, seismic airguns? Or are there other sounds that we make that are … I would imagine some ships get pretty loud.
Elin Kelsey I think it’s it, it’s one of those cases I think where ship traffic is, is the most chronic noise problem but the loudest noise are these seismic airguns.
Kat Pyne So how does that actually affect the animals themselves? Like does that mean, we know they have, fish have ears now. I mean, does that blow out their ears? I mean, does that hurt them or does it just disrupt their ability to communicate with each other?
Elin Kelsey Producers Kat Pyne, Ami Kingdon, and I didn’t have to search far for the answer. A 2019 issue of the prestigious journal Nature documents the horrifying repercussions of these explosive sounds.
Kat Pyne “The most obvious sign of trouble came when masses of dead beaked whales started showing up on beaches. Loud sounds seem to trigger panic dives that cause a kind of decompression sickness in the cetaceans, and hemorrhages in their brains and hearts. In the five decades before 1950, researchers recorded just seven mass strandings. But from then to 2004, after the introduction of high-power sonar for naval operations, there were more than 120. Studies show that exposure to loud noises can damage ears and cause hearing loss in cetaceans.”
Jayson Semmens I’m Professor Jayson Semmens. I’m a research scientist at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.
Airguns are what the petroleum oil and gas industry use for looking at the deposits in the Earth’s crust seafloor.
Elin Kelsey From that standpoint, it sounds, you know, Oh, that’s very logical. Like what a good thing. It’s not introducing any foreign substances, it’s just using air, but it’s really it’s the volume of the sound, is that right?
Jayson Semmens Yes. So it can get over 200 decibels. It’s high levels of sound.
Elin Kelsey And when you’re saying 200 decibels for people who don’t know how loud that is, is there a familiar comparison you might use?
Jayson Semmens Uh, I guess I think you’re a jumbo jet taking off nearby.
Elin Kelsey The blast of a seismic airgun used to map the seafloor for oil and gas can be as loud as a rocket launch. Ship engines and oil drilling can reach the roar of a rock concert. Some of these sounds are audible for hundreds of kilometers.
When it comes to studying the effect of seismic airguns on animals other than whales, you can’t get much smaller than, well, most zooplankton.
Yep, tiny organisms make up a billion tonnes of ocean animal life.
Jayson Semmens The general understanding was that you could get plankton killed within a few meters of an airgun, but beyond that, nothing. And we showed that there was a large increase in mortality—a change in abundance—up to a kilometer away from the airgun.
Elin Kelsey What Jayson Semmens is saying is that seismic airguns kill the tiny organisms that feed everything from fish to whales within a kilometer of the blast. Sound is a pressure wave, and for these minuscule animals, the pressure of the water as the sound wave passes through them, hits them like a car crash, and kills them.
Jayson Semmens The sorts of research we’re doing are relatively new. There’s been lots of work on what’s the impact on whales and dolphins and seals, the marine mammals, but those animals you don’t see, invertebrates, those animals sitting on the bottom, that play an incredibly important role in the food chain, in the ecosystem, and often are animals that can’t move out of the way, unlike you know whales and dolphins and these sorts of things.
Elin Kelsey Jayson’s work is especially difficult, and important, because he’s studying the real-time impacts of seismic airguns while they are actively firing in the ocean.
Jayson Semmens It’s very dangerous getting close to it and as soon as you get close to them they’ll be on the radio saying you need to move back. And they have ships that are working with them, clearing people out of the way because they just can’t stop, you know, once they start they just can’t stop. It’s tricky. And then you’ve got, you know, different weather conditions to deal with. It’s, it’s really difficult to do.
Elin Kelsey And that’s not to mention the logistics of introducing 360 octopuses into the study. Half were placed in commercial fishery octopus pots and exposed to the seismic arrays, and half were placed in the pots but not exposed to the seismic airgun sounds. Afterwards, Jayson’s team took them back to the lab to study the long-term effects.
Jayson Semmens We had three months of looking after these octopuses, feeding them, caring for them, all that. There’s no, no time off. It’s just constant. And with that many animals and then their offspring as well, halfway through was thinking, Why on Earth did I come up with this idea? It seemed like a great idea at the time, but man, it was a lot of work.
Elin Kelsey This monumental effort is worth it. Jayson is driven by the big question of how seismic airguns impact not just whales or octopuses, but entire ecosystems of ocean animals.
Jayson Semmens What does it mean? Not on the individual level, but the population level. Will they still reproduce enough offspring to keep the population going? Those sorts of questions are still really unsolved.
Elin Kelsey Lobsters, scallops, and other invertebrates are all vulnerable to ocean noise Jayson tells me. The pressure of loud noises can actually harm their bodies. Often, the thing that gets hurt is their sense of balance.
Jayson Semmens So if you’re a lobster, the only way you know what way’s up and can balance on your legs properly is because of this organ. And so the work we did with the lobsters, we showed that the seismic signal was, was shearing off these hair cells.
So when you turned a lobster on its back, if it was exposed to seismic signals, it took longer to get itself off its back than an animal that wasn’t.
Elin Kelsey In the course of that experiment, Jayson made an unexpected and profound discovery. Some of the lobsters in his control group who were not exposed to seismic airgun blasts were also missing their hair cells, but their balance was absolutely fine.
Jayson Semmens And it was a real shock: what is going on here? And so what we proposed is that those animals are exposed to noise, not seismic, but, you know, vessel noise, and various other things. And you know this was a real surprise.
Elin Kelsey It turns out those lobsters were collected from a busy shipping channel close to the University of Tasmania where Jayson is based. The noise in that channel caused the same kinds of damage to the delicate hairs as the blasts from the seismic airguns. But remarkably, under this constant bombardment of everyday sound, these lobsters had adapted.
The resilience of some species in the face of noisier oceans is astonishing. We’re seeing the same thing with humpback whales. As commercial whaling has ended in most countries around the world, many humpback whale populations are making spectacular recoveries. But they’re doing it in oceans that are growing noisier and noisier. How is this possible? Here’s Christine again.
Christine Gabrielle I admit that it sounds a little bleak when you think about whales having less room to communicate. But, you know, the reality is that, globally, animals are contending with humans all over the place, including the sound environment. And sometimes the, it’s the wind or the rain that’s creating that noise. So, they’re evolved, you know, to be able to, to adapt to things. However, they’ve only had to contend with vessel traffic as you know human noise, for about 200 years. So they’re still, you know, probably getting the hang of it. But they do kind of the same kind of things … they seem to do the same kinds of things that you or I would do if we were trying to communicate and it was noisy in that maybe they would get closer together, maybe they would talk louder, maybe they would repeat themselves. They, the whales, seem to do all of these same kinds of things that we do, but it’s something that we really want to understand better. The study that we’re planning to do with my colleague Michelle Forney, who’s now at Cornell University, we are going to try to look at whether the repertoire and the patterns of vocalizations that the whales use during this quiet period are, are fundamentally different from what they did in other years.
Elin Kelsey I am awed by the capacity of these animals to try to cope with such daunting circumstances. It drives me to push even harder for quieter oceans.
Do you remember back to episode one where Christian Rutz told us why he and his colleagues invented the word anthropause? Well, anthropause was chosen as a 2020 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries, alongside words like doomscrolling, lockdown, and Black Lives Matter. The virus forced us to do what nothing else had so far: to actually stop making so much noise.
In February 2021, Francis Juanes, along with a host of international researchers, released a major report on the issue of global ocean noise pollution.
Francis Juanes I do feel hopeful, I do very much feel hopeful the next set of work that I think will be very inspiring is the results that are coming out due to the lockdown. So we will show, and lots of people will show, that shipping went down for—and all sorts of other noise sources—stopped essentially for six weeks. And so now we’re starting to see what the results of that was. We saw animals where they’d never been before, their ability to communicate increased, and the levels of noise went down by a lot. I mean in, at levels that we’ve never seen before, there’s never been an experiment like that since 9/11. And so except this one was, was much longer in nature. So I think that’ll be another thing that will captivate the public’s attention, I hope.
Spencer Greening My name is La’goot. That’s my Tsimshian name. I come from the community of Hartley Bay, the Gitga’at First Nation, which is its Tsimshian community. And I come from the Raven clan, the Raven lineage, and my English name is Spencer Greening.
I’m an anthropologist and sometimes people refer to me as a Gitga’at scholar.
Elin Kelsey As we get to the end of our podcast series, I’m going to do something unusual for a podcast host and be silent for a few minutes to listen to the wisdom of someone whose ancestors found ways to live harmoniously with animals for millennia, by appreciating the value of silence and sound.
Spencer Greening Sound is something that can be forgotten in the modern era. And I’m, I’m truly grateful that I’ve been taught what I would call, I guess, protocols around sound by some of my elders.
I’ve heard it plenty of times up and down the coast—while harvesting, setting a net for fish, or setting branches for herring eggs—a lot of the old people, not only in my village, but like I say, up and down the coast, talk about the importance of doing it as quiet as possible.
I mean there’s definitely reasons for it, I think, and there’s this mix of reasons, too. Sometimes it’s spiritual, and sometimes it might be because doing that will attract more fish or have a more successful harvest.
When it comes to the spiritual aspect of silence, there are countless places in our territory where we have these agreements with what we call naxnox, which are these mystical beings or spiritual beings who often live underwater, but they can take the form of an array of things. Sometimes they can look like a sea monster, sometimes they can look like a thing of the wildest imagination that lives in the mountains. But in particular, these beings, we have these agreements in sort of treaties with them of when we’re in their territory, we have to respect sound. And when we don’t respect sound, then bad things will happen, though. The weather in that area can turn, the tides can go sort of haywire. The way the wind comes will be shifted and redirected and, and, and things will sort of go out of tune, so to speak. And so that’s one example that sort of brings us into this conversation of what these treaties can look like.
And it’s interesting on top of silence, there’s also an importance in making sound sometimes. And so it’s not just this one-sided piece of like nature in its essence is quiet, but nature in its essence has silence and noise. And there’s a way to understand both of those things that live in congruence with the laws that we’ve formalized as Indigenous people on these territories. And so I think of songs becoming a part of that sound, that noise, so to speak of the landscape that it, you know, sometimes places you’re supposed to sing before something happens. When we harvest cedar bark, often you’re supposed to speak to that plant first and you take up space in that sound space, but there’s this respectful way of doing it.
I think it’s worth, I guess, expanding our minds on this idea of good sound.
Maybe we won’t ever know it, but the fact that we can explore it and continue to, and express through that is something we should think about on the coast and ask, What does the coast want? What kind of sound do our oceans want? And, and to question and to wonder which, which sounds are disrespectful and which sounds are too much?
Elin Kelsey That’s the great thing about ocean noise pollution. Yes, the great thing.
When you stop making noise, it’s gone.
That’s not true of almost any other pollutant. Think of oil. Or carbon dioxide.
But noise is not a legacy pollutant. Even in a few short hours from the time of the lockdowns, the ocean soundscape changed completely. Back to the way it was.
Dolphins whistled, fish grunted, lobsters clacked, humpbacks moaned, algae sizzled, menhaden farted.
We’d like to thank: John Calambokidis from the Cascadia Research Collective, Isabelle Cote at Simon Fraser University, Christine Gabrielle of Glacier Bay National Park, Francis Juanes at the University of Victoria, Julie Watson of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Jayson Semmens at the University of Tasmania, and Spencer Greening, who is also known by his Tsimshian name La’goot, who is a Gitga’at scholar from the Tsimshian Nation of the northwest coast of British Columbia.