Hydrophones open a world of underwater sound to people at home

Listening to the sound of whales in Puget Sound from your computer at home is becoming easier than ever, thanks to a new hydrophone on Whidbey Island and its connection to a more sophisticated computer network.

Organizers anticipate that thousands of human listeners could add a new dimension to scientific studies, raise awareness about the noise that orcas endure and perhaps alert authorities when sounds are loud enough to harm marine mammals in the vicinity.

The new hydrophone (underwater microphone) at Whidbey’s Bush Point was installed last summer, but it stopped working soon after it was announced to the world in early November, when news stories appeared in print and on radio and television. The timing couldn’t have been worse, said Howard Garrett of Orca Network, a partner in the venture.

“We finally got the word out just as it crashed and just as J pod came into Puget Sound,” Howie told me. “We got it working after J pod had left.”

It appears that there was a problem with both the hydrophone itself and the power supply that runs a critical computer, experts say. I decided to wait and write about the new hydrophone when readers could go right to the Orcasound webpage and listen to the live sounds of underwater activity. With Whidbey’s hydrophone back in operation, one can now listen to sounds from two hydrophone locations using a web browser:

  • Orcasound Lab: This location on the west side of San Juan Island is a major thoroughfare for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales as they come east through the Strait of Juan de Fuca or south from the Strait of Georgia.
  • Bush Point: This location on the west side of Whidbey Island picks up the orcas as the enter or leave Puget Sound through Admiralty Inlet, their primary route to and from Central and South Puget Sound.

Sounds from hydrophones in several areas of Puget Sound have been available for years, thanks to the efforts of Val Veirs and his son Scott, affiliated with Beam Reach Marine Science, along with a host of other volunteers and organizations who have helped maintain the hydrophones. In the past, network users would need to launch a media player, such as iTunes, on their computer to receive the live audio stream. The new browser-based system requires no additional software.

Photo courtesy of Beamreach.org

One can also listen to a hydrophone at Lime Kiln Lighthouse, a favorite spot of the orcas on the west side of San Juan Island. The Lime Kiln live stream, a project of SMRU Consulting and The Whale Museum, can be heard on SMRU’s website. I’m hoping that Scott can add the hydrophone to his list. Orcasound, which is managed by Scott, still has a link to Lime Kiln that requires iTunes or another player.

At the moment, hydrophones that had been in operation at Port Townsend Marine Science Center, Seattle Aquarium and Neah Bay are out of operation for various reasons, Scott said, but he is working with folks at each location to see if the hydrophones could be brought back online using his new browser-based software. He would also like to expand the network with more hydrophones to pick up whale movements.

Scott’s vision of this hydrophone network involves using the technology to organize people to improve our understanding of orcas and other marine mammals while building a community concerned about the effects of underwater noise.

Scott said he has been surprised at the number of average people who have caught on to specific calls made by the whales. By identifying the calls, one can learn to tell the difference between fish-eating residents and marine-mammal-eating transients. More advanced listeners can distinguish between J, K and L pods. Check out Orcasound’s “Listen” page for information about sharing observations, learning about orca calls, and listening to archived recordings of calls.

One story I’ve never told goes back to 1997, when 19 orcas from L pod were in Dyes Inlet. It involves a phone call I received from my wife Sue. I was working at the Kitsap Sun office and away from my desk when the call came in. When I checked my voicemail, I heard what I thought was the mewing of tiny kittens. That made sense, I thought, because we had recently adopted two one-day-old kittens whose mother had abandoned them at birth. But the sound on my phone was not kittens after all but killer whales. My wife was in a boat on Dyes Inlet helping researchers who had lowered a hydrophone to listen to the orcas. Sue was holding up her cellphone and leaving me a voicemail from the whales.

The sound I heard on my phone was something like the following call, although multiplied by many voices:

      1. K-pod-S16-stereo

Scott told me that he would like to come up with names instead of numbers for the various calls. The one above is already being called “kitten’s mew,” although it is better known as “S16” among the scientific community. See the website “Listening for orcas” or the longer “Southern Resident Call Vocabulary.”

Orca Network is well known for collecting information about whale sightings, but now people are also reporting in when they hear the sounds of whales. That is especially helpful when visibility is poor. Both the sighting and sounding information can at times be useful to researchers who follow the whales at a distance and collect fecal samples to check out their health conditions. Observers can send notes via Orca Network’s Facebook page or via email.

Photo courtesy of Beamreach.org

Howard Garrett of Orca Network mentioned that many people are tuning in to the underwater sounds even when whales are not around. They may listen for hours with an expectation of hearing something interesting, but listeners also come to understand the world occupied by the whales.

“You get to experience what the orcas’ lives are like,” Howie told me. “It’s a noisy world for the killer whales.”

Scott agreed. “The most powerful thing that these live streams do is inspire people to listen. What they come to understand is what quiet is and that ships are the dominant source of noise out there.”

Knowing where a hydrophone is located, one can go to MarineTraffic.com and identify one or more ships that may be making the noise. “I do want people to call out outlier noise polluters,” Scott said.

Because federal funds for running the hydrophones has mostly dried up, Scott launched a Kickstarter campaign to design and get the new system up and running. It was great to learn who the supporters are, he said, noting that he knew only about a third of the people who are regular listeners. One woman in Romania became an expert in listening to the whales and wrote a paper about how to improve the hydrophone network.

“We are poised to become a much better organizer of people,” Scott said. “One option is for notifications. We can send out notifications using a new app that allows people to tune in when the whales can be heard.”

Notifications are not yet an option, but I told Scott that I would let people know when this option becomes available.

Computer programs have been developed to recognize the sounds of orcas, record various data and send out an alert, but the human brain has unique capabilities for understanding sound. Together, computers and human listeners can capture more information than either one alone. Scott said.

“I think we might have a friendly competition between humans and machines,” he noted.

Most hydrophones are designed for listening in the human range of hearing, but Scott would like to install more advanced devices capable of capturing the full vocal range of an orca. Such sounds could then be more completely analyzed. Perhaps someone will discover the still-hidden meanings of the orca vocalizations.