Did you know that you can sit in your comfy chair at home and listen to live whale sounds? Among the many wonders of this ever-more-connected world on which we live, is that you can connect your laptop or tablet directly with an underwater microphone in the Salish Sea off San Juan Island, near Puget Sound, Washington, and hear gray whales, Orcas, other biological sounds, and, somewhat disturbingly, the cacophony of sound projected into the water by humans. You can hear the low-frequency thrumming of the propellers of the big cargo ships; the high-pitched whine of the speedboats, and the general mechanical racket that all our waterborne machines make.
So, how do you get to these sounds and what can you do with them? First, make sure you have software to play the sounds. The iTunes software for both Mac and Windows will play them. If you don’t use iTunes, you can use Winamp or Audacity, both of which work on several platforms, including Windows. Then just head on over to the Salish Sea Hydrophone Network and choose which location you want to listen in on. There is a map view of the locations on the right side of that page that will help you visualize the locations. There is a great tutorial here to get you started.
One thing I like to do is open a second window, or tab in my browser, and open the Marine Traffic website, which shows ship and larger (>65′) boat traffic, using their AIS transponder locations. The Marine Traffic website is near-realtime, so if you hear the thrum of a slow cargo ship propeller, you can probably see that ship, and it’s ID, on the Marine Traffic Website. It’s a great way to help you learn to correlate sounds from the hydrophone with the source (if human) of that sound. Since smaller boats are not required to carry AIS transponders, you won’t see them on the Marine Traffic maps.
There is also a similar source for East Coast whale-listening. The Cornell University Lab for Ornithology’s Bioacoustic Research Program runs the northern right whale listening network in the northeast United States. It uses a string of buoys with hydrophones to listen for any of the estimated 300 surviving northern right whales as they move in and through the waters around Massachusetts. The webpage has a live map of the buoys and you can see if they have detected the presence of right whales. The system is used to warn ship captains to slow down (federal law) and keep a sharp lookout. Ship strikes are still one of the most common causes of whale deaths in proximity to humans and this system is designed to help prevent that.
I’ve listed the resources from this story below. If you come across others, please let us know in the comments and we’ll update this article so that it becomes a more complete reference guide to whale listening.
UPDATE 05/01/2013 — Another great site is the Perennial Acoustic Observatory in the Antarctic Ocean (PALAOA), part of the Alfred Wegener Institute. This is an unmanned polar observatory on the ice shelf at Atka Bay in the Antarctic. Lots of great sounds to listen to, both from a library and from a live stream, too.
Copyright © 2013 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.