Ahead of BOAT International's Explorer Yachts Summit this November in Monaco, Lucy Dunn sits down with speaker Michel André to hear about his research into sound science and his innovative new "listening buoy", Ear to the Ocean (E2O).
Our oceans are noisier than ever. Shipping, recreational boating and energy exploration have pushed into all four corners of our planet and these man-made sounds are interfering with marine wildlife’s ability to hear.
Since many aquatic animals use sound to survive – to navigate, find prey, locate mates and offspring and avoid predators, as well as to listen and communicate with each other – this can have untold consequences.
Michel André is a renowned French bioacoustician who has spent the past twenty years focused on listening to the sea. In 2003 he created the first European research laboratory dedicated to developing acoustic technologies for the control of marine noise pollution called LAB (Laboratory of Applied Bioacoustics) at the Technical University of Catalonia, BarcelonaTech, UPC.
LAB now has the largest database of underwater sounds in the world listening to the land and sea 24/7. The data André’s team gathers is used to inform regulatory bodies, government initiatives and conservation projects around the world. He also has founded a commercial arm, SONSTEC which helps industries such as shipping and oil and gas who are keen to respect the environment.
Why is marine noise so important to understanding the health of our oceans?
We’ve long thought the ocean was a quiet place, but only recently we’ve discovered it isn’t. Under the water there’s a cacophony of sound - whales, dolphins, fish, plants. And it is so important - it’s what creatures use to survive, especially if you consider that the light only penetrates into the water a few metres.
But man-made sounds are now drowning out the natural noise, putting wildlife in peril. Only in the last few years have we been able to better measure and track sound and in turn, better understand the impact humans are having on the sea and the threat that the ocean is facing. My job is to connect the dots and help the right people take the right action - I’m a connectivist and a scientist, not an activist.
How do you listen to the ocean?
We have developed this technology that allows us to hear underwater through a special buoy which sends us live data. We now have more than 150 listening devices in fixed positions around the world which are transmitting information 24/7. We can accurately pinpoint what the sounds are, look at interactions between them and see changing trends.
What happens to all the data you collect?
It is used by governments and regulatory bodies to guide them in their conservation efforts, for example imposing speed limits in certain areas or creating marine-protected areas.
When did you first become interested in marine noise and why?
Ever since I was a child, I have wanted to study the dolphin language. When I finally got a chance to record dolphins and whales, it was the 1990s and I was in the Canary Islands. I realised that there was a lot of noise coming from shipping activity which was preventing me from being able to properly analyse their sounds. It made me wonder if all this noise was affecting them - at that time, very few people believed that noise could be a problem for wildlife, but over the years I’ve proved them wrong.
Which animals have you studied in depth?
Sperm whales - I did my PHD on them. I discovered they are becoming so desensitised to noise that they are colliding with boats and ferries in huge numbers. Several whale species are listed as endangered as a result of this, along with climate change and many other factors. And it is important to remember that whales are not just majestic creatures but animals that absorb huge amounts of carbon throughout their lives - more than trees - and so are vital to the health of the planet.
How do you see explorer yachts helping you in your mission?
What we are lacking is data from areas that are pretty pristine and not yet invaded by humans; areas where we have no way to get there. And this is where explorer yachts come in - because they’re the ones who regularly visit these remote parts of the world.
With this in mind, we have developed a 24-hour autonomous monitoring buoy equipped with a microphone and camera called ‘Ear to the Ocean’ (E2O), especially for explorer yachts. It is easier to use than our own scientific listening devices and also lightweight, so that just one crew member can launch it. You lower it into the ocean and it automatically transmits sounds and pictures to the yacht (as well as to us in LAB) and guests can enjoy seeing and hearing the underwater creatures swimming around them. It also looks really cool - like a space shuttle - and we’ve designed it so it bobs up and down which cancels out any noise that the waves make when they hit.
Where has your work taken you and what progress have you made?
One of our biggest projects to date is working on the XPrize in the Amazon, developing groundbreaking technology to “listen” to the land and water and monitor the biodiversity and ecosystem of the rainforest. This is a four-year project and when we started there were 53 teams. We are now down to the final six and the final will take place in July.
The other big project we have is called Listen To The Poles which is an attempt to monitor biodiversity in the Arctic and Antarctic before the ice melts. We know that water is becoming warmer and the animals are having to compete for food and space so we badly need this data before the ice has totally vanished so we can then create ecological corridors to preserve the biodiversity of this region.
André will be presenting his latest findings at this year’s Explorer Yachts Summit hosted at the Yacht Club de Monaco (9 November). It is the only event dedicated to the explorer yacht sector the day will also include talks and presentations from owners, captains and adventurers, including keynote speaker Mike Horn.BUY EYS TICKETS HERE