Changing Planet

Hear the Surprising Sounds of Ocean Life

Most people know what a whale or a dolphin sounds like, but have you ever heard a toadfish grunt? Or a sea lion talking to its mother? Thanks to a team of ocean conservationists, now you can. And soon all these natural sounds will be used to tell the stories of ocean life through creative interpretations of leading artists.

Francesca von Habsburg is the founder and chairman of the Vienna-based foundation Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21). The foundation’s TBA21-Academy integrates art, science and sustainability, a fellowship bringing artists, scientists and thinkers together at sea. The Academy’s vessel, Dardanella, places them in unique geographical contexts that raise ecological, economic and social issues.

Francesca gathered a small team of experts to go on a four-year expedition initiated by her foundation and its academy program, to record ocean life using its unique underwater techniques. She plans to share the sounds through a series of opuses and art installations by leading artists and composers in hopes of bringing attention to the importance of fragile marine life. “We wanted to bring the art world to the rescue of the marine world,” Francesca said in an interview from the expedition ship in the Galapagos.

In a follow-up email, Francesca elaborated: “It gives people a sense of who we are–not just another group of scientists. It explains the role that art plays in our world, which is what is ‘new’ and ‘fresh’ about us. It’s an innovative approach that unless it’s explained is constantly overlooked.”

“We take the classical theme of the sea voyage into the new millennium with its contemporary challenges, and emphasize those by putting artists and scientists together and enabling them to work on projects using the vessel as a creative catalyst–a creative laboratory of sorts,” added Markus Reymann, project director.

Underwater Sound in 3-D

Francesca’s team includes artist Jana Winderen, audio producer Pascal Wyse, and University of Surrey professor and sound expert Tony Myatt. Myatt also designed and invented the ambisonic sound system the team uses to capture three-dimensional underwater sounds.

What are ambisonics exactly? The technology goes back to the 1970s and was invented by audio pioneer Michael Gerzon. Pascal describes it as a step further from surround sound because it creates a sense of a whole sphere of sound.

“The word ‘immersion’ is so frequently used these days,” he said, “but ambisonics is a great way to create truly immersive experiences with sound. We’re applying a system that’s already out there and extending it to underwater.”

To capture those sounds, the team attaches hydrophones—microphones designed for underwater recording—to a carbon-fiber rig. “It’s like going fishing with a really awkward fishing rod,” said Pascal. “You sit in a small boat and lower the microphone over the sides. You can play with the depths of it and there’s a strange-looking art to it because you’re constantly trying to stop the microphone cables from hitting the boat. It really is like you’re fishing for sound.”

TBA21-Academy: Ambisonic Hydrophone Recordings from TBA21 on Vimeo.

Art Meets the Ocean

Jana Winderen, who is also a marine biologist, has been creating art installations with sound for over 20 years and she teamed up with Francesca for a project called “The Morning Line” in 2010. “I started to work with sound because I didn’t want to create more sculpture objects onto the planet,” she said. “I think we surround ourselves with too many objects already.”

During expeditions, Jana spends up to seven hours a day taking recordings from numerous locations along the project route (which is currently in the Pacific) to document the oceans as they change—creating a time capsule of oceanic sound. She also noted that the ocean sounds could be rapidly different within just a couple of years as reefs die off and fish population is depleted.

“I get surprised every time I’m out recording; there are new discoveries all the time,” she said. “The first time I heard underwater insects I was in a river in Russia. It sounded like crickets, but I just thought, what is this! I like giving the headphones to people to listen so I can see the look that comes over their faces.”

Francesca admires Jana’s performances and exhibitions because they provide a different approach to oceans, which is typically very visual. “The visuals are usually accompanied by some classical or synthesized music, which drives me to distraction,” she explained. “Rarely do people even think of recording sound while they are filming as they would above water! This is such an oversight.“

The team’s most recent recordings are from the Pacific coast of Panama, Galapagos, the Silver Banks in the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Belize, Greenland, and Iceland, all of which will be featured in installations, concerts and workshops as the project progresses in the coming years.

Jana said that she hopes their work will help spread the word and heighten the respect of the creatures living in the ocean. Francesca added, “I don’t think a lot of people realize how much life there is in the ocean, but hearing it with such reality helps people understand the importance of preserving our oceans, especially for those who have never really had the chance to stick their heads underwater and listen.”

Listen to the Sounds of the Ocean

A day-old sea lion in conversation with her mother at Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island. (Recorded by Pascal Wyse/TBA) 

Iguanas basking at Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island, expel the salt they have ingested by sneezing it out onto the microphones. (Recording by Pascal Wyse/TBA) 

The distinctive whistling sound of the blue-footed booby, recorded on Floreana Island. (Recording by Pascal Wyse) 

A giant tortoise retreats into its shell, up in the highlands of Santa Cruz. (Recording by Pascal Wyse) 

In the deeper waters that lie beyond the coral protected waters of Silver Banks, humpback whales sing, bathed in the natural reverb of the open ocean. (Recording by Pascal Wyse/TBA) 

Toadfish grunts and echolocation sounds from dolphins recorded at Placencia in Belize. (Recording by Jana Winderen) 

Beach sounds and underwater with unidentified fish sounds at Las Peridas, Panama. (Recording by Jana Winderen) 

Flightless cormorants at their nesting site near the water’s edge at Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island. (Recording by Pascal Wyse/TBA) 

To learn more about the team’s expedition, visit TBA21-Academy’s website and Facebook page.

Sonia Harmon is the blog coordinator at National Geographic. She has also written for Ladies' Home Journal magazine and Washingtonian magazine.
  • Kathleen Frank

    What amazing audio recordings! Thank you for opening our ears to the music of the ocean.

  • Kimber Wukitsch

    These are remarkable- passing it along to our Facebook fans at Galapagos Conservancy!

  • Itzel

    This are amazing sounds and recordings. Beautiful, thanks for sharing!

  • This is an incredible collection – thank you for sharing!

  • Michael

    Has the speed of any of these recordings been altered to accommodate the human range of hearing, or are these as captured by the mics?

  • Malvina Carran

    I must agree with your blog, I don’t think a lot of people realize how much life there is in the ocean. While reading, I get to be aware too how amazing it is . I think, we must start to do something to preserve this and even the value the importance of our ocean.

  • Maria C. McCarthy

    How to describe the sounds of the sea in words?
    a draining plughole,
    a creaking door,
    a tuning of brass in harmony,
    rising, falling

  • Pascal Wyse

    Michael, thanks for listening. These are all as captured; no pitch-shifting.

  • Barbara Andy

    So amazing! Horrifying to think we may lose the life that is in the ocean, as well as so many life forms on the face of the earth. We are supposed to be caretakers of the earth. If we don’t take care of all life forms, we too will expire. Need to stop pollution…….NOW!!!!

  • Bianca Zeni

    This is amazing to hear. Had to share them in the hope others become just as amazed. Definately need to start doing more to protect this planet and the animals that inhabit it. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  • Morteza

    I am wondering the great life stories are showing under millions of tons under the oceans and we think that we are on the earth the only ones who deserve the right to live. We have to stop pollution and respect all the creature down in the ocean on earth and in the sky.

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