It all started with the collision between a Trasmediterránea ferry and a sperm whale. It was 1992 and a fast ship of the shipping company in the Canary Islands took the cetacean ahead. The impact caused the death of a passenger. After several more accidents, the company financed a study to analyze the risks of interfering with the migration routes of the sea giants. Michel André (Toulouse, France, 1963) was at that time a young bioacoustics researcher at the San Francisco State University. They offered him to take part in the investigation of the Canaries. “The project was planned for two years and lasted twelve”, recalls this French engineer. He stayed in Spain and today he directs the largest archive in the world of sounds of marine fauna, terrestrial fauna and human impact on it.
André founded in 2003, with the support of the Government, the Laboratory of Bioacoustic Applications (LAB) of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC). The LAB headquarters are located in the port of Vilanova i la Geltrú. André’s work table overlooks an indoor pool, an “acoustic tunnel” that serves to calibrate the sensitivity of the sound-taking devices, according to the frequency that he wants to capture in each expedition. The life of the LAB team is one of coming and going to take part in expeditions, establish international alliances or sign contracts with private industrial companies. Above all, they participate in projects with funds from the European Union: the AGESCIC project, dedicated to the study of the sound impact of wind farms in maritime and coastal areas; the Blue Nodules and Blue Harvesting projects focus on sustainable subsea mining development; finally, LAB plays a key role in EU research initiatives such as the Jonas program that measures noise pollution at sea, and which seeks to establish maximum risk thresholds.
André estimates at 150 the number of acoustic sensors that currently receive material about the state of the planet, especially its seas. Most soundings are hundreds of meters deep, tens of kilometers from the coast, wired to the mainland to transmit data or, if not wired, connected to a surface beacon that stores the data.
According to the director of the LAB, the benefits they obtain from contracts with private companies are dedicated to a large extent to the work they carry out through the foundation The Sense of silence. This institution has launched projects as diverse as the prevention of rail accidents with elephants in India, warning with sensors of their next step on the train tracks, or the collection of data in the Mamirauá nature reserve, in the Brazilian Amazon. However, the great challenge of the foundation, André points out, is the Listen to the Poles program [escuchar los Polos, en castellano], which aims to install permanent acoustic stations at the North Pole and the South Pole, the last places on the planet where human noise incidence had remained practically non-existent until today, when the threat of sea lanes due to melting and industrial voracity are increasingly present.
The sound map of nature
From the Arctic to the Amazon rainforest, ten examples of the importance of sound for animals and the effects of human interference
Explosions in the frozen shelter
“It is urgent to collect data in the Arctic before the ice melts. The diversity of sounds of the fauna there is incredible ”, warns André. The thaw increasingly facilitates human access to the North Pole, either to open new sea lanes or to start industrial exploitation. This sound comes from the explosions produced during an offshore oil exploration in 2014 in Northwest Greenland by a Norwegian state company. The recording was taken by an underwater seismic probe.
The message of a humpback whale
“We have ignored the acoustic impact that we cause in the sea,” says the director of the Laboratory of Bioacoustic Applications. “And it is an impact with disastrous consequences because in the oceans, where light hardly reaches, sound is the guarantor of life.” LAB sensors capture moments of communication as spectacular as this one from a humpback whale in the Barents Sea, in northern Europe.
The silence in the fossil caves
André claims to have recorded absolute silence for the first time. It was in early 2020, in the Isabella and Bluette fossil caves, almost 2,000 meters high in the Italian Dolomites. During three days in January, accompanied by the caver Francesco Sauro, the LAB team worked with eight sensors in the Isabella cave. André remembers it as a mystical experience to lie on the floor of the grotto, in the dark and without any sound, and completely lose the notion of space and time.
The way of the herd
Acoustic sensors can save animals and human lives. In the state of West Bengal, in India, the LAB has been working since 2019 on a system to prevent accidents when elephants cross train tracks. In the tests carried out, while the image sensors only managed to detect the animals 250 meters from the tracks, the acoustic sensors extended the radius to 1 kilometer. This allows the train driver to be warned in sufficient time about the location of the herd of pachyderms and their potential journey to cross the tracks.
Pollution from shipping
LAB participated in the Ocean Mapping Expedition, a four-year adventure led by the Pacifique Foundation. During this time, the Fleur de Passion sailboat followed the route that Fernando de Magellan had taken 500 years earlier to circumnavigate the planet. The LAB’s goal was to take 20,000 different records to determine the impact of noise pollution on Earth’s seas. “The most interesting thing is that even in the most polluted areas there is a presence of cetaceans,” points out Michel André, emphasizing the effects of maritime transport on the fauna of Southeast Asia. “But this will not last forever and these species will disappear from areas where they have inhabited for millennia. We are near the breaking point for many species, and our generation will see it. “
Nuclear test testimonials
There are sources of sound on the surface that can be registered in the depths of the sea. This persistent hum is a bird repeller installed out of the water, in Puerto Laguerre, in New Caledonia, the South Pacific. The probe is an infrasound sensor installed by the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO). The purpose of these devices – the CTBTO has 58 installed around the world – is to capture acoustic waves that come from a possible French submarine nuclear test.
The sound of crustaceans
Of the 150 sensors from which the LAB collects information, the one closest to its headquarters is located just 4 kilometers from the coast of Vilanova i la Geltrú. “Those cric-cric that you hear in the audio, are made by prawns, mollusks and other invertebrates”, explains Michel André, animals that are possibly on the same seabed where the sensor is located. One of the most important findings of experts like André, after almost thirty years of dedication to bioacoustics, is that not only cetaceans suffer from noise pollution. Most fish do not have our hearing aids, but they do have sensory cells that capture acoustic energy. The human impact on the sea unbalances their ability to feed, reproduce and even swim because the frequencies that affect them, at seismic sound levels, impair their balance. For the fishing industry, noise pollution is also a threat.
The roar of the jungle
The camouflage of the animals in the jungle is so developed that cameras and photographic traps sometimes cannot identify what the acoustic sensors of the LAB detect. This is how they have proven it since 2018 through their teams in Mamirauá, in the Brazilian Amazon. “An acoustic sensor can pick up sounds of birds or birds from miles away,” says André: “The passage of a jaguar, for example, changes the soundscape of the jungle, because suddenly there is a space of silence. The proximity of the rain also changes the soundscape ”.
The deadly military whistle
The surprising whistle in this recording is not from an animal but from a military ship in the Ligurian Sea, between France and Italy. André knows which ship it is, but for confidentiality reasons he prefers not to reveal it. It confirms that this corner of the Mediterranean is especially active in terms of “military activity”, both by surface ships and submarines. Military sonar is one of the main causes of disorientation for whales and other cetaceans, which are stranded by the hundreds each year on shores around the world.
In the company of dolphins
This probe off the coast of Dakar, Senegal, captures a group of dolphins communicating with each other, a scene that breaks the irruption of a ship’s engine approaching the port. The nearly 150 international organizations and experts dedicated to the study of ocean noise pollution call for the introduction of legislation that limits its impact. “There are damages that are already irreparable. And you have to take drastic measures, ”says Michel André.