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 Sound Perspectives
Kelly Benoit-Bird
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute 7700 Sandholdt Road Moss Landing, California 95039 USA
A Journey Through Unseen Oceans
The ocean is vast and mysterious, in no small part because light does not penetrate very far there, limiting our vision to just a few meters. Sound, however, travels both faster and further in water than it does in air. As a result, animals that live throughout the ocean’s inky blackness rely on sound to communicate, navigate, and find food. For the same reasons, scientists like me also rely on sound to explore the ocean and communicate with our sensors. I’m a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (Moss Landing, CA) where I use acoustic techniques to understand how animals of all sizes in the ocean survive and how toothed whales use biosonar to find their food. An important part of my work is the development of new technologies for accessing the largest living space on our planet. With new tools, I’ll share a recent journey through these unseen oceans with you.
I watch the waves, rhythmic and soothing, before taking a deep breath to calm my nerves and descending to observe the life below. Looking upward, tiny ocean plankton, alien and spectacular in form, sparkle in the beams of light scintillating from above. Fish skitter around us, bumping into each other to avoid our incursion into their world. If we move carefully, the fish arrange into curious schools, making a single mammoth, roiling organism from many. A bright yellow torpedo-shaped object catches my attention in the distance, and I follow it downward as the sun sets, passing thousands of animals shuffling their way to the surface to catch their dinner under the cover of darkness. A few stragglers light up, startled by our pres- ence. Down here, many animals make light or interact with it in unusual ways so even as it is perpetually dark and cold, the deep sea glows and sparkles with life. As I reach the seafloor, the swath of my sonar reveals underwater mountains and canyons, most of which remain unmapped. This dive from the surface of the ocean to the seafloor was different from any other that I’ve ever taken. It did not involve a submersible and it didn’t start on a ship. Instead, this journey started a year earlier with an email that proved to be the beginning of a journey that would lead me to see the ocean and my own work in a different light.
That first email was from Joann Gutin, an exhibition writer at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH; New York; Joann explained that they were working on a new temporary exhibit about the ocean and would like to talk. As a kid, I visited the museum’s “Hall of Ocean Life” and was awed by the full-scale model of a blue whale hanging from the ceiling and intrigued by the dioramas of life tucked into its dimly lit corners. My interest piqued, I agreed to her request for a phone conversation. Joann told me that while the narrative for this new exhibit wasn’t totally realized, they were trying to bring science out from behind the story, bring people into the picture, and share failures along the path to discovery. She noted that the museum is not an aquarium so they were grappling with how to make media experiences that would not be a second-rate experience but rather a space where visitors could be in the water column, experience how it would feel to be a scientist, and learn for themselves what there is to see. I answered Joann’s specific questions about ocean life, referred her to cutting-edge work in ocean biology, and shared the names of other experts that could help guide their exploration.
©2019 Acoustical Society of America. All rights reserved. volume 15, issue 3 | Fall 2019 | Acoustics Today | 71

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