Studying the otherworldly sounds in Antarctic waters

ON BOARD THE ARC SIMON BOLIVAR, ANTÁRTIDA  -  In freezing Antarctic waters, amid bobbing chunks of floating ice, the hums, pitches and echoes of life in the deep are helping sci­entists understand the behavior and move­ments of marine mammals. 

“There are species which make impressive sounds, literally like Star Wars, they sound like spaceships,” said Colombian scientist Andrea Bonilla, who is carrying out research with underwater microphones off Antarc­tica’s coast. The biologist from Cornell Uni­versity in New York submerges a hydrophone covered in titanium and attached to a buoy, into the frigid water. The device is like a camera trap in the wild, except it picks up aquatic sounds. Her team, part of a Colom­bian scientific expedition to the Southern Ocean, also picks up devices they left a year prior for analysis. 

The research also gives scientists data on how human activity and environmental pol­lution affect sea life in one of the best con­served parts of the planet. Nearby, a colony of penguins waddle along a giant block of floating ice. A humpback whale comes to the surface for some air during a stint in the region for the austral summer -- a time for feeding and building up energy before their massive trek to warmer climes around the equator in the breeding season.

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