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High-resolution bathymetry of extinct asphalt volcanoes off the coast of California.  The bathymetry was collected using the autonomous underwater vehicle Sentry. (Image by Dana Yoerger, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Acoustics is the science of sound; ocean acoustics attempts to describe how sound behaves in the ocean. A strong understanding of how sound behaves in different conditions beneath the surface of the water or the seafloor helps scientists answer fundamental questions about the planet, the ocean, and marine life.

Sound travels much farther than light through water —in some cases, up to thousands of miles. The speed of sound in the ocean also varies, increasing with increases in temperature, salinity, and pressure (depth). These characteristics make sound an excellent tool to study questions about the physics, chemistry, and biology of the ocean  that would be difficult or impossible to approach any other way.

Ocean acoustics can involve detecting and interpreting naturally occurring sounds such as those made by whales and fish or earthquakes, as well as man-made sounds such as those made by ships. Scientists also purposely generate sounds in order to measure ocean currents, track temperature changes over vast areas of the ocean, or measure water depth and map the seafloor. Because sound travels well through solids scientists also use it to probe the structure of sediments and rocks deep beneath the seafloor in order to study such things as the geophysical processes that generate earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis.

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News & Insights

For Mark Baumgartner, Whale Safe is the natural evolution of WHOI’s work with passive acoustics

Mark Baumgartner is an expert ocean listener who’s research is providing the groundwork for a new app to reduce ship collisions with whales

WHOI Collaborates on Ocean Detection System to Help Reverse Whale ‘Roadkill’

WHOI and collaborators launched Whale Safe, a detection system that may help prevent large ship collisions with the ocean’s behemoths along the California coast.

Listening to fish with passive acoustics

Scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and NOAA Fisheries combine forces to adapt technologies used to detect marine mammals for fisheries management.

Transformative technology to revolutionize the way we listen to the deep ocean

Using a network of satellites and surface buoys, WHOI scientist Ying Tsong (YT) Lin and a team of engineers are creating the first 3D “acoustic telescope,” capable of listening to a range of discrete activities in the deep sea

Teaming up for right whales

Researchers from WHOI and NOAA combine underwater gliders with passive acoustic detection technology to help protect endangered species from lethal ship strikes and noise from offshore wind construction

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News Releases

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WHOI in the News

Sound and Color

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From Oceanus Magazine

The Deep-See Peers into the Depths

Decades of research from many WHOI scientists and engineers have culminated in a multifaceted vehicle to explore deep-sea marine life.

Warping Sound in the Ocean

WHOI scientists warp sound–the primary means of transmitting information in the ocean–to “see” what’s happening below the surface.

Mission to the Ocean Twilight Zone

The twilight zone is a part of the ocean 660 to 3,300 feet below the surface, where little sunlight can reach. It is deep and dark and cold, and the pressures there are enormous. Despite these challenging conditions, the twilight zone teems with life that helps support the ocean’s food web and is intertwined with Earth’s climate. Some countries are gearing up to exploit twilight zone fisheries, with unknown impacts for marine ecosystems and global climate. Scientists and engineers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution are poised to explore and investigate this hidden frontier.

How Is the Seafloor Made?

An ultrasound for the Earth? Using sound waves, a graduate student peers into the crystalline texture of the tectonic plates that cover our planet’s surface.

Scientists Reveal Secrets of Whales

Researchers have known for decades that whales create elaborate songs. But a new study has revealed a component of whale…