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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

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

Bioacoustic alarms are sounding on Cape Cod

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and its Marine Mammal Rescue Team in Yarmouth, Mass. have responded to a record high of more than 464 marine mammals stranded on Cape Cod since January this year. Researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) believe patterns from animal sound data may be the key to curbing these numbers.

Underwater robots swarm the ocean

Researchers test a new, acoustic-based navigation system to solve a problem that oceanographers have grappled with for years—getting multiple underwater robots to monitor the ocean cooperatively in swarm-like fashion.

A tunnel to the Twilight Zone

Scientists track hungry blue sharks as they ride swirling currents down to the ocean twilight zone—a layer of the ocean containing the largest fish biomass on Earth

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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…