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An Autonomous Sub Speaks Whale To Explore The Deepest Ocean

Using techniques borrowed from how whales hunt, a new underwater exploration device can scan vast areas of the ocean and tell us about ecosystems of which we have hardly any understanding.

Kelly Benoit-Bird loves squids. For the Oregon State oceanographer, the 300 species of squishable cephalopods are not just intriguing objects of study; they are among the planet’s most intrepid explorers. And they hold the secrets to deep ocean ecology.

"We’re trying to get to these deep zones of the ocean where we know something is happening," said Bird, a 2012 PopTech Science Fellow, in an interview at the PopTech conference in Camden, Maine, this October (see her video presentation here). "Animals are telling us about places to look, but we can’t get there."

Bird’s days are spent shooting sound waves into the ocean to visualize these creatures and piece together data about still mysterious marine ecosystems. When it comes to the world’s oceans, says Bird, "there are an order of magnitude more blanks spots … than what we know." Squid, she asserts, will fill in some of those holes. "This will hopefully result in our first real look at what squid do in the depths of the ocean," she says. "It’s a mystery that has intrigued humans since the days of Moby Dick."

The Remus sub that Bird is modifying.

So Bird has built her own submersible to swim with them. With the help of colleagues, she has started converting a class of research sub, the torpedo-shaped Remus popular in the Navy, into a 16-foot-long, yellow echosounder. Similar to military sonar, the Deep Ocean Remus, or "DOR-E," will use a two-frequency system to transmit and receive sound waves as it dives up to 2,000 feet. The sub can operate autonomously for as long as a day while acoustically mapping out the life in the deep ocean which remains almost invisible to us today—a situation akin to knowing the Great Plains are full of buffalo but only being able to randomly catch one or two near the edges.

The start of Bird’s research, however, was not auspicious. Other researchers challenged her in peer-reviewed journals, saying that sonar would never pick up squids’ gelatinous bodies, since they lacked air-filled swim bladders (despite implicit evidence sperm whales used echolocation to hunt prey such as giant squid). Bird proved them wrong. Her novel acoustic tools revealed the size and movements of squid in the open ocean. She documented jumbo squid in the Gulf of California altering their behavior to chase prey, and even synchronizing swimming movements while hunting, "a behavior that looks a bit like a ballet."

Just because she’s looking at squid now, doesn’t mean that’s the extent of what can be found from her innovation. As the sub focuses on other marine subjects, it could start to drastically change what we know about all undersea life. "Having this tool opens up exploration of life in the deep ocean," she says. "While we’ve tuned the software of the platform to look for squid, that could easily be changed as the hardware is also useful for looking at other animals including fish and zooplankton."

And Bird, a 2010 MacArthur "Genius Awards" fellow, is doing that, re-directing her research to the ecology of beaked whales. With a research grant from the Department of Defense, she will try to understand the whales’ behavior in the deep ocean, perhaps learning the causes behind the whale strandings linked to Navy exercises involving high-powered sonar.

"For me the most exciting part is having access to places we can’t get to by ship or putting out a mooring," says Bird. "We don’t know anything about its biology in the first place."