Biologist Marie Fish Catalogued the Sounds of the Ocean for the World to Hear | Science


Among the many puzzles that confronted American sailors throughout World War II, few had been as vexing as the sound of phantom enemies. Especially in the warfare’s early days, submarine crews and sonar operators listening for Axis vessels had been usually baffled by what they heard. When the USS Salmon surfaced to search for the ship whose rumbling propellers its crew had detected off the Philippines coast on Christmas Eve 1941, the submarine discovered solely an empty expanse of moonlit ocean. Elsewhere in the Pacific, the USS Tarpon was mystified by a repetitive clanging and the USS Permit by what crew members described as the sound of “hammering on steel.” In the Chesapeake Bay, the clangor—likened by one sailor to “pneumatic drills tearing up a concrete sidewalk”—was so loud it threatened to detonate defensive mines and sink pleasant ships.

Once the warfare ended, the Navy, which had begun to suspect that sea creatures had been, the truth is, behind the cacophony, turned to investigating the drawback. To lead the effort it selected a scientist who, although well-known in her day, has been largely ignored by posterity: Marie Poland Fish, who would discovered the area of marine bioacoustics.

Marie Fish examines Sargasso seaweed aboard a analysis ship on February 19, 1925, on the journey that helped launch her profession.

(©Wildlife Conservation Society. Reproduced by permission of the WCS Archive)

By the time the Navy introduced her on board in 1946, Fish was already a celebrated biologist. Born in 1900, Marie Poland—recognized to pals as Bobbie, on account of her flapper coiffure—grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, and was a premedical scholar at Smith College. Upon graduating in 1921, although, she’d turned to the sea to spend extra time with Charles Fish, a younger plankton scientist whom she’d met whereas conducting most cancers analysis at a laboratory on Long Island. In 1923, after spending a 12 months as Charles’ analysis assistant, she took a job with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries in Massachusetts; that very same 12 months, they married.

Marie swiftly proved her present for ichthyology, changing into a number one professional in the research of fish eggs and larvae. In 1925, she voyaged to the Sargasso Sea on a analysis journey with the explorer William Beebe, and, from an odd egg scooped up close to Bermuda, managed to hatch what she described as a “ribbon-shaped, transparent prelarva” with “enormous fangs.” It was the elusive American eel—and Fish was the first scientist ever to determine one of its eggs. The sea, she declared, had given up a secret, “which it ha[d] jealously guarded for so many centuries.”

The episode made Fish a minor scientific movie star: “Girl Solves Ancient Mystery,” newspapers trumpeted. (No matter that she was 27 when the discovery was introduced.) From 1928 to 1931—the 12 months her daughter, Marilyn, was born—she undertook a organic survey of Lake Erie on behalf of New York State’s Conservation Department, describing the larval levels of species from whitefish to yellow perch. In 1936, she and Charles established a marine lab at the University of Rhode Island, which survives at present as the college’s Graduate School of Oceanography. Marie would go on to function Rhode Island’s state ichthyologist, and did a two-year stint classifying fish at the U.S. National Museum, now the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

A women looks an electronic listening device to study the noises made by catfish.
Fish in January 1965, utilizing an digital listening system to research the noises made by two catfish.

(Photo by Lynn Pelham / The Life Images Collection by way of Getty Images)

At the Navy’s behest, Fish started to assessment the voluminous experiences that submarines like the Salmon had filed. American sailors, Fish reported, had registered an astonishing array of sounds, together with “beeping, clicking, creaking, harsh croaking, crackling, whistling, grunting, hammering, moaning and mewing,” and even “the dragging of heavy chains.”

“It was obvious that animal noises were being encountered,” Fish concluded, although exactly which animals was much less clear. As she dug deep into maritime historical past, she discovered intriguing information: One Nineteenth-century sailor had puzzled at sounds reminiscent of “jingling bells” and “enormous harp[s].” Even the siren songs of Homeric legend, she speculated, might have been produced by breeding colleges of croakers.

To Fish, it was clear that ocean creatures had been far noisier than anybody had guessed. Sound waves journey via water effectively—5 instances sooner than via air—however, as Fish hastened to level out, they don’t readily cross between mediums. If observers had merely “pondered a fact which they might have remembered from their physics lessons,” Fish wrote in Scientific American, they could have recognized to hear extra intently. Yet most of Fish’s friends nonetheless thought-about the briny deep a muted realm. When the explorer Jacques Cousteau printed his memoir in 1953, he titled it The Silent World. Fish believed that researchers had merely been listening underneath the fallacious circumstances. “Even the most loquacious species are usually silenced by the approach of a vessel,” she noticed.

She returned to the University of Rhode Island and, utilizing funding from the Office of Naval Research, started to experiment. Fish fenced off a sequence of enclosures in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay and lowered hydrophones into the shallows, which allowed her to spy unobtrusively on marine animals. She additionally developed extra invasive methods, reminiscent of operating jolts of electrical energy via laboratory aquariums in hopes of stimulating a response from the fish inside. Collecting topics for these experiments fell to an undergraduate scholar named Joseph Munro, who went down to the harbor at 5 o’clock every morning to acquire dwell catches from native fishermen. “Any odd fish that came up from the Gulf Stream, we would transfer it to a barrel in the back of the pickup truck and rush back to the university before it died,” Munro remembers in an interview with Smithsonian. He will need to have completed a good job: In 1952, Munro married Fish’s daughter, Marilyn.

By 1954, Fish had auditioned greater than 180 species, from eels (which emitted a “bubbling ‘put-put’”) to sea bream (“guttural thumps”). An unlimited acoustic library gathered on Presto recording discs. Fish had a knack for description. Sculpin, she wrote, hummed like turbines. Sea horses clicked like an individual snapping their fingers. Herring knocked, hardtails rasped, bass grunted. Some species had been multitalented: Toadfish honked like “a medley of fog horns” to appeal to mates throughout the breeding season, then, upon settling down to guard their eggs, uttered a “loud growling sound” to beat back trespassers. Chattiest of all was the sea robin, a bottom-dweller whose yakking, to Fish’s ears, evoked “the cackling and clucking of barnyard fowl.”

In 1979, the digital composer Ann McMillan launched an album by way of Smithsonian Folkways, Gateway Summer Sound: Abstracted Animal and Other Sounds, that used all method of unconventional noises to create spacey songscapes. The first “natural” sounds that McMillan included in her compositions for the album got here from Marie Fish’s recordings of marine animals.

Fish was not content material merely to classify sound. She and her college students dissected quite a few specimens in search of noisemaking anatomy. Some finfish, she found, vocalized by grinding collectively their jaws or the “pharyngeal teeth” that studded their throats. Porcupinefish, for instance, produced a “raspy whine which sounds like a saw or the creaking of a rusty hinge.” Others, like toadfish, vibrated specialised muscle tissues in opposition to their air bladders, like drumsticks in opposition to a snare. A spawning aggregation of croakers, Fish realized, was succesful of elevating the ocean’s background quantity to 114 decibels—the equal of a rock live performance. And whereas the shut confines of the lab had been ill-suited to finding out marine mammals, she appropriately hypothesized that whales echolocate, earlier than the phenomenon was first formally described.

Fish’s renown grew, partially as a result of of her voluminous publication report, and partially as a result of of her gender; only a few ladies then labored in marine sciences, by no means thoughts led a brand new self-discipline. Fish launched sound-collecting expeditions to the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in an period when some establishments nonetheless banned ladies from ocean voyages. (Roberta Eike, a graduate scholar at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, was expelled from the program after being barred from expeditions after which stowing away on one in 1956.) Newspapers thrilled to the “affable redhead” with “a sparkling sense of humor” who “eavesdrop[s] on the gossip of sea animals.”

The Navy consulted what Fish known as her “underwater detective agency” to determine novel sounds and used her analysis to practice sonar operators to distinguish between enemy vessels and “false targets,” reminiscent of whales. She was additionally dispatched to France, England and Germany to train allies. A reporter requested whether or not she’d ever occurred to determine a “true target”—a Russian sub. “Yes, but I can’t tell about those,” she stated, and altered the topic. In 1966, the 12 months she retired, the Navy gave her a Distinguished Public Service Award, its highest civilian honor. When Fish died in 1989, at 88, a college colleague eulogized her as “by far our most decorated hero.”

Were Marie Fish to drop a hydrophone into the ocean at present, she may not like what she heard. Sonar, industrial delivery and explosive seismic surveys for oil and fuel more and more drown out the grunts of croakers and the chuckling of sea robins. The din, recognized to some researchers as “acoustical bleaching,” has fatally disoriented whales and killed younger fish, and the roar of deep-sea mining might quickly penetrate even the remotest depths. And whereas the research of marine bioacoustics is now not an obscure area, its practitioners have tended to concentrate on whales and dolphins. “From her time until now, we still know very little about how fish use sound to communicate, not to mention crustaceans,” says Tzu-Hao Lin, an assistant analysis fellow at Academia Sinica, the nationwide academy of Taiwan.

In 2018, Lin based the Ocean Biodiversity Listening Project, a worldwide open-access database of marine recordings, captured in environments starting from sunlit coral reefs to seafloor vents. The undertaking, he says, is a “library that establishes the relationship between sound and fish species,” a compendium that will assist different scientists perceive how human actions are distorting marine soundscapes. The army, too, has been compelled to keep on Fish’s work: In 2018, after conservation teams sued the Navy over the impacts of its sonar on whales, the authorities settled the case by making a program known as SanctSound, deploying hydrophones and drones to monitor noise in the Florida Keys, the Channel Islands and different marine sanctuaries.

In 2020, the ocean’s pure soundscapes turned newly audible, as the Covid-19 pandemic slowed ship visitors. In Alaska’s Glacier Bay, for occasion, biologists have been ready to hear the chatter of humpback whales way more clearly. Perhaps Fish would take solace in our renewed means to hear the snapping of shrimp and click on of sea horses—inhabitants, as she put it, of “the once-silent world covering three quarters of the earth’s surface.”

U.S. and Soviet efforts to practice dolphins and sea lions for stealth missions met with blended success
By Ted Scheinman

Marie Fish wasn’t the solely marine biologist whose experience was sought by the armed forces throughout the Cold War. In one of the most novel initiatives, the United States educated dolphins and different sea creatures to carry out a sequence of extraordinary naval duties underneath the Marine Mammal Program. The USSR countered by trying to practice its personal aquatic sentries and spies. Military efforts to exploit the intelligence of marine mammals had been usually ingenious and typically profitable. Other instances they represented a quixotic train in interspecies collaboration.

Cloaking Communications

(Mike Parry / Minden Pictures)

In 1973, the U.S. Navy started its first exams to disguise inter-ship communications through the use of prerecorded pilot whale noises as a mutually intelligible codebook. Sadly, the Navy didn’t understand how to undertaking whale sounds at lengthy distances. But in 2018, Chinese researchers printed research indicating that at present’s expertise permits the long-distance broadcast of coded dolphin and whale songs.

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