October 22, 2019

Humpback whale songs in your living room

Humpback whales are one of the many animals whose calls can now be streamed live using Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant. Photo © 2015 Knute Brekke

Ocean lovers can now listen to the sounds of Monterey Bay live on the web or through Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa. For the last four years MBARI has been recording these sounds using an underwater microphone, or hydrophone, located on the deep seafloor just outside the bay. The hydrophone captures a wide variety of sounds, including the singing of humpback whales, the rumble of ships and earthquakes, and the hiss of rainstorms.

“The idea to play the recordings using an Alexa ‘skill’ actually came from a visitor to our Soundscape Listening Room on the web,” said Kevin Gomes, the software engineer who developed the Alexa app. “We have been exploring the use of Amazon Web Services for our huge science datasets and computer-learning systems, and this was a great opportunity to write code for that environment.”

After installing Gomes’s Alexa “skill” in the Alexa app on your phone or on a standalone device such as an Amazon Echo, all you have to do to hear the sounds of Monterey Bay is to say the phrase “Alexa, ask Ocean Soundscape to play the live stream.”  If the hydrophone is not picking up many sounds, you can also ask the skill to play pre-recorded calls of whales, dolphins, and other sounds.

You can also listen the live audio stream on MBARI’s website. Both the Alexa skill and the web stream use the Shoutcast streaming service. Software Engineer Danelle Cline and Electrical Engineer Paul McGill developed a method for processing sounds from the hydrophone and streaming them using Shoutcast. They also developed the work flow that MBARI uses to process and archive raw audio from the hydrophone—about two terabytes of data each month.

Some of the sounds recorded by the hydrophone are too high for humans to hear, or too low to be heard without special “subwoofer” speakers. However, many sounds, including the songs of humpback whales, can be heard easily in the recordings. There is a 10-minute delay for computer processing between when the sounds are recorded by the hydrophone and when they can be heard on the “live” stream.

“Like our new Soundscape exhibit, the live stream is a great outreach opportunity,” said John Ryan, the biological oceanographer who manages the hydrophone project. “Our goal to give as many people as possible access to the sounds of the ocean, and this is a great way to do it.”

Article by Kim Fulton-Bennett


For additional information or images relating to this article, please contact: Kim Fulton-Bennett
831-775-1835, kfb@mbari.org

MBARI Researchers

Kevin Gomes

Information Engineering Group Lead

John Ryan

Senior Research Specialist