Every day, millions of sailors, truck drivers, longshoremen, warehouse workers and delivery drivers keep mountains of goods moving into stores and homes to meet consumers’ increasing expectations of convenience.
But this complex movement of goods underpinning the global economy is far more vulnerable than many imagined.
Now in its fifth iteration, the MAPLE 5 architecture has
moved away from the individual command and control of single platforms
towards operating multiple platforms and the development of operational
concepts at force level.
AUCKLAND: Enamored with a vision of a future fleet of autonomous air, ground, surface and underwater vehicles, Britain’s Royal Navy is investing in the creation of a Naval Strike Network, designed to provide the command-and-control backbone for its unmanned systems.
For that to work, it needs a brain: a program known as the Maritime Autonomous Platform Exploitation, or MAPLE, with which the baseline information architecture that the UK needs for any of its ambitious plans for unmanned platforms come to reality.
The program, run through the MoD’s Defence Science and Technology Lab (DSTL), started in 2016 and has been used in exercises such as Unmanned Warrior in 2016, Autonomous Warrior in 2018, Autonomous Advanced Force in 2019, and most recently Robotic Experimentation and Prototyping in 2021 (REP 2021) as well as its own smaller events where experiments were conducted to prove how the system can become the baseline architecture for unmanned systems.
Now in its fifth iteration, the MAPLE 5 architecture has moved away from the individual command and control of single platforms towards operating multiple platforms and the development of operational concepts at force level.
The intention is to evolve the architecture to be able to implement a broader suite of unmanned systems and make sure it is robust enough to meet the rigors of naval operations.
James McIntyre, principal scientist at DSTL, told Breaking Defense that “Within an operations room [MAPLE] provides the command and control of multiple unmanned systems breaking down those stove-pipes. We have demonstrated that from a single C2 node we can control multiple uncrewed vessels.”
Watch as the L3Harris MAST13 Autonomous Surface Vehicle is used by the Royal Navy and Royal Marines during an Advanced Autonomous Force exercise in Norway.
At a theoretical level, an information architecture focuses on organizing, structuring, and labelling content in an effective and sustainable way, with the goal of helping users access relevant data and complete tasks.
In the context of unmanned vehicles, MAPLE serves as a structure for taking in information, deciding the best way to apply that information to its tasks, and then sending those orders out to the vehicles — something essential to the idea of managing large numbers of unmanned systems in the future.
This means that any hardware and software employed in the Naval Strike Network needs MAPLE to manage the flow of information so that operators can control unmanned systems from a warship’s combat management system or other workstations used in different ships or shore installations — with control transferable between them.
Until now the introduction of uncrewed systems into the fleet has been through the purchase of individual platforms with their own C2 consoles, information architecture, communications links and data management systems, which are not integrated into wider naval networks or the combat management systems of warships. MAPLE will serve to integrate these systems fully.
By using open standards, DSTL has developed the structure and set principles for the way in which they want to integrate maritime unmanned systems.
This documentation and guidance will, at some point, inform what systems can and cannot be purchased by the MoD — if not compliant with MAPLE, they won’t fit Britain’s needs.
But developing MAPLE from a S&T effort into a fully capable baseline for the Naval Strike Network is where the next real challenge lies.
One particular hurdle: making the system “interoperable by design” with non-UK forces.
Ships operate in task groups and as part of coalitions, so the aim of MAPLE 5 is understanding how to control maritime autonomous systems from a wider force rather than an individual ship.
Because it is assumed the UK will not fight on its own, coalition operations are the starting premise of the governance model being introduced for autonomous operations.
To make that happen, different information architectures have to work with each other. For example there would have be an alignment of MAPLE with the US Navy’s Common Control System (CCS). Work on this has progressed and at the REP 2021 Augmented by Maritime Unmanned Systems exercise, a US CCS station was integrated and could task unmanned systems that were under the control of a UK MAPLE C2 node.
This was achieved using an “interchangeability to interoperability” message standard that was conceived through the MAPLE studies and made functional under the Naval Strike Network program. This approach is being proposed as a new NATO standard for maritime autonomous system interoperability within a coalition force.
McIntyre said that in 2022 DSTL plans for synthetic experimentation to build on initial force concepts, and to conduct studies on how lethal and non-lethal effects will impact MAPLE’s control of unmanned systems.
DSTL will also build and develop candidate applications and technologies for testing in the new environment.
However, it is not a simple plug-and-play issue just yet.
McIntyre said that because many combat management systems are classified but most unmanned systems are unclassified, tying the latter into the former is a challenge.
The current plan, he said, involves an effective use of data guards to ensure that only the right data can flow back into the ship while still allowing human operators to command the unmanned fleet.
He added there is also a “cultural challenge” to overcome, as many of unmanned systems manufacturers provide their own C2 systems.
“We have been keen to demonstrate that we are not trying to do away with the good work and innovation of industry but to show that [NSN] would be a more effective route for them to exploit their systems.”
There is also a lot of human factors work being undertaken by DSTL at its Command Lab in Portsdown West.
Alasdair Gilchrist, above water systems program manager at DSTL, told Breaking Defense that they want to minimize the effort of controlling multiple unmanned systems and avoid overburdening the operators. “We are bringing in real operators to look at the challenges. We don’t want data overload, if you put a lot of sensors on these un-crewed vessels — which we have been doing — like full motion video, communications, you can quickly become overloaded in the operations room,” he said.
Data can be passed from an unmanned system to a ship and it will be collated in the operations room. This can then be used to give the command courses of action to the operator so they can make the right tactical decisions to meet their objectives. “The Naval Strike Network is not just an engineering information architecture on its own, it is looking at all these things around it regarding multi-level security, data volumes, data guards, human factors, restrictions on sharing from international partners, across the air, surface and underwater (mine countermeasures) domains,” Gilchrist added.
DSTL is part way through developing MAPLE 5 and is holding a further series of workshops with its military advisers and stakeholders in the Royal Navy and Royal Marines to refine concepts of use, user requirements and systems requirements to make sure it meets their needs.
DSTL is also working with a team of industry partners.
QinetiQ won the DSTL contract to help lead the development of MAPLE 5 following its lead during the preceding MAPLE 4 iteration.
BAE Systems had secured the earlier MAPLE 2 contract and is still part of the team along with SeeByte and Thales, which all lead on different sub-elements of the MAPLE 5.
McIntyre said MAPLE 5 is a departure compared to earlier programs due to the broader engagement of other large firms, including DIEM Analytics, BMT, and L3 Harris ASV.
Partly in parallel with and beyond MAPLE 5 it is the ambition of the Royal Navy to transition the MAPLE 5 architecture into the Naval Strike Network.
Whilst MAPLE is already a robust architecture the “5” program has been agnostic looking at broader use cases for the architecture outside of C2. So according to McIntyre, the next steps will be to go back to specific use cases such testing maritime autonomous systems and refining the architecture.
He said this could include assessing it in a defensive surface warfare or anti-ship missile defense context and from that then building apps and vehicles to test those concepts using MAPLE.
It's been nearly a decade since Sailrocket set a new record to become the world's fastest sailboat. Now two teams are hoping to set a new record with their radical designs.
On 24 November 2012, Paul Larsen and his Sailrocket team rewrote our understanding of the physics of sailboats, stamping their names indelibly in the record books as they set a new record for the world’s fastest sailboat.
A little over a week earlier, at a spot called Walvis Bay on the coast of Namibia, Sailrocket 2 had pushed the outright sailing speed record up by the biggest-ever margin – from 55.65 to 59.23 knots. The performance on the 24th smashed it beyond all expectations though, a gloriously windy day that saw Sailrocket 2 deliver a 65.45 knot average officially becoming the world’s fastest sailboat.
It was a remarkable human achievement, piloting a boat down a 500m course at speeds that had previously been thought impossible. “Your job is to go 100% down that course, there’s no halfway about it,” Paul Larsen told me, almost a decade later. “By the time you’ve got a big team and all the momentum of that project going, your biggest fear is not going fast.”
The risks are inescapable though, as Larsen had revealed in a blog; “As I lay awake in bed that morning I considered writing a little note that I hoped would never be read and stashing it somewhere. Too morbid. Just get it right, Larsen.”
Growth of the world’s fastest sailboat
To put Sailrocket’s performance into context you need to consider the trajectory of the outright sailing speed record. It started back in 1972 with Tim Colman and Crossbow setting an opening mark of 26.30 knots.
Yellow Pages in 1993. Photo: Frederick Clement/DPPI Media/Alamy
By 1993, Yellow Pages had upped that all the way to 46.52 knots – an average improvement of almost a knot every year. But then something changes, progress halts for over a decade. The windsurfers and kiteboarders eventually start nudging it back up, but it’s 16 years before another yacht – Alain Thebault’s foil-borne L’Hydroptère – sets a new record, not even five knots quicker than Yellow Pages.
It was thought that the speed of sailing machines was reaching a ceiling, a physical limit defined by the cavitation point. If you have ever made a cup of tea at altitude then you will know that the boiling point (the transformation point where water changes from a liquid into a vapour), varies with pressure. The lower the pressure, the lower the temperature required for water to boil. So, at the top of Everest, water will boil at about 68°C.
There’s also low pressure on the leeward side of an aero- or hydrofoil. Foils provide a lifting force because of the pressure difference between one side and the other. This difference creates the force as the foil tries to equalise the pressure.
L’Hydroptère claimed the record in 2009. Photo: Christophe Launay
If a hydrofoil goes fast enough then the pressure to leeward will drop sufficiently that the water starts to ‘boil’ or vaporise. This creates a loss of lift, and instability as smooth flow turns chaotic, with vapour bubbles flowing down the foil to an area of higher pressure where they collapse.
It’s this speed limit that we see America’s Cup and SailGP foilers hit on a reach. Once the speed gets much above 50 knots the foils – which are designed to suppress cavitation for as long as possible – finally start to cavitate and the boats just can’t go any faster.
To get past this point a completely different type of foil is required, one that does not try to eliminate cavitation but instead tries to stabilise it, and this is the secret to the 65-knot speed of Sailrocket 2. “That’s the brilliant [foil] design that we settled on, with a lot of help from guys like Aerotrope and Chris Hornzee-Jones. Chris did amazing work behind the scenes on that project, including designing the final foils,” said Larsen.
Matthew Sheahan talks to Paul Larsen shortly after he exceeds 65 knots, shattering his own world record
The team realised the foil didn’t need to be impossibly thin to suppress and avoid cavitation. Instead, they could encourage it and push past the cavitation point with a foil that would cavitate in a stable fashion.
“To make a dinghy or a powerboat analogy, it’s like when you get over that hump and the boat gets up on the plane. We all know when the water separates off the back of the boat, you don’t want your transom gurgling around at the back there with all that drag,” Larsen explains.
Current speed record holders Paul Larsen and Vestas Sailrocket 2. Photo: Vestas SailRocket
In a similar fashion, Sailrocket 2’s foil is able to shed the turbulent, draggy flow of early cavitation and replace it with a single smooth pocket of vapour around the foil as air sucks down from the surface. Larsen calls this a base ventilated foil, it’s also sometimes termed a super-ventilating foil.
“So you end up with these very shallow camber, base ventilated foils, and they’re not overly efficient but they don’t have a limit,” he explained. “They keep working. It’s like a jet fighter’s wings. They’re not efficient, but if you put a big jet engine behind them, they keep going where the others stop and hit the ceiling.”
The jet engine was the other part of the problem. How do you generate enough power from the aerofoil to push a horribly inefficient hydrofoil up to the speeds required to start cavitation, and then blow through that barrier?
The answer lay in a decades-old idea – force alignment. In conventional sailboats, be they dinghies, multihulls or yachts, the aerodynamic force created by the sails is both pushing the boat forward and pushing it over.
The force is resisted by a combination of a hydrodynamic force from a foil in the water, and weight – either the crew’s bodyweight or the weight of a keel. These two forces act at a distance from the centre of effort of the sail – creating opposing levers, with the forces of mass and hydrodynamic lift opposing the aerodynamic force generated by the sail (or wingsail).
The use of these forces to create a propulsive forward force demands a structure of a commensurate size and strength. So to go faster required more force and/or lighter overall weight, but also stronger structures. It was big improvements in the strength and weight characteristics of materials that allowed much of the jumps in speeds set through the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
Vestas Sailrocket 2 used force alignment to achieve her remarkable speeds
But there was another way: by offsetting the forces and aligning them. “So [you] have the centre of effort of the aerodynamic forces, the sail or the wing, directly aligned with the opposing force of the foil,” explains Larsen. In other words, remove the levers by having the force from the sail directly oppose the force from the hydrofoil.
“We didn’t come up with that concept, that was written about in the 1960s by Bernard Smith in the book The 40-Knot Sailboat,” Larsen adds. Smith’s insights were so far ahead of his time that it took almost five decades for them to be fully realised in Sailrocket 2’s record.
Sailrocket 2 achieved the force alignment with a wing mounted on the leeward hull that was canted over the windward hull by 30°. The force it generated was driving the boat forward and trying to lift the windward hull out of the water.
This force was resisted by a foil under the windward hull. And so that foil was pulling down rather than pushing up. It’s a crucial distinction between Sailrocket 2 and the type of foiling craft used in the America’s Cup or SailGP. In those boats, it’s the leeward hydrofoil that pushes back against the sail force. It also lifts the whole boat up and out of the water.
These two breakthrough ideas – force alignment and super-ventilated foils – along with a ‘no guts, no glory’ attitude, took Larsen and his Sailrocket 2 team over 65 knots, a mark that has been held for almost a decade. But might the time have come for that record to be broken?
“I think we’ve sat on it for long enough and it’s definitely time for it to be challenged,” Larsen says. “There was a time I was quite protective and proud of it, and wanted to sit on that throne for a while. But right now I want to see what other people can do with it and see what their solutions might be. I’ll see if it motivates me enough to get back out there myself!”
New fastest sailboat challengers
There are two major challenges shaping up to take on the Sailrocket team’s record and both should take to the water later this year or early in 2023. One of them, Syroco, has been set up by Alex Caizergues, the first man to travel sail-powered at over 100km/h on water, and twice holder of the outright sailing speed record on his kiteboard. The other, SP80, has come out of the Swiss engineering school École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL).
Both are using the principles that Larsen established, and both teams think they won’t just break the record but will smash it. Syroco’s stated target is 150km/h, a breathtaking 80.99 knots. SP80 is also chasing the 80-knot barrier.
“I actually like where both projects are aiming,” said Larsen. “They’re definitely using the force alignment concept.” Both the SP80 and Syroco teams will use a kite, aligning its aerodynamic force with the hydrodynamic force from a foil. This should allow the generation of an immense drive force on a relatively light structure. They will need all the power they can get to push through the cavitation point.
The SP80 project is also using a super-ventilating, surface piercing foil like Sailrocket’s. “Vestas Sailrocket and the work done by Paul Larsen and his team was the main source of inspiration that we used to develop the boat,” said Benoît Gaudiot, one of the three founders of SP80.
They started throwing around ideas in 2017, building super-ventilated fins for a kiteboard. Gaudiot, an experience kitespeed sailor quickly got it to 41 knots. They were going to need a different approach to beat the record though.
“The body cannot handle the power that is required to reach more than 60 knots,” said Gaudiot.
SP80 co-founders Xavier Lepercq, Mayeul van den Broek and Benoît Gaudiot. Photo: SP80
Another of the founders, Xavier Lepercq, built a simulation tool, and they started developing designs. What they came up with was a trimaran powered by a kite, whose aligned force was balanced by a surface-piercing foil.
Once this was formulated the team quickly grew, with EPFL pledging its support and sponsors coming on board. “In the team, we have six full-time employees and almost 40 students from EPFL,” explained Mayeul van den Broek, the team’s project manager. They tested a prototype on Lake Geneva in 2020 and in June 2021 began construction of the full-size craft at Persico Marine.
The transition to a kite means that the biggest challenge to both teams is control – accurately balancing the aero and hydrodynamic forces. SP80 has tackled it with what they call the ‘power module’. “The idea behind this is to balance the force. The way we designed the boat, the main thing to achieve was stability,” said Gaudiot.
The exact mechanism of the power module is confidential, but it’s visible at the back of the boat in their visualisations and animations. It provides a direct link between the kite and the hydrofoil and appears to ‘trim’ the hydrofoil depending on the force vector coming from the kite. The shape of the foil and the linkage to the power module are key to the flight stability of the craft.
Swiss SP80 team has been testing its prototype on Lake Geneva. Photo: SP80
“It’s fully mechanical and it’s fully adjusting the balance by itself,” said Gaudiot. “The controls will be quite simple for the pilot. There will be no need for me to control the height, the elevation of the boat, just the direction. And the power of the kite.”
The kite lines will run to the cockpit and be controlled with the hands, while the direction of the boat will be controlled with the feet.
The SP80 team plan to challenge the record from a base in the south of France early in 2023, and Paul Larsen is looking forward to it. “I think the SP80 is a more practical solution that has made compromises for practicality. And I think I can get my head around that one a bit more. I think SP80 is probably closer to getting results. And I want to see how a kite’s going to go against the [Sailrocket] wing, because historically wings are faster.”
Flight on water
Looking to spoil the Swiss party is Syroco, a French company that comes to the world sailing speed record with gold-plated credentials. Co-founder and CEO Alex Caizergues has already held the record on his kiteboard.
“Since Paul broke the sailing speed record, I knew that we had to change the software and the way to go fast on water. I knew that I had to assemble around me a team of people able to build this kind of craft,” Caizergues recalls.
Caizergues isn’t just an athlete, he’s a business school graduate with an entrepreneurial track record. Syroco was set up in 2019 with four co-founders and support from technology entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.
Artist’s rendering of how the Syroco craft will look in action. Photo: Syroco
They want to do more than just break the record, building a technology business around the attempt. The team has about 15 people working in Marseille with specialists in fluid mechanics, structures, software and data analytics.
“Our l’aile d’eau concept… it’s a little bit like Sailrocket,” said Caizergues. The concept is very simple; a hydrofoil will ‘fly’ underwater, pulled along by a cable that’s connected to a kite flying in the air above it.
Suspended between the two is a capsule containing the pilot Alex Caizergues, and a co-pilot. The aero and hydrodynamic forces oppose each other in an almost perfect representation of the aligned forces concept that powered Sailrocket 2.
It should have the greatest speed potential because there is nothing extraneous. The capsule is only there because both the aero and hydrodynamic wings must be controlled, and the forces balanced by the pilots (not automated).
The Syroco prototype under test being towed by a RIB. Photo: Syroco
And that’s the tough part, controlling it, particularly keeping the foil in the water. “Nope,” responds Alex, quickly, when I mention this possibility. “The foil never goes out of the water.” The Syroco foil isn’t surface piercing, it runs below the surface, only connected to the capsule and the kite by a cable.
It doesn’t rely on dragging air from the surface to stabilise the cavitation around the foil. Instead, it will rely on the cavitation creating its own stable pocket of water vapour around the foil – this is called super-cavitation. When it occurs the water flows around the bubble of vapour as though it were a solid, significantly enhancing the performance of the foil – as long as the bubble remains stable.
The problem is keeping the bubble intact. Paul Larsen pointed out that the cable gives the air a pathway down to the super-cavitating foil. “How they’re going to stop air sucking down from the surface and rupturing the bubble, that’s the real trick. It’s a very dynamic problem to solve. It’ll be interesting to see how well their simulations live up to the reality of what they’re about to strap themselves into…”
The control mechanisms for the final craft are still being worked on, but they have flown a prototype, towed by a RIB rigged with a 5m-high mast that simulated the force from the kite. The team hopes to commit to a final design with construction starting in the spring.
And then of course, there will be the matter of executing the plan on the day. “If you’ve done your maths, you’ve done your engineering, you’ve been thorough, that gives you confidence when you stand up on top of that course on one of those big days and you’re not exactly sure what’s about to happen,” recalls Larsen.
Kiteboarder and businessman Alex Caizergues leads the Syroco project. Photo: Syroco
“You know it’s probably just slightly above your top wind range but all the cameras are rolling and the drones are in the air and everyone’s waiting with their stopwatches. That gives you the confidence to say: ‘Yeah, I’m going to go and wring its neck.’”
“Any crashes I had [and there were several] usually all the systems I had in place [for safety] were still completely locked on among all the wreckage. You’d go and flick off that lever you were going to use to control something – because by the time you’ve realised what’s happening, it’s happened.”
“If we go again with Sailrocket, then safety will feature bigger. I wouldn’t get in that boat and go that speed again. We got away with it because we had to.”
“Safety is really important for us,” agrees Benoît Gaudiot. They have built a kevlar cockpit for protection, installed a six-point harness and an F1-inspired seat. Gaudiot will wear a helmet with oxygen that will switch on if the helmet detects water in contact with its mask. “I would be able to stay in the water for a few minutes to have a diver come and open it.”
“The critical point on the boat is the hydrofoil. If the hydrofoil breaks, the boat…” Van den Broek interjects. “…will take off,” Gaudiot finishes the sentence for him.
Their enthusiasm for the project is infectious, the words tumbling out. And no one wants the boat to take off. One big advantage that they have that Larsen did not, is that they can release the power source. “With a kite it’s a few lines and you can just cut it super-fast,” says Gaudiot. “You can do it by yourself. You can do it from a distance, from the chase boat. You can do it automatically.” “I think both those guys [Caizergues and Gaudiot], they’ve got the mentality,” said Larsen. “They’re not going to get up there and be scared of what they’re doing or intimidated too much by the craft.”
And what if they do break the record that Paul Larsen and his team have owned for almost a decade?
“We opened the door on a whole new world full of potential. And so there is a part of me that’s curious as to what lies further down that path. We validated the concepts that could get above what people thought were the cavitation limits and the ceilings of speed sailing. We proved you could get beyond that. They can take you to new levels of physics.
“The boat [Sailrocket 2] is sitting there in perfect shape. It was made to last forever… we could rig that thing up and do 65 knots in a week or two.”
And if his record goes, I wouldn’t put it past him to dust her off and do just that.
Today’s oceans are a tumult of engine roar, artificial sonar and seismic blasts that make it impossible for marine creatures to hunt or communicate. We could make it stop, so why don’t we?
We were whaling with cameras, joining a flotilla of a dozen other tourist boats from harbours all around the Salish Sea. It was one of my first trips to the area, in August 2001. The fuzz and beep of ship radios stitched a net over the water, a blurry facsimile of the sonic connections of the whales themselves. Every skipper heard the voices of the others, relayed by electromagnetic waves. The quarry could not escape. “Whales guaranteed” shouted the billboards on shore.
We motored on, weaving around island headlands. A sighting off the south-west shore of San Juan Island. Through binoculars: a dorsal fin scythed the water, then dipped. Another, with a spray of mist as the animal exhaled. Then, no sign. But the whales’ location was easy to spot. A dozen boats clustered, most slowly motoring west, away from the shore. We powered closer, slowing the engine until we were travelling without raising a wake and took our place on the outer edge of the gaggle of yachts and cruisers.
A sheet of marble skated just under the water’s surface. Oily smooth. A spill of black ink sheeting under the hazed bottle glass of the water’s surface. Praaf! Surfacing 15 metres ahead of the boat, the exhalation was plosive and rough.
The pod of about 10 animals came to the surface. Part of the L pod of orcas, our captain said, one of three pods that form the “southern residents” in the waters of the Salish Sea between Seattle and Vancouver, often seen hunting salmon around the San Juan Islands. Others – “transients” that ply coastal waters and “offshores” that feed mostly in the Pacific – also visit regularly. The L pod continued west, heading toward the Haro Strait. Our engines purred as the U-shaped arc of boats tracked the pod, leaving open water ahead of the whales.
We dropped a hydrophone over the boat’s gunwale, its cord feeding a small speaker in a plastic casing. Whale sounds! And engine noise, lots of engine noise. Clicks, like taps on a metal can, came in squalls. These sounds are the whales’ echolocating search beams. The whales use the echoes not only to see through the murky water, but to understand how soft, taut, fast or tremulous matter is around them.
Mixed with the staccato of the whales’ clicks were whistles and high squeaks, sounds that undulate, dart, inflect up and spiral down. These whistles are the sounds of whale conviviality, given most often when the animals are socialising at close range. When the pod is more widely spaced during searches for food, the whales whistle less and communicate with bursts of shorter sound pulses. These sonic bonds not only connect the members of each pod, but distinguish the pod from others.
Many marine animals use sounds to search for food and partners, for orientation, to communicate or to protect against enemies.
But marine animals are increasingly disturbed, harassed and even injured by man-made noise.
What sources of noise are there in the sea?
Why is man-made noise so threatening to animals like whales or dolphins?
And how can underwater noise be reduced?
The German Maritime Museum in Stralsund has been pointing out the problem of underwater noise at its OZEANEUM site for some time, illustrating how the increasing artificial noise level threatens and destroys the habitat of marine animals: In the research project #HearingInPenguins, Deutsches Meeresmuseum, Universität Rostock, Syddansk Universitet and Museum für Naturkunde Berlin are researching the hearing ability of penguins, also against the background of man-made underwater noise
Today, ocean waters are a tumult of engine noise, sonar and seismic blasts. Sediments from human activities on land cloud the water. Industrial chemicals befuddle the sense of smell of aquatic animals. We are severing the sensory links that gave the world its animal diversity. Whales cannot hear the echolocating pulses that locate their prey, breeding fish cannot find one another amid the noise and turbidity, and the social connections among crustaceans are weakened as their chemical messages and sonic thrums are lost in a haze of human pollution.
Here off the coast of San Juan Island, the whales’ voices were like fine silk stitched into a thick denim of propeller and motor sound, clicks and whistles sometimes audible but often disappearing into the tight weave of engines. The dozen boats gave off throbs, whirs and shudders as they tracked the whales, combustion engines swaddling the whales in an inescapable, constricting wrap.
In the distance, I could see a container ship and an oil tanker headed north through the Haro Strait, likely bound for Vancouver, the largest port in the region – two of the more than 7,000 large vessels that, combined, make more than 12,000 transits through the strait every year. These range from bulk carriers to container ships to tankers, many of which are 200 or 300 metres long. Large vessels also ply the waters west of the Haro Strait, headed to ports and refineries in and around Seattle and Tacoma. Each one of these vessels makes sound audible underwater from tens, sometimes hundreds, of miles.
Unlike small pleasure boats that are usually moored at sundown, these large vessels make noise all night and day, and are often most active and loudest at night. The largest container ships blast at about 190 underwater decibels or more, the equivalent on land of a thunderclap or the takeoff of a jet.
The southern resident whale community whose life centres on these waters cannot bear the noise. Their population is in decline, likely headed to extinction unless the world gets more hospitable. In the 1990s, the community numbered in the 90s. Now they’ve dropped to the low 70s, losing one or two more animals every year without raising new calves. In 2005, they were listed under the US Endangered Species Act. No single factor is responsible, but the interaction of shipping sounds, dwindling food supply and chemical pollution is, for now, closing the door on their future.
These whales are the falcons of the ocean, rocketing down 100 metres or more in pursuit of their nimble and speedy prey, the chinook salmon. Sound frequencies of boat noise overlap with the clicks that the animals use to echolocate and find their prey. Noise raises a fog, blinding the hunters. If a whale is within 200 metres of a container ship or 100 metres of a smaller boat with an outboard engine, its echolocation range is reduced by 95%.
In air, we hear only a low groan from passing vessels. The sound is mostly transmitted down, below the waves, and the aerial portion is quickly dissipated. Under the surface, the sonic violence of powered boats travels fast and far through the pulse and heave of water molecules. These movements flow directly into aquatic living beings. Sound in air mostly bounces off terrestrial animals, reflected back by the uncooperative border of air to skin. Our middle-ear bones and eardrum are specifically designed to overcome this barrier, gathering aerial sound and delivering it to the aquatic medium of the inner ear. Sound, for us, is focused mostly on a few organs in our heads. But aquatic animals are immersed in sound. Sound flows almost unimpeded from watery surrounds to watery innards. “Hearing” is a full-body experience.
For most whales, and for many fish and invertebrate animals, eyes are only occasionally useful. In the abyssal depths, the animals swim in ink. Along coasts, the water is so turbid that animals see, at most, a body length ahead. Sound reveals the shapes, energies, boundaries and other inhabitants of the sea. Sound is also a communicative bond. In the ocean, as is true in the rainforest where dense foliage occludes vision, sound connects you to unseen mates, kin and rivals, and it alerts you to nearby prey and predators.
If salmon were abundant, all this noise might not be a problem. But the chinook salmon that compose most of the whales’ diet here are in crisis. Dams, urbanisation, agriculture and logging have cut off or degraded most of the freshwater rivers and streams in which the fish spawn and live out their first months. Chinook salmon numbers in this region have declined by 60% since the 1980s, and possibly more than 90% since the early 20th century. Under current conditions, models forecast, at best, a fragile southern resident population. Any additional stress will send them to extinction.
A humpback whale and her calf.
Since 2017, the Port of Vancouver has enacted a voluntary slowdown of shipping traffic headed through the Haro Strait. For 30 nautical miles, large vessels slow, adding about 20 minutes to the ships’ voyages. Ship noise increases with speed, and so dialling back the throttle lessens the cacophony in a place where the southern resident whales often feed. More than 80% of vessels have complied with the project.
Yet traffic increases yearly in the region, more than eliminating the quiet gained by shaving some noise from each passing ship. In 2018, crude oil exports from Vancouver increased dramatically, mostly destined for China and South Korea. In 2019, the Canadian government approved an expansion that would nearly triple the capacity of the pipeline that supplies much of the oil from the tar sands region of Alberta. Vancouver’s port is seeking approval for a vast new container terminal. In 2021, the nonprofit Friends of the San Juans catalogued more than 20 other proposals to build new or expanded shipping terminals for containers, oil, liquefied gas, grain, potash, cruise ships, coal and car carriers in the region. If approved, these would increase traffic by more than 25%.
Seven hundred kilometres north of Vancouver, the fjords that lead to the port of Kitimat are home to several species of whales living in relatively unpolluted and quiet waters. Under construction there is a liquefied natural gas terminal that is slated to add 700 new large-vessel transits, a more than thirteenfold increase, not counting the powerful tugs that would accompany the tankers as they navigate rocky fjords.
The US navy also plans expanded exercises in the region, including the use of explosives and loud sonar. By its own estimates, across the Pacific north-west coast, navy “acoustic and explosive” exercises, including those in the waters favoured by the southern residents, will kill or injure nearly 3,000 marine mammals and disrupt the feeding, breeding, movements and nursing of 1.75 million more.
The whales in and around the San Juan Islands and the Haro Strait live in a constriction point for much of the trade that passes between Asia and North America, supplemented with some shipping from the Middle East and Europe. The vast majority of the consumer goods and bulk commodities that move between the continents do so on ships. I look around at my material possessions. Whales, either in the Haro Strait or perhaps off the coast of Los Angeles, heard the arrival of every item made in a country on the Pacific rim: laptop, silverware, watering can, furniture and car.
Whales living along the Atlantic coast were immersed in the sounds of deliveries from Europe and north Africa: office chairs, books, wine and olive oil. Having lived most of my life inland, many hours’ drive from the sea, I have seldom seen or heard whales. But the whales hear me. They are immersed in the sounds of my purchases from over the horizon every day of their lives.
The converging shipping lanes around major seaports are focal points for a noise problem that extends across the oceans. In the 1950s, about 30,000 merchant vessels plied the world’s oceans. Now about 100,000 do, many of them with much larger engines. Tonnage of cargo has increased tenfold.
Ambient noise on the Pacific coast of North America has increased by about 10 decibels since the 1960s, when the measurements started. By some estimates, noise levels in the world’s oceans have doubled every decade since the mid-20th century. The noise is worse around the major shipping lanes that connect major ports across the northern Pacific and Atlantic, for example, but because sound propagates readily in water, the rumble reaches for hundreds of kilometres. When a large ocean-bound ship crosses the continental shelf, its sound shoots to the deep ocean floor, several miles down, then bounces up off the sediment and into the deep sound channel. This channel carries the noise thousands of miles. Across much of the world, it is now impossible to measure the background levels of ocean sound without engine traffic.
Photograph: sethakan/Getty Images
Near to shore, small-boat traffic adds another, higher-pitched, layer of sound, as I discovered on the deck of the whale-watching boat. The number of recreational boats in the US has increased by 1% a year for the past three decades. In coastal Australia, the annual rate of increase in the number of small boats has recently reached up to 3%. The sound from these smaller vessels does not travel as far, but for many animals living in coastal waters it is the dominant sound source. At close range, sonar – sounds emitted from shipboard devices to detect the sea floor, schools of fish and enemy submarines – can add to these higher-pitched noises.
Into this global mire of noise comes the loudest human noise of all – the percussive beat of our industrialised search for energy. Prospectors blast sound into the ocean, seeking oil and gas buried under ocean sediments. Ships drag arrays of air guns that shoot bubbles of pressurised air into the water, a replacement for the dynamite that was formerly tossed overboard for the same purpose. As the bubbles expand and collapse, they punch sound waves into the water. These waves spread in all directions. Those that go down penetrate the sea floor, then bounce back when they hit reflective surfaces. By measuring these reflections from the ship, geologists can build a 3D image of the varied layers of mud, sand, rock and oil tens or even hundreds of miles under the seabed. Like a whale guided by the reflective ping of a chinook salmon, oil and gas companies use sound to find their quarry. But unlike the click of a whale, these seismic surveys can be heard up to 2,500 miles away.
The blast of an air gun emerges from a metre-long, missile-shaped canister towed behind the survey ship. The sound can be as loud as 260 underwater decibels, six to seven orders of magnitude more intense than the loudest ship. The guns are typically deployed in arrays of up to four dozen. These batteries go off about once every 10 to 20 seconds. The ship tracks methodically back and forth through the ocean, like a lawnmower, in surveys that can run continuously for months, covering tens of thousands of square miles. In some years in the North Atlantic, dozens of surveys run at once, and a single hydrophone can pick up the relentless sound of seismic surveys off the coasts of Brazil, the US, Canada, northern Europe and the west coast of Africa.
Stand on an ocean shore, and you will not hear the sound of seismic surveys. Take a ship into deep water and, even there, water’s reflective boundary and our air-adapted ears shield us. Analogy fails, too. A pile-driver in your house, running without stop for months? That gives an approximation of the loudness and relentlessness, but we can walk away from the house, and even when we stand next to the machine, the assault mostly affects only our ears. For aquatic creatures, sound is sight, touch, proprioception and hearing. They cannot leave the water. Few can swim the hundreds of miles necessary to escape. The pile-driver is coupled, minute by minute, to every nerve ending and cell, suffusing them with the violence of explosions.
Ocean creatures, especially near to shore or along busy trade routes, now live in a din previously unknown except near underwater volcanoes or during an earthquake. Wind-stirred waves, breaking ice, earthquakes, the motion of bubbles in water columns, and the sounds of whales and snapping shrimp are the sounds to which marine life is adapted. But the blast of air guns, the needling and stab of sonar, and the throb of engines are new and, in most places, far louder than just a few decades ago.
The noise in the ocean today is infernal, but unlike chemical pollution that lingers sometimes for centuries, or plastics that will persist for millennia, sound pollution can be shut off in an instant. Silence from humans is unlikely, since the energy and materials that supply our bodies and economies move largely by ship. Most of our oil, gas and food travels among continents by sea. There is little chance, therefore, that the noise will cease entirely. But quieter oceans are within reach.
It is possible to build almost silent ships. Navies have been doing so for decades. Fisheries researchers seeking to measure fish abundance and behaviours do so from vessels with engines, gears and propellers engineered to reduce noise and thus not alarm fish. The hush from these ships comes at the cost of efficiency and speed. Yet even for large commercial vessels, noise can be greatly reduced through careful design. Regular propeller repair and polishing reduce the formation of cavitation bubbles that are the main source of noise.
Slowing the vessel, even by 10% or 20%, also cuts noise, sometimes by up to half. Many of these changes save fuel, giving a direct benefit to the ship operators, although not always enough to offset the costs of expensive reengineering. More than half of the noise in the oceans comes from a minority – between one-10th and one-sixth – of the vessels, often older and less efficient craft. Quieting this clamorous minority could significantly reduce noise.
But volume of traffic needs to be reduced: quieter ships might lead to more ship collisions if whales cannot hear approaching danger. For millions of years whales have safely travelled and rested at the water’s surface. Now blows from hulls and slashes from propellers are significant risks for whales in ocean shipping lanes and around busy ports.
The most harmful effects of sonar can also be reduced, at least for large marine mammals, by locating navy exercises away from known feeding and calving grounds, tracking whales and shutting down war games when they are close, gradually ramping up sound levels so that animals have time to escape, and reducing longterm exposure by not repeatedly subjecting the same animals to high-amplitude sonar. As with shipping noise, reducing the overall number of ships conducting exercises would have the most significant effect.
Even seismic surveys can be hushed. Machines that send low-frequency vibrations down into the water column yield excellent maps of buried geology while making less noise than air guns. This “vibroseis” technology is regularly used on land but has yet to be widely adopted in the ocean. Marine vibroseis produces sounds that overlap with animal senses and communicative signals, but does so over smaller areas and in a narrower frequency range.
For now, these changes are mostly experimental, hypothetical or enacted in small corners of the oceans. Regulation of marine noise happens piecemeal by country, with no binding international standards or goals. The noise in the oceans continues to worsen. A 2016 estimate of global shipping noise projected a near doubling by 2030. A review in 2013 found that expenditures on seismic surveys were increasing at nearly 20% a year, more than $10bn annually, capping two decades of rapid growth. The Covid-19 pandemic briefly slowed this rise, but demand for more surveys will probably surge as oil prices rise. The US military plans to start broadcasting continuous noise into all ocean basins to guide underwater vehicles.
We possess the technology and economic mechanisms needed to reduce our noise. But we lack sensory and imaginative connection to the problem, and thus the will to act. Today a single whale can sometimes be heard from across an entire ocean basin. Imagine millions of these animals giving voice. When some of the whales alive today were young, every water molecule in the oceans continually thrummed with the sound of whales. Vociferous fish formerly sang by the billions on their breeding grounds and added their sounds to the whales’ calls. The ocean world pulsed, shimmered and seethed with song. These sounds connected animals into fruitful and creative networks. Given a chance, this could return.
For 13 thousand dollars, Englishman Brandon Grimshaw bought a tiny uninhabited island in the Seychelles and moved there forever.
When the Englishman Brandon Grimshaw was under forty, he quit his job as a newspaper editor and started a new life. By this time, no human had set foot on the island for 50 years.
As befits a real Robinson, Brandon found himself a companion from among the natives.
His Friday name was René Lafortin. Together with Rene, Brandon began to equip his new home.
While René came to the island only occasionally, Brandon lived on it for decades, never leaving.
By oneself. For 39 years, Grimshaw and Lafortin planted 16 thousand trees with their own hands and built almost 5 kilometers of paths.
In 2007, Rene Lafortin died, and Brandon was left all alone on the island. He was 81 years old.
He attracted 2,000 new bird species to the island and introduced more than a hundred giant tortoises, which in the rest of the world (including the Seychelles) were already on the verge of extinction.
Thanks to Grimshaw's efforts, the once deserted island now hosts two-thirds of the Seychelles' fauna.
An abandoned piece of land has turned into a real paradise. A few years ago, the prince of Saudi Arabia offered Brandon Grimshaw $50 million for the island, but Robinson refused.
“I don’t want the island to become a favorite vacation spot for the rich. Better let it be a national park that everyone can enjoy.” And he achieved that in 2008 the island was indeed declared a national park. Credit Drew Snider
Once a neglected wasteland, this paradisiacal eco-reserve stands as a reminder of what the Seychelles were like before tourism arrived.
Most people who buy their very own tropical island do so in the pursuit of luxury. Brendon Grimshaw was different. So, too, was Moyenne, the island in the Seychelles that Grimshaw bought.
Localization in the Saint Anne Marine National Park in Seychelles with the GeoGarage platform (UKHO map)
Grimshaw first came to the Seychelles – an archipelago of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean, only eight of which are permanently inhabited – on holiday in 1962. At the time, he was an editor working for some of the biggest newspapers in East Africa. It was an exciting time in Africa and, as part of his job, he rubbed shoulders with Tanzania's charismatic new leader and future president, Julius Nyerere.
But Grimshaw was looking for something more than a holiday.
Tanzania had declared independence the year before; Kenya would follow a year later; and Grimshaw, an Englishman, understood that jobs such as his would soon pass to locals. Knowing that he would soon be unemployed, Grimshaw searched for a new direction in life, one that took him closer to nature. He dreamed about owning land in the Seychelles – ideally, he'd buy his own island.
Moyenne is a 0.099sq km dot off the coast of the Seychelles' largest island, Mahé
(Credit: image BROKER/Alamy)
On his first few weeks in the Seychelles, Grimshaw began to wonder whether he needed a change of plan: there weren't many islands on the market, and those that were had eye-watering price tags. On the second-to-last day of his holiday, a young man approached him in the Seychelles' capital, Victoria, and asked Grimshaw if he wanted to buy an island. Just like that. They travelled together to Moyenne, a 0.099sq km dot 4.5km off the north coast of the Seychelles' largest island, Mahé. Grimshaw fell in love immediately with its silence and its wild tangle of vegetation. It was, he would later say, close enough to be accessible from the Seychelles' main island, and yet a world away.
"It was totally different. It was a special feeling," he told a documentary film crew in 2009. "This is the place I'd been looking for."
At four minutes to midnight on the last day of his Seychelles holiday, Grimshaw signed an agreement to pay £8,000 for Moyenne. The island was his. But buying Moyenne would prove an easier task than taking care of it.
Save for a family of fisherfolk who lived on the island, Moyenne had been abandoned for decades. With tourism starting to take off in the Seychelles, it seemed only a matter of time before someone cleared the land to build a five-star resort.
Moyenne was once so overgrown that falling coconuts never hit the ground
Moyenne is one of the smallest of the Seychelles' inner islands: it measures just 0.4km long and barely 0.3km wide, and its coastline runs for less than 2km. Its highest point rises to an altitude of just 61m above the water's edge. Moyenne possesses the same paradisical white sand and granite boulders that characterise so many Seychelles shorelines, but it's also home to a dense, unbroken wall of trees that cover the island, forming a low pyramid above the water's edge. It's a riot of green against cobalt skies and a sapphire sea, like a tiny rainforest erupting from the ocean.
Despite Moyenne's diminutive size, restoring the island's natural beauty was a massive task. A combination of neglect and heavy-handed human intervention had left Moyenne dishevelled and gasping for air. Weeds choked the understorey, and the island was so overgrown that, it was said, falling coconuts never hit the ground. In the tangle of weeds, birds were noticeably absent and rats foraged in the undergrowth.
By Grimshaw's side was a local named Rene Antoine Lafortune, the 19-year-old son of a local fisherman. The two became inseparable, and together they set about transforming the island, clearing the scrub, planting trees and forging paths through the undergrowth. It was painstaking, back-breaking work – and it became Grimshaw's life-long obsession.
Grimshaw's initial goal was to protect Moyenne from overdevelopment. At first, this meant uncovering the island's raw beauty and building a humble island home where he could live out his days. But his longer-term dream was to create a natural paradise that would outlive him and remain protected long after he was gone.
Grimshaw was a former newspaper editor-turned-conservationist
(Credit: Marion Kaplan/Alamy)
"His vision was to leave an unspoiled island for future generations of Seychellois and the world," said Suketu Patel, who first met Grimshaw in 1976 and became a lifelong friend. "He wanted a mini-Seychelles. He wanted to try and replicate what Seychelles and its islands were like before tourists came."
It wasn't all hard work, though. While taming the overgrown north-western corner of Moyenne, Grimshaw found two graves. Their tombstones read, "Unhappily Unknown". Grimshaw became convinced that pirates from centuries past were buried here; one of the beaches on the island's north side is known as Pirate's Cove. The graves belonged to a pair of lowly buccaneers, so the story went, who were killed by two famous pirate leaders so that the dead men's spirits would haunt the island and protect the treasure.
Whether Grimshaw really believed the legends is unknown. "For him it was fun to get up in the morning, ask, 'What will I do today? Let's go look for treasure'," remembered Patel. Today, there are two sites marked on maps of Moyenne with a skull-and-crossbones symbol, where Grimshaw and Lafortune tried their luck looking for, but never finding, the pirates' hidden treasure.
As tourism in the Seychelles grew in the 1980s and the archipelago became synonymous with a tropical island paradise, investors turned their covetous gaze towards Moyenne. Grimshaw received offers of up to $50m to sell the island. He resisted every overture.
Moyenne is like a tiny rainforest erupting from the ocean
As Grimshaw grew older, he became increasingly aware that he had limited time left to protect the island's future. He had no children to whom he could pass on custodianship of the island, and when Lafortune passed away in 2007, Grimshaw decided to act. With Patel and others, he set up a perpetual trust to protect the island and signed an 2009 agreement with the Seychelles' Ministry of Environment that included Moyenne as part of Ste Anne Marine Park, but granted it its own special status. With that, Moyenne Island National Park, the world's smallest national park, was born.
It can be easy to imagine Grimshaw as an eccentric figure. After all, he moved alone to the other side of the world, bought an island, believed in pirates and spent a lifetime restoring a seemingly inconsequential speck of land. But many Seychellois remain grateful for what he bequeathed to his adopted nation.
"Personally, I don't think he was crazy," said Isabelle Ravinia from the Seychelles National Parks Authority. "He gave the island back to the country, which was a noble thing to do. Normally people would try to sell off the island before they die so they can obtain money to do something else. Instead, he did something incredible."
Grimshaw died in 2012 and his grave sits alongside that of his father (who later came to live with Grimshaw) and the two unknown pirates. At his request, Grimshaw's tombstone reads, "Moyenne taught him to open his eyes to the beauty around him and say thank you to God."
In his last will and testament, he expressed his final wishes: "Moyenne Island is to be maintained as a venue for prayer, peace, tranquillity, relaxation and knowledge for Seychellois and visitors from overseas of all nationalities, colours and creeds."
Thanks to Grimshaw and Lafortune's work, Moyenne is crisscrossed by nature trails today
The task of fulfilling Grimshaw's wishes now lies in the hands of the Moyenne Island Foundation, which is overseen by Patel. Apart from a restaurant – the Jolly Roger – that serves local dishes like grilled fish and seafood curries in a red Creole sauce, a small museum dedicated to Grimshaw's life and two nurseries for giant tortoise hatchlings, Moyenne remains undeveloped.
How to visit Moyenne
Aside from hiring your own boat, the best way to explore Moyenne is on a half- or full-day tour with Creole Travel Services and Mason's Travel, which also take in the other islands of the Ste Anne Park.
The island has no jetty and arriving here carries a special kind of magic: nowhere else in the Seychelles can match Moyenne's sense of deserted-island discovery as you wade ashore, barefoot, through the shallows. As you reach dry land and take your first steps along the gently climbing forest trail, the trees close in behind you and you enter another world. Dappled sunlight filters down through the canopy to the forest floor, the temperature is cooler, and the island's 16,000 trees – mahogany, palm, mango, pawpaw – planted by Grimshaw and Lafortune surround you. By one estimate, Moyenne has more plant species per sq m than any other national park in the world.
Every now and then, you may find your path blocked by one of Moyenne's nearly 50 free-range giant Aldabra tortoises. They're in no hurry, and nor should you be as you watch them pass. Back in the shallows and by the beaches at Pirate’s Cove, watch for hawksbill turtles that often come ashore to nest.
Even during peak tourist season, there are rarely more than 50 visitors on the island at any one time, and never more than 300 over the course of a day. Six islands make up the Ste Anne Marine Park, but Moyenne is the only one, aside from tiny Ile Cachee, with no hotel development or other forms of private land ownership. And thanks to Grimshaw and his friends, Moyenne is likely to stay this way.
"There's something that grabs you when you go there," said Patel. "If you think you have a big problem, when you're on the island you realise that it's not a problem after all. Moyenne is what life should be like."
Alistair Bain observing bioluminescence while taking a long-exposure
photograph at Te Arai Beach, Wellsford, New Zealand, in May
From NYTimes by Mike Ives Capturing bioluminescence, a phenomenon in which glowing algae give crashing waves an electric blue glow, requires technical skill and a bit of luck.
On hot, moonless nights in New Zealand, they fan out across beaches in search of an elusive, shimmering quarry.
They aren’t hunters, but photographers chasing bioluminescence, a natural phenomenon in which glowing algae give crashing waves an ethereal, electric blue aura.
New Zealand is an especially good place to “chase bio,” as enthusiasts there say.
Even so, it’s notoriously hard to predict where and when bioluminescence will appear.
And photographing it in near-total darkness — at 3 a.m., as you stand knee-deep in the surf gripping a tripod — presents extra obstacles.
“It is very, very difficult to catch sight of, and sometimes it does come down to blind luck,” said one of those enthusiasts, Matthew Davison, 37, who lives in Auckland and sometimes stays out until sunrise shooting bioluminescence. “But part of the appeal and part of the adventure is that, because it is so hard, that’s what makes it exciting,” he added. “When you find it, when you strike blue gold, it is just such a good feeling.”
Bioluminescence at Big Manly Beach in Auckland, New Zealand, in January 2021.
Sounding a ‘Burglar Alarm’
Bioluminescence is relatively rare on land but very common in the ocean.
The glow comes in different colors on land, but in oceans it usually appears as blue-green because that is what cuts through seawater the best.
Bioluminescent organisms — from fireflies to anglerfish — create light from energy released by chemical reactions inside their bodies.
Even though many scientists, including Aristotle and Darwin, have been fascinated by bioluminescence over the centuries, the behavioral motivations for it are still something of a mystery, said Kenneth H. Nealson, a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California who studied the phenomenon for decades.
Scientists generally think that organisms light up in order to communicate with one another, lure or detect prey or warn or evade predators.
The most popular explanation for why algae glow in the oceans is the “burglar alarm” hypothesis, Professor Nealson said.
It holds that the organisms glow when big fish swim by in order to scare off smaller fish that eat algae.
Bioluminescence at Big Manly Beach in January 2022.
Coastal waters turn blue during periods when algae, which live near the surface of oceans, multiply in especially nutrient-rich waters.
The specific flashes of blue-green light come in response to pressure changes that waves create as they crash.
The waves pose no threat to algae, Professor Nealson said, but algal blooms light up anyway because algae are programmed to respond to pressure changes that fish create when they swim by in the open ocean. “That luminescence is probably of no help at all to those algae that are in the cusp of the wave and giving off the light,” Professor Nealson said.
“But if they were back a little further offshore, it could be a very good behavioral mechanism” because it could help them scare off predators.
Photographers who hunt bioluminescence in New Zealand, many of whom have day jobs, say that summer is generally the best time to spot it.
(Summer runs from December to March in the Southern Hemisphere.)
Nights after rainstorms are best, they say, because water that runs off land into the ocean often includes nutrient-rich material that attracts algae.
Mr. Davison, a product developer for a technology company, has a method for finding bioluminescence. First he studies satellite imagery to identify algal blooms off the coast.
Then he combs through other indicators, such as wind direction and tidal patterns, to predict where waters may glow.
He’s an exception, though. Other photographers mainly rely on a mix of luck, intuition and the occasional tip from neighbors who spot sparks of blue during walks on the beach.
“If I’m perfectly honest, probably eight out of 10 times I capture it is either by chance or just a gut feeling that it might be around,” said Grant Birley, 48, who works in the orthopedics industry and often stops to photograph bioluminescence during his two-hour commute along the coastline of New Zealand’s North Island.
“It’s not an educated guess at all.”
One source of intelligence is a private Facebook group that was created two years ago for people in the Auckland area to discuss sightings of bioluminescence.
It now has more than 7,000 members and welcomes about 2,000 new ones each summer, said Stacey Ferreira, one of the group’s administrators.
Ms. Ferreira said she created the group so that others could “tick the beautiful phenomenon off their bucket lists,” as she did in 2020.
“It’s been great!” she wrote in an email.
“People from every background have joined — talented photography enthusiasts, bioluminescence researchers, scientists, families and everyone in between.”
Shots After Dark
For “bio chasers,” finding the glow is just the start of the process of capturing a memorable image.
After arriving at a beach, they typically set up tripods in the surf and spend hours shooting, sometimes in near-total darkness, as blue patches flicker intermittently across the shore.
Sometimes the flicker dies off after a few minutes, and they head home empty-handed.
Grant Birley and Alex, his son, at Mangawhai Heads Beach in New Zealand in May 2020.
Mr. Birley often stops to photograph bioluminescence during his two-hour commute along the coastline of New Zealand’s North Island.
When “bio” is present, a key challenge is deciding how long to expose an image.
Mr. Birley said the timing could range from one second to nearly two minutes and that it could be hard to check on the fly — by looking at a tiny camera screen — to see whether the exposure times are correct.
Another challenge is that images of bioluminescence sometimes include details that weren’t visible when the shutter clicked.
That is because a camera sees far more than the naked eye, especially in long nighttime exposures.
“In the daytime you look and say, ‘There’s a tree and a sunset and a cliff and I’ll move over to the left,’” said Alistair Bain, 38, a high school teacher who lives near Mr. Birley on the suburban Whangaparaoa Peninsula, north of central Auckland.
“You’ve got none of that at night.”
Mr. Bain observing the bioluminescence at Big Manly Beach in August 2017.
Credit... Alistair Bain
For all the challenges, photographers say that hunting bioluminescence is rewarding in part because the phenomenon is endlessly surprising.
One clear night, Mr. Bain drove about 40 miles to a beach where he hoped to photograph the Milky Way galaxy.
When he arrived, he saw not only a sky full of stars but a glowing shoreline
“That was a special one to come across by accident,” he said.
Another time, Mr. Davison stepped out his car at a beach with low expectations.
It was raining, and he assumed that would be a problem because heavy rain typically spoils a bioluminescence show.
But in this case, the rainfall was gentle enough that it had activated glowing algae across the ocean’s surface for as far as he could see.
So he grabbed his camera and started to shoot.
“Unless you’re there, unless you capture it, no one would believe — could not even possibly imagine — what you’re witnessing,” Mr. Davison said.
“That’s why I love taking photos and videos of this. The best way to share what you’ve seen is through the power of an image.”