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The Whale Wiretap: Oceanographer's Underwater Microphones Eavesdrop On The Secret Lives of Whales

Amy van Cise
University of Washington oceanographer Kate Stafford studies whales by listening to sound recordings taken deep below the surface of the sea.

Deep down on the sea floor off the coast of Alaska, about a dozen underwater microphones sit, anchored down by big heavy wheels from old trains. They sit and listen to the world of sounds around them.

“I mean, you can hear earthquakes and volcanoes," says Kate Stafford, oceanographer at the Applied Physics Lab at the University of Washington. " You can hear ships. You can hear winds and waves. And you can hear fish and seals and whales and anything produces sound underwater. You can listen 24 hours a day, whether it’s light outside or dark. Whether there’s a storm raging or not."

Stafford listens back to these recordings with the help of high-tech software to learn more about some especially loud underwater creatures: whales. Sound Effect's Gabriel Spitzer talked with her about what she's learned and what it's like to eavesdrop on the ocean.

This story originally aired on Oct. 29, 2016

Sound Effect producer Allie Ferguson has been making radio for nearly 5 years. She got her start at KUOW and has since traveled the country working for national news shows including WNYC's The Takeaway and NPR's Weekend All Things Considered. Allie won a 2016 Gracie Award, which celebrates women in media, for her work at KUOW. She enjoys telling surprising stories about passionate people.