Des solutions pour la planète

Listening to the world to save endangered species

The research and technological innovations developed by the bio-acoustician are used to assess the degree of noise pollution that affects the planet, and to take action.

By Françoise Blind Kempinski
Published in March 2020icon-clockTime to read: 2min 58s

Professor Michel André leads an exciting life: he dives with sperm whales, climbs more than 40 metres high into the forest canopy, isolates himself 600 metres below the surface of the Earth, swims among piranhas, and more. He braves all of these dangers with a single obsession: to listen. To listen to what we consider to be silence, what is unknown, what we do not want to hear.

Wherever wildlife is threatened, this acoustician sets up smart sensors to monitor and analyse, in order to help humans take the necessary conservation measures. The director of the Bioacoustic Applications Laboratory (LAB) of the Polytechnic University of Barcelona, André was born with a mission. When he was a young child, he lived in Toulouse. He told his parents that he wanted to be a vet and then around the age of twelve, he had a revelation: he would study communication between dolphins. He had already understood that these mammals, whose brains have evolved for 30 million years, have reached the pinnacle of underwater acoustic development – a subject of study that would set the course of his life. Some 35 years later, André’s revelation has changed into a realisation: “The ocean will die because of noise.”

But, in the early 1990s, there were no specific studies dedicated to acoustics. So Michel André had to build his own career. He took two masters degrees, one in biochemistry, the other in animal physiology, and then acquired a degree in biotechnology at INSA (the National Institute of Applied Sciences) in Toulouse.

The ocean will die because of noise.Michel André

The entire food chain of the oceans is affected

From 1987 to 1992, André went to California to specialise in bioacoustics in a laboratory specialised in the study of... dolphins. And, in 1992, he headed to the Canary Islands where he was called on to solve problems of collisions between sperm whales and fast transport ships. Although it was the death of a tourist rather than the lethal laceration of the whales that was behind the request for help, Michel André began to test out his concept. After analysing the situation, he realised that the animals no longer made much distinction between the various sounds in the underwater cacophony, and that the boats’ sound warnings did not make them change course. He then decided to use the reverse strategy: it would be the boat that would avoid the whales. To do this, he installed a network of passive acoustic sensors that identified the signals specific to cetaceans and their position. “Until the early 1990s, it was thought that the only animals to suffer from noise were cetaceans, for their communication, hunting, and reproduction, but there was no data to support this,” the researcher recalls. Thanks to Michel André’s scientific work, “we know that this source of noise pollution affects not only animals capable of perceiving sounds, but also passive species that do not hear but detect the vibrations. These analyses have been confirmed in crustaceans, shellfish, corals, and all invertebrates, i.e. several thousand species.” “The whole food chain is affected by noise in all the seas around the world,” warns the bio-acoustician.

And this noise not only comes from cargo ships, but also oil platforms, military manoeuvres, the vibrations of offshore wind turbines, and geophysical experiments using compressed-air cannons to determine the nature of the ocean bed, among other sources. All of these noise sources emit low-frequency waves that travel long distances. A world of silence, really?

An obsession

To reach this sombre conclusion, Michel André pursued his obsession. In 1997, he prepared a doctorate in bioacoustics at the University of Grande Las Palmas in Gran Canaria, where he was also a lecturer. He stayed for six years and, at the age of 40, asked the Spanish government to create a Laboratory of Applied Bioacoustics (LAB). The proposal was accepted and he has been its director since 2003. A year earlier, the researcher won a Rolex* Award: “It was a huge privilege to be recognised, and for the last 18 years, Rolex has been attentive to my research needs,” he explains.

It was a huge privilege to be recognised, and for the last 18 years, Rolex has been attentive to my research needs.Michel André

Backed by this recognition, Michel André has been working hard on developing the LIDO (Listen to the Deep Ocean) programme, which he has implemented on a global scale. For 17 years, an underwater network of fixed sensors has been deployed in progressive steps, forming smart ears paired with an artificial brain that automatically analyses all the sound sources in real time to understand their levels and origin, enabling them to be compared. It represents a way of producing a unique map of the sound developments of all the world’s seas!

Monitoring the entire Amazon forest

But the LAB’s director does not just want to warn us, he also wants to raise awareness among authorities and companies, and offer solutions that will reduce ocean noise pollution. He has created a company for this purpose. He is also committed to a series of other projects that cannot be monetised. And to carry them out, he has created a foundation, The Sense of Silence Foundation.

Because it is not only the sea that attracts Michel André; he has also had a passion for the Amazon forest since childhood. Small wonder, then, that he became ambassador of the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve, 500 km from Manaus, where the last specimens of pink dolphins live… surrounded by piranhas. It was there that he developed the first stage of the experimental “Providence” project, adapting his large ocean ears to the forest canopy, to discover what lies beneath it by capturing noise. In the long term, it is hoped that the project will monitor the entire Amazon forest. In the next few months, we might track him down in Antarctica, or perhaps listening to the secret life of the Earth in an unexplored cave, where Michel André finds absolute rest… in silence.

*Rolex is the exclusive partner of Les Echos Planète

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