Innovating for a better understanding of oceans
Two groundbreaking researchers are using new technology to better understand the seas, and animals that live in them.
This article reports on the impact of Rolex’s Perpetual Planet Initiative, which supports outstanding individuals and organizations that are implementing novel solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. The initiative includes the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, a program that for over four decades has recognized changemakers from around the world, including Barbara Block and Michel André, who are featured in this story.
In 1992, a Spanish passenger ferry traveling between Tenerife and Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands struck a sperm whale. The accident was the region’s fifth whale collision in a four-year span. Although ship collisions with cetaceans are a recurring issue globally, the frequency of incidents within a small region was alarming. Michel André, a young French biologist and engineer who had been studying dolphin communication as a research assistant in California, decided to move to Gran Canaria to find a way to help.
Whales, like dolphins, are adept at using sound – not only to communicate, but also to map their surrounding environment. André aimed to use his expertise to understand why this critical survival tool seemed to be failing. “I strove to apply my experience and knowledge to bring a solution to this collision problem that was threatening this sperm whale population in that specific area,” said André.
Embarking on a Ph.D. in sperm whale bioacoustics, the young researcher soon made a grim discovery: the constant din of ship traffic may have been, for some of the whales, literally deafening. As his work developed, however, André hit on a solution for protecting the lives of the Canary Island’s sperm whales. He and his team developed a technology – a combination of water-based microphones and AI-powered data processing – to map the presence of the whales through the sounds they produce. They were then able to alert ship captains to the locations of the enormous swimmers.
In 2002, André received support for his project from Rolex after the institution honored him with a Rolex Award for Enterprise. The award, which helped him fully develop the whale-detection system, was a recognition of André’s pioneering approach to safeguarding marine life. The conservationist is a leader in a burgeoning movement – one that uses technology to monitor the mysterious ecologies and animal activities going on beneath the otherwise opaque, uniform surface of the world’s seas.
Portrait of environmental pioneers
Tracking with tech
Around the mid-1990s, however, emerging technologies offered Block new opportunities to refine the tracking tech. “We and others began asking, ‘how do we take the same chips that are in our computers and sensors and make them in miniature enough packages that we could actually record data from animals in the sea?’”
Block and her team worked with two different engineering firms to develop what they call archival tags: these surgically-implanted monitors would continually record information about the animals’ movements – no receiver necessary. The researchers deployed hundreds of them in bluefin tuna throughout the Atlantic and then offered rewards to commercial fisherman to return the instruments when those particular fish were caught.
The data the tags delivered was groundbreaking. Among other things, Block discovered that bluefin tuna traveled vast distances across the Atlantic, intermixing with European populations, and that the existing “two-stock” model – with North American tuna stocks monitored and managed separately from European stocks – wasn’t supported by the evidence. “We immediately saw that fish from our side of the ocean actually went as far away as deep into the Mediterranean Sea, and that we were connected across the 45 nations that were fishing for this remarkable animal,” she said. This suggested that an “overlap model” backed by more international collaboration was needed to adequately manage conservation efforts.
Over the years, Block’s tech continued to evolve. She and her collaborators were able to develop a sophisticated archival tag that avoided the need to recatch the fish they were studying; the non-invasive device would literally pop off its host, float to the surface and transmit its data via satellite. She also deployed an acoustic tag that communicates information through a network of digitized buoys and satellites. Block used these tools to launch a project monitoring white shark migration. In 2012, the research received a valuable boost after Block was named a Laureate of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.
To date, Block has monitored thousands of fish. The impact and efficacy of the tracking tool, however, goes well beyond her research – particularly when it comes to the archival tag. “That instrument, in its many generations, is now being implemented and used by scientists across the planet to study what animals as diverse as giant bluefin, mako sharks, salmon sharks and mantas are doing,” she said. “I would say the archival tag is one of the most successful oceanographic instruments on the planet, and it’s opened up the door into how animals use the ocean.”
From innovation to preservation
André too notes that becoming a Rolex Laureate pushed his conservation work forward. “At that time, very few people were paying notice to marine noise pollution, and we had very little data to demonstrate it,” he said. “Nevertheless, the media coverage around the award helped to create what I believe was the first research laboratory fully dedicated to the study of the effects of noise on the ocean. That work contributed to change the view that the world had on these issues.”
Today, André oversees a network of real-time underwater observatories called LIDO, Listen to the Deep Ocean, which collects audio data from marine life all around the world. This innovative research is casting an invaluable light on deep-sea ecosystems, revealing new areas of concern that are worthy of focus. It’s become clear, for example, that whales aren’t the only animals made vulnerable by human-made sounds; the researcher and his team have uncovered new insights about the profound impact of noise pollution on smaller marine species, especially invertebrates.
Over the past 10 months, these dangers appear to have somewhat lessened, as the pandemic has slowed ship traffic. An analysis from a leading academic institution, for example, found the loudest sounds underwater in Alaska’s Glacier Bay in May 2020 were less than half as loud as those in May 2018. Yet this is likely a temporary reprieve. André argues that humans can begin to find a sustainable way to better safeguard our fellow species by understanding the effect we’re having on our oceans. He believes his own efforts, as well as those of Block, are part of a groundswell of environmental action – supported by the work of ordinary citizens – that can address the immense challenges facing our planet.
“We'll always face obstacles, but I strongly believe in determination and conviction. With a proper idea, anyone can change anything,” he said. “If we work together to find solutions, we will succeed in again making the ocean and the planet a balanced natural environment for future generations.”
How technology can advance conservation efforts around the world
Members of the Collective outline the diverse ways innovation help keep the planet perpetual.
Saran Kaba Jones
Founder and CEO of FACE Africa, a non profit dedicated ot improving access to clean water in Africa
Conservationist and wildlife photographer
Founder of Plastic Patrol, a nonprofit that aims to reduce pollution
Supporting the efforts of Ocean conservationists
How did winning a Rolex Award for Enterprise impact your work?
Block: Receiving the Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2012 enabled us to build on the extensive tagging technology used to monitor the comings and goings of white sharks. In particular, we wanted to make the information public. The support allowed us to use technology we hadn't worked with before, which sent the tracking signals to a satellite. The information was then delivered to a mobile phone app that we created, which detailed where white sharks were in real time.
André: The prestige of the award really put a light on the issue of ocean noise, especially in terms of media attention, and enabled me to develop a lab dedicated to studying it. That was 18 years ago, and governments, private companies and society in general finally started to pay attention to the issue – and interestingly I have spoken to many of my colleagues who say they benefited from the sudden exposure the problem received.
You joined a thriving network of past and present Rolex Award winners. What has it meant to be a part of that global community?
Block: Rolex has brought together this network of creative explorers who are really trying to protect and take care of our planet. And they’re people who have often had to overcome significant environmental and research challenges. It’s an amazing network of colleagues that they introduce you to, and they’re all lifelong champions of the natural world. I’m super proud to be a part of it, and there have been some really collaborative, successful interactions I’ve had, including one I’m currently engaged in with a fellow laureate who is working to understand and protect giant manta populations in Peru.
André: After more than 18 years of a continuous relationship the Rolex Awards for Enterprise have created a family, and as a consequence, I have the privilege to have engaged in multiple collaborations with fellow Laureates. I’m currently working in India with Arun Krishnamurthy, trying to mitigate both train collisions with elephants and elephant attacks on humans. We’re working with Rolex Laureate José Marcio Ayres’s team to monitor biodiversity in the Amazon jungle, both in air and in water. We are also working with Rolex Laureate Francesco Sauro to study the sounds of ancient caves to learn more about their histories. In these circumstances, how can you not feel extremely lucky to be part of this unique group of people, knowing we are all connected and that together we can address any challenge?
These stories highlight Rolex's commitment to support research on environmental issues and join forces with individuals and organizations aiming to find solutions to protect the environment. This content was produced independently from The Washington Post Newsroom.
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