Of all the sensory signals, sound is the one that travels furthest in the oceans. For this reason, acoustic methods are an important tool that researchers use to better understand the polar oceans and the biodiversity that exists within them. Because the depth of the oceans and the extent of ice cover in certain regions, visual observations can become limited for scientific research. As a result, acoustic data can provide scientists with invaluable information on breeding habits, migration patterns and for understanding how anthropogenic noise negatively affects marine environments. Thus, studying the soundscapes of the seas can tell us a lot about our ocean’s health.
“We asked ourselves what we can do with this data other than analyse it scientifically. How can we share these rarely heard sounds with the rest of the world and use art to give them alternative meaning? These questions gave us the impetus to create the Polar Sounds project,” says Dr Geraint Rhys Whittaker, artistic researcher at HIFMB and project coordinator for Polar Sounds. Almost 300 artists from 45 countries applied for the opportunity to reinterpret these sounds. This large number of participants prompted the Polar Sounds team to select even more people than originally planned, with 105 artists submitting compositions. It was important for the team to have a balance in terms of, among other things, origin, background and gender. The participants were allowed to compose anything they wanted using the various sound clips, which ranged from biological sounds (marine mammals and other marine animals), geological sounds (such as the melting and movement of glaciers) and anthropogenic sounds (human influences on the polar oceans).
“The United Nations has declared 2021 to 2030 as the Decade of the Oceans and it is vital that we make important research about our oceans accessible to the wider public,” explains Geraint Rhys Whittaker. “What I particularly enjoyed about working on this project is the uniqueness of these sounds and how they can create an intuitive connection between us as humans and the ocean. The next step of the project will be to present these sounds in a travelling exhibition.” A selection of the pieces will be presented during the HIFMB symposium in Oldenburg in the summer of 2023, and other locations will be announced on the HIFMB website as they are finalised.
It was also an exciting project from a scientific point of view. Dr Ilse van Opzeeland is one of the leading scientists in the Ocean Acoustics Group at AWI, who together with her research group collected the recordings during various exhibitions to the Arctic and Antarctic regions. She explains, “The soundscapes we record in the polar oceans are breathtaking in terms of the new scientific insights they have provided since we started our passive acoustic monitoring. A 'translation' through art breathes new life into our scientific data that goes beyond a traditional publication or policy paper by making it accessible to non-scientists. We must make the greatest efforts to protect, conserve and restore our planet's endangered habitats. The interaction of art and science can help by creating awareness and brings attention to this."
But can an artistic engagement with scientific themes and objects do even more? The participating researchers, Dr Geraint Rhys Whittaker, Prof. Kimberley Peters and Dr Ilse van Opzeeland, are conducting qualitative interviews with the participating artists. By doing so, they want to explore the extent to which art reveals innovative and marginalised perspectives that would otherwise remain unexplored, in order to open up new avenues of dialogue between art and science and to understand how imaginaries of the polar seas are constructed and deconstructed through creativity.
You can find examples of ocean sounds in our public media library (under Themenwelten / Polar Sounds).