Blackbeard the Wave Glider

To our ears, the sound of being underwater is all the same muffled tone. But to East Carolina University scientists, the noise carries all sorts of information about the ocean. Watch as researchers use their acoustic wave glider named Blackbeard to study underwater noise, acoustically tagged fish and environmental conditions in the ocean.

GREENVILLE — I never thought I would find Blackbeard in a garage at East Carolina University. 

To be clear, that’s Blackbeard the wave glider.

“This is the most tricked out wave glider in the world,” explains Roger Rulifson, Ph.D., a Distinguished Professor of Biology at East Carolina University. “It can measure weather at the ocean surface, wave heights, water circulation pattern under the glider and all the way to the bottom.” 

And that’s just the start of what this instrument can do. It can also listen for fish and turtles that are tagged with tracking devices, as well as listen and record any noise in the ocean, including dolphins clicking, snapping shrimp, red drum drumming, and whales humming. 

Blackbeard is about the size of a large surfboard. It’s top is covered with solar panels and there are several antennas mounted in between the panels, as well as a box for a GPS system and another box for a computer control system. The wave glider is a satellite connected, instrument laden, ocean-going science robot. 

So how does this ocean-going robot surf the waves to gather its data? For starters, a long cable connects the wave glider to what appears to be a giant aluminum window blind with levers. This is what pulls Blackbeard. It’s an underwater paddle that opens and closes its levers for propulsion. Combined with the movement of the waves on the surface, there’s enough power to slowly tow the wave glider. 

Another cable connects the glider to what looks like a torpedo. It’s an underwater microphone called a hydrophone, towed about 30 feet behind the wave glider. 

Together, the entire system can measure the current conditions above and below the ocean surface, as well as record the soundscape of the ocean. And it turns out, the ocean is a pretty noisy place. But you can gather a lot of information about what is happening in the ocean if you know what to listen for; that ranges from the click of a dolphin to the honk of a toadfish. 

“Soundscape is important because we know what the environmental conditions were before we heard the animals, when we heard the animals and after either the animal leaves or we leave the animal,” says Rulifson. “So it helps us to know better why the animal is in that location.” 

In addition to the specific sounds of a given animal, the amount of sound detected in an area can provide additional information. 

“The amount of sound helps us to know where there are biological hot spots or where there is a lot of biological diversity,” adds Rulifson. “There may be some areas that are more like a desert and some that are like an oasis.” 

Blackbeard is deployed for 30 days at a time. Tracking maps show the wave glider can cover miles of coastal area within that time. 

ECU's Blackbeard provides an unconventional way to gather invaluable information. And it can continuously gather that information about the ocean, above and below the surface, without a scientist having to be on site.  

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