Plastics donated by Genova Products Inc. are a key part of a new, reusable sonobuoy that could help scientists study the mysterious songs of humpback whales and the clicks of spinner dolphins.
Whale researcher and bioacoustician Adam Frankel of Marine Acoustics Inc. in Arlington, Va., showed the prototype Mark 3 to Explorers Club members gathered on Hawaii's north shore as part of a March 2-9 field expedition.
Frankel, lead developer of the buoy, explained how the electronics, hydrophone, FM transmitter, and antenna will work together to convey acoustical data to a shore station or nearby boat. The waterproof packaging is all made with PVC, which is ``tough, light, noncorrosive and inexpensive,'' Frankel said.
``This is a particularly eco-friendly use of plastics,'' pointed out the Explorers Club expedition leader Scott Hamilton. ``There's a lot of concern about plastics and the environment, and of course the importance of recycling. But here's a case where the plastics industry is producing an ideal product to assist in very important research in the preservation of our marine environment and these endangered species.''
Bob Williams, chairman of Genova Products of Davison, Mich., is committed to marine research.
``Oceans cover two-thirds of our planet and we know the least about them,'' he said. ``To learn more about the origins of life and other big, unanswered questions, we need to explore the seas. Anything I can do to shorten the time for answers is worthwhile.''
Williams met Hamilton while Williams was enjoying a unique birthday gift from his wife - a voyage to visit the Titanic, reached in a 10-hour Mir submersible ride. Williams already had donated plastics to Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., and offered to help Hamilton with future exploration projects.
On a different trip to Hawaii, Hamilton discovered that Frankel needed plastic for a sonobuoy to record the sounds of sea mammals. He also learned that ``the highly dedicated and talented, but very understaffed and underfunded, scientists of the Hawaii Marine Mammal Consortium and Kula [Nai'a] Wild Dolphin Research Foundation needed help with their land-based observation station.''
Hamilton became a marine matchmaker. He solicited plastics from Genova and funds and volunteers from the Explorers Club to create a research expedition. A team of 14 volunteers came from all over to undergo training and help gather data while the humpbacks breached, spouted and traveled along the Kohala coast.
The humpbacks feed in the nutrient-rich waters off Alaska, and breed and calf in the warmer waters of Hawaii. Scientists have determined that only the male whales sing the mournful songs that people associate with humpbacks, but they are not sure why.
Faanya Rose, president of the Explorers Club, said: ``This is really what the club is all about. Going out into the field to do serious scientific work and contributing to scientific knowledge.
``Many of our explorers are astronauts, and of course Robert Ballard, Sylvia Earle and others explore the deep sea,'' said Rose, referring to the expensive side of exploration. ``But to be able to develop technologies at a low budget that are effective, low-cost solutions - that's also what it's all about - to be innovative and to achieve good results.''
She hopes the club will return next year to tie together acoustical and behavioral data.
Frankel has come far since his first 12-foot beta sonobuoy.
``This is arguably our best design yet for being small, light and easy to deploy and retrieve, with the tall and thin, spar design to minimize the wave action'' so it will reduce unwanted background noise, he said. His sonobuoy is designed to be reusable.
``We are trying to salvage transmitters and electronics from the old naval sonobuoys that sink after eight hours of use,'' he added.
Frankel still has some tweaking to do with the transmitter pre-amplifier electronics of Mark 3 before he is ready for a full deployment, but he hopes it will be ``the best bang for the buck'' when finished.
More sophisticated sonar recorders can be moored in a stationary position, but are far more expensive to buy and maintain. Simpler hydrophones hung over the side of boats are cheaper for gathering acoustical data, but they can pick up the lapping sounds of water and boat noises, and require a boat to be on-site the entire time. Often recorded audio information is studied later without an observed bigger picture of what the whales or dolphins were doing at the time.
Looking out on the Pacific Ocean from the high vantage of ``Old Ruins,'' the observation station, Hamilton said by next year's whale migration, ``We may be able to deploy an array of buoys. Using triangulation and computer calculations, we could simultaneously synchronize the audio data with the shoreline observations of the whale's behavior. That could help unlock the mystery of why the whales sing.''
Back in colder Michigan, the president of Genova Products, Dwight VanSteenkiste said, ``It's uplifting to all our employees to have our plastics used. Normally we sell pipes and fittings - basic commodities. To be involved in this kind of scientific research is important. As a society, we have to keep exploring and gaining knowledge, or we will stagnate.''