The sounds of silence: This French scientist is saving whales using bioacoustics

Michel André, a Rolex awardee, has created the world's first Whale Anti-Collision System or WACS

michel andre near iceberg

Several governments today feel a strong need to consider policies that tackle noise pollution, a menace that spreads its wings so far and wide, it even casts a shadow upon our oceans.  Called ocean noise, this kind of pollution envelops large areas, preventing fish and other marine creatures from finding their prey, predators, or even way back home, due to damage to their hearing caused by man-made sounds. A commonly known effect is when large fish collide with ships and ferries.

But there is hope, thanks to a handful of people who are effecting change. French bioacoustics scientist Michel André, a Rolex Awards Laureate, is one such person who feels deeply for ocean life, especially whales. André has created a system through which he is helping whales that are at risk of colliding with ships — he has created the world's first Whale Anti-Collision System or WACS.

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WACS, which he created in 2008, is essentially an undersea listening system which helps apprise ship captains of whales crossing their path. He developed this technology based on his research on the sperm whales in the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off the coast of northwestern Africa, that had started to collide with passenger ferries — André discovered that they suffered from loss of hearing. The commotion of the human-generated sounds had added to their plight. "The sounds produced by the whales are captured, analysed automatically in real-time, and the system sends the position of the whale to the ship's captain in real-time so they know that in two or three or 10 miles they might encounter a whale and have the time to change their course to prevent a collision. This, of course, only works where you have the WACS installed on the ship's route," explains André.

The Rolex Awards for Enterprise, Michel André, 2002 Laureate

The foundation of it all is bioacoustics, the sound of life. "Even plants and animals that don't produce sound, perceive sound; they perceive the vibrations of the sounds. We study those sounds and vibrations," shares André, who is currently a professor at Spain's Technical University of Catalonia (UPC), and the Director of the Laboratory of Applied Bioacoustics (LAB) there. 

Born in Toulouse, Andre, 58, studied engineering, biology, physiology, and biochemistry, after which he opted for a PhD programme in noise pollution and bioacoustics. He is the recipient of the Young Researcher Award from the Complutense University, Spain (1998), and the Felix Wankel Prize (Ludwig Maximillians University of Münich, Germany) that acknowledged his applied research for the protection of sperm whales (1999). In 2002, he received the Rolex Award for Enterprise — the development of WACS was funded by his Rolex award.

From the deep oceans to the dim and distant rain forests, the use of WACS has resulted in a network of acoustic monitors spread around the planet. Thanks to it, it is now possible to understand the impact of human noise pollution on sound-dependent marine life and on the overall health of the oceans.

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André pioneered WACS using a prototype passive acoustic buoy. "At the time (early 2000s), noise pollution was not known, we were only a few scientists speaking about the possible effects of noise pollution. The worldwide media exposure the award provided changed not only my professional life but has inspired the professional life of many colleagues around the world. So, the award changed everything for me," shares André. He feels that not only scientists like him are committed to the conservation of the oceans and the planet, but brands like Rolex too have pledged to limit the devastating actions of the human race.

The Rolex Awards for Enterprise he received has been supporting champions from various walks of life who are effecting change around the world. These individuals have been recognised for their efforts to offer solutions to some serious challenges of our time. "I have been associated with Rolex for almost 20 years now and I can testify that the Rolex Institute has a true commitment to make very discreet contributions to the projects that the Laureates have around the world. Creating this network of exceptional individuals, who are increasingly being called to work together to provide society with solutions that will help us face and address the issue of planet conservation, not only ocean conservation, is of paramount importance," says André.

André is also part of a programme called LIDO — Listen to the Ocean — a worldwide network of deep-sea microphones streaming live sounds 24x7 of all the oceans across the world. LIDO allows real-time monitoring of marine ambient noise as well as marine mammal sounds that can help researchers understand the effects of noise on marine life.

Apart from ocean conservation, André is also working towards establishing a network of listening devices in the Amazonian rain forest to carry out the important task of monitoring its biodiversity. By 2025, he aims to have the entire Amazon region covered.

The Rolex Awards for Enterprise was created in 1976 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the famed Rolex Oyster, one of the first waterproof watches made. "I love the concept of perpetual," André says. "Nature is perpetual. Nature never ends and I do not think there is an end to our approach with the study of sound." 

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MICHEL ANDRÉ: 2002 ROLEX AWARDS LAUREATE

* André received a Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2002 for his underwater listening system warning ships of whales crossing their path

* He developed the Whale Anti-Collision System (WACS) to prevent ships from colliding with whales

* André holds master's degrees in biochemistry and Animal Physiology from the Université Paul Sabatier of Toulouse, France

* His research includes the development of acoustic technologies for the control of noise pollution in the marine environment 

* In 2017, André received the National Research Award from the Spanish Geographical Society

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