ECU craft records vital ocean sounds and data

Published 2:53 pm Sunday, November 8, 2015


From East Carolina University News Services



East Caroline University faculty and staff members retrieve the wave glider near Morehead City, on Aug. 17, 2015.


GREENVILLE — East Carolina University scientists have been sending a small craft to navigate the North Carolina coast studying underwater noise and keeping tabs on tagged marine life all to better understand the ocean environment.

Called an acoustic wave glider, the device is an ocean-going robot that gathers data on acoustically tagged fish such as tuna, flounder and sharks, whales, plankton and ocean environmental conditions. It’s manufactured by Liquid Robotics and was funded by a $281,393 grant from the National Science Foundation. ECU researchers have nicknamed the craft “Blackbeard.”

Boaters and commercial fishermen are urged to leave the wave glider alone. The device has warning labels on it, and people have been pulled overboard trying to grab a wave glider from a boat.

ECU is among a handful of universities that have a wave glider and the only UNC-system school with one. Joseph Luczkovich, a biology professor and specialist in the sounds fish make, said the device will provide a step forward in ECU’s coastal research capabilities.

Cruising along the surface, it’s about the size of an ironing board. ECU researchers tested it in August near the Queen Anne’s Revenge shipwreck near Morehead City and Beaufort and deployed it again in September in the same area. Part of its initial work has been surveying an artificial reef established by the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries. Important feeding grounds for endangered species of right whales are in the area off Shackleford Banks, and ECU researchers hope to document the songs of northern right whales as they swim past the coast, along with other fishes such as red drum, spotted seatrout and weakfish.

“There are less than 400 individuals of the northern right whales left on Earth, and most of them pass by our coast on their migration from the Arctic off Greenland to the tropics,” Luczkovich said.

It also will provide data on the potential effects of oil and gas exploration and wind turbine development in coastal waters. These projects must be conducted and sited in ways that avoid or minimize impacts to whales and fish such as Atlantic sturgeon, an endangered species of ancient fish, Luczkovich said.

“Many of these fishes are tagged acoustically, so we can detect their movements with the wave glider as well,” he said. Acoustic tags are small, surgically implanted sound-emitting devices that allow the detection and remote tracking of fish for fisheries research.

The wave glider can act as a stationary platform or be propelled to specific points using GPS technology. A submarine unit with wings or fins generates forward motion by wave action. Two solar panels provide energy for sensors.


ECU’s model has a unique suite of sensors including a system for listening to and recording ocean soundscapes; sound-producing fishes and whales; an acoustic tag-detection system for finding tagged animals such as many fish species and sharks; and a fluorometer for measuring ocean color and plankton.

It also has a conductivity, temperature and depth sensor with oxygen-measurement capabilities. On the surface float are instruments for monitoring waves, currents and surface meteorology.

“So far, we have detected bottlenose dolphins and striped cusk eels (a sound-producing fish) in our first deployments,” Luczkovich said. “We are still analyzing the data; there was an acoustic algorithm match for right whale sounds, but that match has to be confirmed with our team after some additional work.”

Blackbeard is operated over an Internet connection via a satellite link and reports regularly on its location and sends data to shore. It can be at sea for monthlong missions.

ECU researchers are collaborating with scientists at Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort and at St. Andrews University in Scotland. Scientists from the NOAA, N.C. State University, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and the UNC Institute of Marine Science are also being kept abreast of the work the wave glider is doing.

“In addition, we are alerting the U.S. Coast Guard about the general location of these proposed wave glider deployments so they can produce a local notice to mariners,” Luczkovich said.

The public may follow the wave glider’s deployments and key findings at its Facebook group, “Blackbeard Sails the Seas for Science.”