Jamie McWilliam is a PhD Student at Curtin University. He is researching reef soundscapes at the Australian Museum’s Lizard Island Research Station. Using underwater microphones, called hydrophones, his focus is not on what marine creatures can see but rather what they can hear. 

Whales and many other marine animals use sound to communicate, sometimes over amazing distances. Sound travels faster in water than in air, but requires more initial energy.  Low frequency sound travels further than high frequency sound. See sound on the move for more information.

The natural (biological and geological) sound of a reef is generated by countless different species, wave energy, water movement and weather.   Jamie’s focus is on sound produced or caused by humans  (anthropogenic sound), such as sound from passing cargo vessels and tourist boats, commercial survey activity or naval exercises.  Hear the different sounds here.  See also silentoceans.org and video.


Anthropogenic noise pollution could adversely impact animal behaviour, including reproduction. The strength of propeller vibrations can be strong you can feel it in your chest while in the water. Jamie likens the situation to a loud nightclub or party, where you are unable to hear someone trying to shout a message to you. In some areas of the ocean, especially near busy shipping ports, there are countless noisy underwater nightclubs that never stop.

The goal of Jamie’s work is to provide a tool for marine managers to monitor the long-term condition of the Great Barrier Reef, ideally by with sufficient hydrophone stations to cover the whole of this incredible natural ecosystem. Watch The Pulse of a Coral Reef – A video featuring Jamie and Research Station Director Dr Anne Hoggett.

For further information on the use of acoustics in marine science, see Marine Soundscape Ecology (PDF).  Jeff Leis, a senior scientist at the Australian Museum, has also published research on the role of reef sounds in attracting fish larvae. Additionally, Julius Piercy has conducted soundscape research at Lizard Island. Listen to Julian’s recordings hereYou can hear the coral reefs dying.