Professor Steve Simpson on Blue Planet II

Exeter marine biologist is star of the Blue Planet

Blue Planet II, which has captured the nation’s imagination and highlighted the beauty and plight of marine life around the world, starred the University of Exeter’s Steve Simpson, Associate Professor of Marine Biology & Global Change.

Prof. Simpson, a marine biologist specialising in fish ecology and bioacoustics, starred in the final episode with his directional hydrophone – a machine designed to capture the underwater soundscape in surround sound. 

Contrary to popular belief, the aquatic world is actually filled with noise: fish, mammals and invertebrates generate grunts, croaks and clicks as they communicate.

Fish use sound to find mates, warn of approaching predators and identify habitats that would be suitable to live in. For marine animals that spend a majority of their time in the dark, deep in the depths of the ocean, being able to detect and respond to sound is vital. 

As part of his work, Professor Simpson used an innovative directional hydrophone to identify individual animals making each sound.

“There’s a whole language underwater we’re only just starting to get a handle on,” he said.

Prof. Simpson is concerned that man-made noise is having a detrimental effect on the marine world. Noises from offshore construction, shipping, motor boats and illegal dynamiting all disrupt marine communication, robbing animals of key information.

Even during filming, Prof. Simpson’s research – and the fish he was observing – were interrupted by dynamite fishing and regular disturbance by motorboats.

“As soon as the boat came over, [the fish we were studying] were completely distracted. All that noise completely changed how the fish were behaving,” he said.

Sharing knowledge of these underwater soundscapes is an important step towards protecting these habitats. Explains Simpson: “Combining quiet sanctuaries, construction breaks during spawning seasons and using new technology to reduce ship and motorboat noise, we can make a real difference to how human noise affects ocean ecosystems. We can quieten the oceans, giving animals greater capacity to deal with other pollutants.” 

As well as his on-screen role, Prof. Simpson was an Academic Advisor to the entire series, helping to shape some episodes and ensure the scripts were grounded in scientific understanding. He has also written on the official Blue Planet II website about his research.

You can listen to Prof. Simpson talk about the “pops and grunts” of the underwater world

Hear Prof. Simpson talk about his experience:

Date: 13 December 2017

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