Sounds of whales on city walk

Artist Vicki Smith (far left) took people on a Sounding Walks tour through a ‘‘Wi-Fiocean’’ ...
Artist Vicki Smith (far left) took people on a Sounding Walks tour through a ‘‘Wi-Fiocean’’ yesterday. She is pictured with members of the public, from left, ‘‘Miro’’, Vicki Lenihan and Rai McCaw, and co-organiser Otago Polytechnic lecturer Associate Prof Caro McCaw. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
Recognisable by their large blue umbrellas, Dunedin people taking part in a special exhibition at the weekend were adrift on a Wi-Fi ocean —  getting a taste of what whales hear as they navigate the depths.

Yesterday the last of four "Sounding Walks" was held, starting at the Otago Museum reserve, guided by organisers Otago Polytechnic associate professor of communications Caro McCaw and artist Vicki Smith. The walks, which began on July 28, featured three portable "oceans" generating Wi-Fi signals that walkers picked up with the help of Wi-Fi-enabled umbrellas. Walkers could hear noises generated by four different species of whale — humpback, southern right, pilot and blue — and each "ocean" also included commentary from scientists.

Prof McCaw and Ms Smith said about 40 people had turned up for the walks, which were a continuation of an exhibition held last year. The walks were free for the public, and the duo wanted to trial them in Dunedin before potentially touring in other places around the Pacific rim. They had drawn families, students, people interested in the technology being used, and those curious about whales.

Prof McCaw said it appeared the whale signals had worked, since a southern  right whale and her calf were spotted in Otago Harbour last week. The walks did not have to follow a defined route, since  Prof McCaw and Ms Smith were carrying the oceans of sound with them. Two of the three "oceans" were narrated by Otago zoologist Prof Liz Slooten, who focused on whale dialect and also the kind of sounds whales were subjected to by people — from pile driving and air guns to noises from ships.

Prof McCaw said the disturbances humans made to whales’ echolocation systems were comparable to whales interfering with  cellphones.

"We’d be really cross about it."

This year’s Sounding Walks, created with the help of technologist Andrew Hornblow, grew out of a larger exhibition in Dunedin last year.

The original exhibition drew about 6000 people, and was funded by Urban Dream Brokerage, the GigCity Community Fund from Chorus, Creative New Zealand, Dunedin City Council, Otago Museum, and Otago Polytechnic.

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