October 25, 2013, Oban -- A few days ago we had an enquiry from a small local newspaper on the south coast of England about a mystery noise possibly coming from the sea. A quote from one of our scientists was used in the article and since then the story has run round the globe like wild fire.
The article has been rehashed or reprinted in four British national dailies, on websites in the UK, the US, Nigeria, Indonesia, China, Australia and New Zealand and goes on.
So what’s the problem with that? On the face of it, it sounds like SAMS Comms department is doing its job, except the story isn’t right.
The story that’s being batted around the world is that noisy fish sex is keeping Southampton residents awake.
At the risk of being a kill-joy and ruining a good yarn, we’d like to clarify. The original quote in the Southern Daily Echo, which has been repeatedly used, was correctly transcribed: “Dr Ben Wilson said: “It’s not beyond the realms of possibility. There are certainly ‘sonic fish’ in the north Atlantic and the approaches to the English Channel.””
However, Ben, our marine acoustics specialist, was not aware that the noise in question is reportedly keeping people awake, nor did he attribute the sound to Midshipman fish that are usually found in the North Pacific. He was answering a question on whether fish might be responsible for a noise that’s audible at the surface. Let’s play that quote again:
“It’s not beyond the realms of possibility. There are certainly ‘sonic fish’ in the north Atlantic and the approaches to the English Channel.”
That’s a fair comment, don’t you think?
But sex sells. Even if it’s only (supposedly) fish sex.
A reader commenting on one online version of the story said that were it not for Wednesday's Royal christening it would have made the front page: a more alarming prospect.
Yesterday, stepping out from a day-long meeting with renewable energy companies, Ben came to excuse himself from interview requests from BBC 5live, Sky News, Wave 105 and dailywhat.org, an online educational news resource for teenagers.
While stressing that he hadn’t heard the sound in Southampton Water, Ben repeated: “There are sonic fish in the North Atlantic, so it’s not an impossibility, but without hearing it I wouldn’t be able to give a definitive answer. It’s unlikely that the noise would be so loud as to keep people awake.”
Ben did suggest to the Daily Echo reporter how he might record the noises (by putting a microphone into a condom, sealing it and dropping into the water), but he hasn’t received an audio file yet. Perhaps someone would like to take up the task. Or perhaps a media organisation would fly Ben and his equipment south to listen to the hum in situ. Fish might be then ruled in or out.
For more on Ben’s research, click here
For the sounds of Midshipman fish, listen to this: http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=111273282&m=111273271
For other fish sounds, like farting herring, read this: http://news.nationalgeographic.co.uk/news/2003/11/1110_031110_herringfarts_2.html
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia