Live from the sea bottom, it's whale radio

Posted: Tuesday, January 02, 2001

On Sitka's new radio station, the wildlife will have the mikes.

An underwater microphone, or hydrophone, anchored to the sea floor and linked by cable to a transmitter and listening station at Sitka's Whale Park will provide the live feed for station at 88.1 on the FM dial.

"People will get to experience a little what it's like to be under the water," said Barnaby Dow, Parks and Recreation coordinator for the city of Sitka.

The Whale Park radio listening station is one of 255 low-power FM stations to be granted FCC approval. More than 1,200 groups applied for permits to operate 100-watt stations, but the allowable number was curtailed by Congress following challenges and complaints from existing stations. Alaska received 19 permits, including two in Juneau.

Dow, a former public radio newsman and manager, thinks the new station has intriguing possibilities.

"It's a very unique idea," he said. "The reason I got involved is because it's one of my parks, but also ... I have a love for radio and this just melded in beautifully with what I was doing as a Parks and Rec coordinator here."

Listeners who visit the station at the park will be able to hear sea-bottom sounds even if no animals are present, he added.

"There will be two functions to the listening station at the park. One will be a button you can push which will be a live sound of what's going on under the water, and the other will be recorded sounds," Dow said.

John Ford, a whale researcher and adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia, has set up similar stations at the Vancouver Aquarium and in the Vancouver Island area. His conversations with Jan Straley, a research biologist and adjunct professor at the University of Alaska Southeast at Sitka, led the two to conceive of a similar project for the Sitka area.

Straley brought the idea to Dow, who was impressed by the possibilities offered.

"There's some serious science going on here," Dow said. "This isn't a novelty item or a joke. Providing a 24-hour window on the undersea world is quite a handy resource for whale biologists."

Straley will use information gleaned from the listening station in her course work. Teachers in elementary, middle and high schools also have expressed an interest.

The next step is to arrange funding, Dow said. Building the station will cost an estimated $15,000; several businesses and the consortium of public radio stations in Southeast Alaska have agreed to lend a hand.

"We've received a few pledges of support," Dow said. "There is a school in Ohio their class has fallen in love with the project and they're actually going to send us some money to help get it built."

The idea appeals to Sitka residents as well.

"We think we can put this thing together and the community response has been tremendous," Dow said.

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