Sitka radio station broadcasts whale sounds

Posted: Sunday, April 20, 2003

SITKA - Sitka radio station KAQU is broadcasting what may initially sound like static. But listen closely and you will hear the underwater sounds of the ocean near Whale Park, and maybe even whales.

Clay Culbert, former owner of Clay's dive shop, told KCAW radio in Sitka that he helped set up the new whale radio station.

Culbert describes himself as a regular listener. He said the more you listen, the more you hear, including the grunts, snaps and pops of whales in the Eastern Channel. Sometimes they even sing.

Whale radio is a low-powered FM station of 100 watts that was the brainchild of a group of West Coast marine mammal biologists. When they came to Sitka for a whale conference, they discovered the town is an ideal place to set up a listening station where whale sounds can be monitored.

Jan Straley, a marine mammal biologist at the University of Alaska Southeast, presented the idea to the city, which holds KAQU's broadcasting license. Straley is excited about using the radio broadcast of whale sounds as an education and research tool.

"I think it is great," Straley said. "I think it is a dream come true."

The new station is set up with a hydrophone in 80 or 90 feet of water. It runs up a long cable into the storage room at the Whale Park restroom where the radio equipment is kept. The sounds of the ocean travel onto a small transmitter, which sends the signal out on a little antennae that sits outside the building.

This is not the first whale radio station. There are others around Vancouver Island and the San Juan Islands, and a new one is being installed in Kodiak.

Lynn McGowan, the parks and recreation coordinator, said donations got the $25,000 station off the ground. She cautioned that the station is small and reception is better closer to Whale Park.

"I think it's a five-mile range. Then it extends out into a big portion of Eastern Channel, but it also comes in more clearly if you are sitting still," McGowan said.

In case you can't get 88.1 on the dial, there is a listening station at the first gazebo next to the restrooms at Whale Park.

The listening station has an aluminum welded speaker and below it are several buttons. One button hooks directly into the hydrophone.

The other provides whale sounds collected by Straley.

Matt Holmes, a radio engineer who designed the technical side of whale radio, said the challenge was putting the radio station together on a shoestring budget.

He said whale radio isn't supposed to be like other stations.

"Its sole purpose in life is to give people a chance to hear the sounds of the sea," he said.

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