The Navy Is Tracking Some Strange Sounds Coming from the Ocean

In a retired shore station for transpacific communications cables on the western coast of Vancouver Island sits a military computer in a padlocked cage.

It’s the sort of cage you might otherwise use to lock up automatic rifles or expensive electronics at a big box store, but this cage is protecting data—classified signals intelligence gathered from underwater microphones called hydrophones that sit on the ocean floor. These hydrophones are part of an undersea Internet-connected scientific research network of sensors and video cameras called NEPTUNE, operated by the nonprofit group Ocean Networks Canada. Much to the delight of researchers world-round, the hydrophones record the distinct sounds of whale songs, earthquakes, and volcanic activity. But to the chagrin of the United States and Canadian militaries, they detect the passing movements of military submarines through the Juan de Fuca Strait, too.

And so, on occasion, someone in a nearby Canadian military base, sometimes by U.S. request, will push what I like to imagine is a big red button, and the hydrophones deep off the coast of Vancouver Island effectively go dark—hydrophone data is re-routed from NEPTUNE’s scientists and researchers to the computer in the locked cage. Continue reading