Listening to our Blue Planet: An interview with Professor Steve Simpson | Part 1

Understanding and safeguarding our oceans has never been more important. We now know Jacques Cousteau of marine legend was wrong to call our oceans “a silent world”. Thanks to the research of Prof. Steve Simpson, we’re realising just how vital sound is in the lives of marine creatures.

Currently a professor at the University of Exeter, Steve is a top authority on marine acoustics. He was one of the first to investigate how sound is used by coral reef fish. He’s a featured scientist in Blue Planet 2 and has been a scientific advisor for many other exciting documentaries.

Steve is passionate about discovering the secrets of our oceans, solving the pressing issues of our time, and opening our eyes to the majesty of our oceans to inspire the world to action.

In Part 1 of this interview, Steve introduces us to the worlds of marine research and media and highlights the top skills for aspiring marine biologists.

In Part 2, Steve shares the realities of working in academia, his own journey and his top advice. He also explains how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected his research.

What are your main focuses at the moment and what is marine acoustics?

As a researcher, I’m interested in how global change affects oceans and how we can solve these problems. One of my main areas of focus is underwater acoustics: how marine organisms communicate, navigate and orientate using sound. I also research anthropogenic noise pollution; what are the sources and impacts, and how can we manage it?

Tell us more about your marine bioacoustics research

We found that fish use sound to defend territories, attract mates and warn about predators. Even invertebrates can produce and receive sound. Coral reef fish, lobsters, clams and coral larvae use sound to find quality reef habitats!

Initially I wanted to understand fish behaviour and coral reef settlement. Back when I started, I taped recordings on a cassette player. Modern solid-state recorders collect a LOT more data. I used to sit in a rubber ring holding a very expensive recorder, trying not to get it wet while dangling a hydrophone (an underwater microphone) over the side. Now we tow multi-directional recorders through the environment, capturing the spatial heterogeneity of marine soundscapes.

Recording marine soundscapes in The Bahamas with a very expensive, very NOT waterproof recorder.

The mythical “Hydrosaur” used in Oman to record reef soundscapes overnight.

One amazing thing we found was that soundscapes change depending on the time of day; reefs have a dawn and dusk chorus! I started out sleeping on the beach next to a fire, waking up every hour to swim out to take the next recording. That evolved into using an inflatable dinosaur to leave the recorder out overnight. Now we leave recorders out for up to a year at a time, capturing temporal variation in marine soundscapes!

We also found out that each reef and habitat type has its own signature coming from its animal inhabitants. This means we get a real feel for habitat quality and the community structure just by listening!

It sounds like your research had quite humble beginnings; how was it trying to break into a new research area?

Twenty years ago, if I told people I wanted to record coral reefs they’d wonder what I was on about! Only by building libraries of recordings does it become obvious. Funding follows good ideas, so you need to have good evidence. Surprisingly, it wasn’t difficult getting published; one of the first marine acoustics papers I ever published was in Science! The fact that fish could even hear was astonishing to the scientific community.

It blows my mind how these tiny creatures use sound. The human equivalent is that you’re abandoned by your parents as soon as you’re born, then by the time you’re 3 weeks old you decide where you’re going to spend the next 30 years of your life! There’s a massive evolutionary pressure to get that choice right.

Sound gives you the opportunity to make decisions before actually arriving at a neighbourhood. Even if you swim to the right area, your chance of survival for the first two nights is only 30%, so you want to make the best possible choice!

What conservation impacts has your work had?

I work with the inshore fishing fleet to increase catch sustainability. I’m also helping develop an accreditation scheme to help consumers choose the most sustainable options. This scheme will be open to everyone rather than big businesses.

With marine acoustics, there are three elements. We demonstrate noise has an impact and get that message into programmes like Blue Planet 2 for the world to hear.

We’re innovating to limit the impact of anthropogenic noise; quiet propellers, electric watercraft and technology to reduce marine construction noise, particularly wind farms, on fish in their breeding season.

Finally, we use eco-acoustics to track coral reef health. This justifies financial input into reef restoration by giving a quantifiable measure of success. Without fish, algae smothers corals, making it hard to rejuvenate reefs. We lure fish in using acoustic enrichment so they can start to look after their own environment. This puts reef restoration on steroids and gives it a much-needed boost!

What’s it like working with the media, particularly with Blue Planet 2?

I was lucky enough to be a featured scientist on the final episode! I worked with the film crew to put together a sequence based on my research. I was also an academic advisor to the series. I worked with each episode producer on the balance of stories. We scrutinised whether the exciting new research would hold water in a few years’ time, so the series has a credible legacy. Blue Planet 2 is brave in taking on environmental issues in a way that hasn’t happened before. It didn’t campaign or tell people what to think but showed them the whole story. The series got that delicate balance right.

One of Steve’s favourite action shots, you may recognise this scene from Blue Planet 2, where he is recording reef soundscapes in Sipidan, Malaysian Borneo!

It was amazing to be part of something that over a billion people watched, and magical to see the series come together. It set the agenda. You still hear it referred to today, in parliament, industry, even policy. It really has captured the imagination of a whole new generation.

What are the top skills for marine biologists?

Something’s got to fill you with passion to get you through the lows. If you love being in the water, after a rough day you know you can jump in and feel reinvigorated after watching a crab for a while.

You need to be a team player; you can’t do it alone in the marine environment. I love team cruises, research trips and expeditions. You’ve got to like people and be likeable as you live in close proximity for long hours. You need to have each other’s backs and get on well.

You need to be flexible. Both the ocean and research throw all sorts of challenges at you. You might be halfway down the path of one study and find someone else is already doing it. Innovate and adapt to the situation.

It’s a shame if you don’t enjoy communicating what you do; it doesn’t take long to share how wonderful the ocean is! Developing your communication skills so you can talk to school kids through to world leaders in a way they want to engage in is worth it. Key hard skills include boating, scuba diving, marine navigation and radio. Other key soft skills include networking and project management.

It’s also vital to find good mentors and learn from them!

Are you ready to learn more about marine conservation and perhaps even pursue it as a career?

Check out our Ultimate Guide for Marine Conservation Jobs as well as our plethora of articles about our blue planet! Find our entire selection of FREE Ultimate Guides here to turbocharge your conservation career success!

Make sure to share this interview and check out part 2 (coming soon) to learn more about the world of academia & marine research, Steve’s own journey and to hear his top advice for aspiring marine biologists!

Follow Steve on Twitter and check out his academic profile find out more about his fantastic research and career.

You can also check out Exeter Marine’s website or follow them on Twitter for a wider look at the University of Exeter’s world-leading research on our marine environment.


Author profile | Jamie Bolam

Jamie is a Biological Sciences student at the University of Exeter. He has a passion for the natural world and finding the most effective ways to help it. When he’s not scrambling down cliffs looking for bats, studying turtles or trapping moths, he’s learning about anything and everything to prepare for an impactful life in conservation. In his spare time, you’ll find him out in nature, learning languages, playing guitar and blasting country music! You can find out more about Jamie on LinkedIn.


Featured image: Prof. Steve Simpson exploring the reefs at Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, during filming for Blue Planet Live.

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