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Citizen Science: Sonic Kayaks Capture Underwater Sounds and Create Experimental Music

By fitting kayaks with underwater environmental sensors and speakers, a team of researchers has created a tool for citizens and scientists alike. In a paper published in PLOS Biology, they outline instructions for building the hardware and open-source software for making a “Sonic Kayak.”

The Sonic Kayak is both a data collection device and a sound art installation. The project emerged from the Bicrophonic Research Institute and the transdisciplinary laboratory FoAM Kernow and builds on a previous project called the Sonic Bike. As a cyclist pedals the Sonic Bike around a city, a global positioning system receiver on the bike detects their location and triggers site-specific sounds played though a pair of bike-mounted speakers.

The sonic kayak system in action. Photo: Amber Griffiths.

For the Sonic Kayak, the open-source technology was modified for use on boats.

“I thought we could take it up a level by adding underwater sensors and gathering some data at the same time,” says Amber Griffiths, director/generalist at FoAM Kernow and one member of the research team. “Part of my research career was looking at adaptations of marine animals to environmental variation, and I knew from that work that this type of data is very hard to come by.”

The added underwater sensors took a sound art project and made it a useful data collection tool — a musical instrument that also investigates nature. The underwater sensors allow paddlers to hear real-time sonifications (data transformed into sound) of water temperature, as well as underwater sounds, generating live music.

Meanwhile, the sensor data is logged every second with location, time, and date, providing research-quality data, such as the fine-scale mapping of water temperatures and underwater noise.

The Sonic Kayak was partly developed during open hacklabs, events for anyone interested to design and build collaboratively.

“Being able to test early prototypes with a broad mix of people is invaluable,” says Griffiths. “Having a greater diversity of people involved in a project inevitably makes it better as different experiences and opinions are woven in.”

The result is a musical instrument, a way to listen to the natural world, and a research tool to monitor our changing environment. The Sonic Kayak’s digital thermometers and underwater microphones could be used to generate fine-scale temperature maps, both in space and time, for studying the impacts of climate change. It could also be useful in documenting and monitoring human-caused noise pollution and wildlife sounds.

Testing suggests the Sonic Kayak system has potential as low-cost research equipment for both professional and citizen scientists. The system is open source, so anyone can develop and modify it for their own needs. This combination of sound art with data collection means that anyone can paddle around using sound to investigate the underwater world.



Griffiths AGF, Kemp KM, Matthews K, Garrett JK, Griffiths DJ (2017) Sonic Kayaks: Environmental monitoring and experimental music by citizens. PLoS Biol 15(11): e2004044.

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