Underwater Gliders

Ocean gliders are autonomous vehicles that can operate in all weather conditions, for long time periods, and in remote locations. They move slowly, at about 0.50 knots (about 25 cm/s), and with little noise because they do not have a standard engine or propeller. Gliders can be equipped with a variety of oceanographic sensors, and are frequently used by scientists to measure ocean parameters such as temperature, salinitypressure, as well as the structure and velocity of ocean currents. Gliders can also include acoustic sensors, such as hydrophones, and echosounders. These gliders are an effective tool for passive acoustic monitoring. They are relatively inexpensive compared with traditional ship-based and aerial surveys. Scientists are using gliders to study underwater sound propagation and are developing glider technologies to monitor sound fields of erupting underwater volcanoes (and other natural sounds), estimate wind speeds (to measure weather), acoustically map submerged portions of icebergs, and detect and measure krill biomass.

Ocean gliders move by changing their buoyancy using an internal oil-filled bladder. Oil is pumped into or out of the bladder to change its volume, causing the glider to ascend or descend. Changes in water depth are converted into forward movement by the wings of the glider. The pitch and roll of the glider are controlled by shifting the position of the internal battery packs. Periodically, the glider rises to the surface, reports its location, and transmits recorded data and diagnostic information to a satellite. It may also receive commands for its new course.

Gliders collect physical, chemical, acoustic, and biological data. Being able to record one or more environmental condition simultaneously is a major advantage of this tool. For example, scientists use gliders to obtain passive acoustic data on marine animals.

Scientists use gliders to estimate and measure the presencedistribution, behavior, and/or habitat associations of cetaceans including sei whales, fin whales, North Atlantic right whales, humpback whales, beaked whales, sperm whales and a variety of dolphin species. Scientists recently equipped acoustic gliders with a digital acoustic monitoring instrument (DMON), a smartphone sized electronics package inside the glider that is programmed to record whale calls and compute spectrograms, from which a “pitch track” (a lower bandwidth representation of the whale call) is generated. The software also contains a “call library” of whale vocalizations, which aids in species identification. Subsets of pitch tracks are transmitted by the glider every 2 hours, from which estimates of the location of recorded species determined. One application of these data is to determine the location of endangered species that may be impacted by human activities, such as shipping.

Hydrophone-equipped gliders are also used to study the spatial and temporal distribution of fishes. For example, sounds produced by red groupertoadfishes (Opsanus spp.), and several unidentified fishes were detected in the Gulf of Mexico. Red grouper are a critical commercial and recreational fish species in the Gulf of Mexico and sustaining their population levels is important. Gliders may offer a new method map their distribution, better understand their spawning habitats, and enhance fisheries management. Gliders can be programmed to actively follow tagged fish, and this will allow scientists to monitor fish migrations on a large scale.

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Additional Resources


  • Baumgartner, M. F., & Fratantoni, D. M. (2008). Diel periodicity in both sei whale vocalization rates and the vertical migration of their copepod prey observed from ocean gliders. Limnology and Oceanography, 53(5part2), 2197–2209. https://doi.org/10.4319/lo.2008.53.5_part_2.2197
  • Baumgartner, M. F., & Mussoline, S. E. (2011). A generalized baleen whale call detection and classification system. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 129(5), 2889–2902. https://doi.org/10.1121/1.3562166
  • Baumgartner, M. F., Fratantoni, D. M., Hurst, T. P., Brown, M. W., Cole, T. V. N., Van Parijs, S. M., & Johnson, M. (2013). Real-time reporting of baleen whale passive acoustic detections from ocean gliders. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 134(3), 1814–1823. https://doi.org/10.1121/1.4816406
  • Calderan, S., Miller, B., Collins, K., Ensor, P., Double, M., Leaper, R., & Barlow, J. (2014). Low-frequency vocalizations of sei whales ( Balaenoptera borealis ) in the Southern Ocean. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 136(6), EL418-EL423. https://doi.org/10.1121/1.4902422
  • Klinck, H., Mellinger, D. K., Klinck, K., Bogue, N. M., Luby, J. C., Jump, W. A., … Baird, R. W. (2012). Near-real-time acoustic monitoring of beaked whales and other cetaceans using a SeagliderTM. PLoS ONE, 7(5), e36128. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0036128
  • Wall, C., Lembke, C., & Mann, D. (2012). Shelf-scale mapping of sound production by fishes in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, using autonomous glider technology. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 449, 55–64. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps09549