The Soundtrack of Life

Porpoises: Bill Keener, Golden Gate Cetacean Research

Midshipman: Ron Caswell, roncasual @ Flickr

Midshipman Mystery

In Sausalito 1985, residents complained about humming that was so loud it was coming through the hulls of their houseboats and keeping them up at night. Eventually they figured out that the sound, described as the drone of a “giant electric shaver”, came from many male Midshipman fish, also known as toadfish. They were singing to attract their annual mates.

200 years ago the bay was very different than it is now. It bustled and buzzed with the sounds of animal life both above and below the water.

As the port developed, marshlands were filled in and “navigation hazards” like rock outcroppings and eel grass beds were removed leaving a mud-bottom bay with rip-rap shores – and little healthy habitat. Fifty years ago all that you would likely hear underwater was the churning of boat propellers, the humming of engines, and perhaps the crackling of snapping shrimp.

But over the last 25 years bay restoration of some of these features are bringing back some of the sounds of life. Wetlands are bringing in birds. Oyster bed restoration creates homes for crustaceans, zooplankton, mollusks, and fish. In turn, they attract larger animals. The harbor porpoises, gone since WWII, are returning to the bay. Even grey whales are stopping in for more frequent visits.

This is an introduction to some of the sounds of the bay.