Bloop, Julia! Humming, Whistling and Quackers

There’s a lot of odd stuff out there, as our regular readers will be all too aware. Strange sights and happenings; unidentified, out-of-place creatures; things in the sky… But one branch of the weird that tends to get relatively little attention is the unexplained noise. So I thought, with your indulgence, I’d cover – hopelessly briefly – some of the rather peculiar audible phenomena that have been reported over the years.

Probably the most famous of these relatively non-famous occurrences is the ‘Taos Hum’. This occurs, coincidentally enough, in a town called Taos in New Mexico, USA. Reported on and off since the 1990s, the Taos Hum is a constant and steady, somewhat quiet, low-frequency sound that is audible (and apparently extremely irritating) to only a relative few of the local population – less than 5% of those surveyed reported being able to hear the Hum. A very similar sound had previously been reported in Britain in the 1970s, but at the time it attracted little media attention. Since the story of the Taos Hum became more widely known, other ‘hums’ have been reported around North America and Europe.

'Welcome to Taos' road sign

Explanations for the Taos Hum, which continues today, have ranged from the optimistically paranormal (it’s aliens/ghosts/fairies/demons), through the medical (that it’s tinnitus or other form of ‘ringing in the ears’), the technical (it’s low-frequency vibration from distant industrial machinery), to the psychological (people are hearing a hum because they’re trying to). Much as I’d like to ascribe to the first hypothesis and assume it’s the Fae, the last idea does have some merit. If you’re a hearing person and have ever experienced conscious moments of true silence – say out on the moors or hills – you’ll probably know what I mean if I say that even silence has a sound of sorts; and those moments do illustrate just how loud life normally is. It’s rare we’re anywhere where there isn’t some kind of sound in the background – just now I’m sitting with the window open, and I can hear traffic on the main road, people clanking and murmuring out amongst the houses, and my own computer’s fans whirring under the desk. Not to mention the occasional bird. But if I wasn’t concentrating on those things, I’d actually think it was pretty quiet in here.

Moving on, we’re off to San Diego where, in 2006, a loud ‘boom’ shook the town – apparently setting off car alarms and rattling windows; but the noise had no discernible cause or origin. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune (a mouthful of a paper if ever there was one), the noise of 4 April 2006 has yet to be explained. Scientists, say the paper, “insist it wasn’t an earthquake”. By measuring the sound characteristics, and the effects reported by witnesses, and comparing this data with the output from seismographs, which are running constantly, it would be possible to determine whether a given sound originated in the ground or not. Scientists in 2006 said this one didn’t. And the Federal Aviation Administration reported nothing aloft at the time that would have created a sonic boom. So if it wasn’t seismic, and it wasn’t caused by supersonic transport, what made the noise?

A fighter goes supersonic

A fighter goes supersonic

Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your attitude towards mystery – no explanation has ever been settled upon. But the San Diego Boom of ’06 certainly wasn’t the first or last time this sort of thing has been reported. In fact, unaccountable booms are quite common and occur all around the world. The San Diego sound was, by all accounts, a particularly loud example of the species, but the phenomenon itself – or something very like it at least – has been heard in waterfront areas and settlements all over the globe and the sounds are most commonly referred to as mistpouffers (Wikipedia’s discussion page on the subject suggests the name means ‘lake guns’; though another name for them is ‘fog guns’.). Reports from the 1800s describe the noises as being like the sound of cannon fire, heard rolling in over the water; but no battles or salutes were ever found to correspond. The dating rules out the possibility of supersonic aircraft – at least according to a conventional technological timetable, though ufologists and Jules Verne enthusiasts may know different. One possibility that hasn’t been ruled out is that the noise is caused by meteors. A rock entering the atmosphere at high speed will be subjected to tremendous heat and pressure – and if it doesn’t actually hit the ground, as most don’t, it’s quite possible it will shatter or explode in the air. This does happen more often than most might think, and it seems a reasonable possibility. But it is, still, only a possibility. Like the Taos Hum, mistpouffers and other such booms remain currently unexplained.

Now, if you will, I’d like you to finish Washing people Right Outta your Hair and follow me out to the South Pacific. Here, I’d like you to come swimming with me, here in this warm, crystal blue water (mind the sharks, please). And I’d like to take you down, down into the deep, crushing depths, where the sunlight never reaches, and let you listen to Julia.

Bubbles in shallow water

No: way deeper than that.

No, Julia’s not some alternative sea goddess (unless you know otherwise again).  She’s a… Well, that’s the thing. Nobody really knows what she is.  Was.  Except that it was all a bit odd.  Julia is one of a number of peculiar noises (others are called things like ‘Bloop’, ‘Train’, ‘Upsweep’, and so on) that have been recorded underwater, mostly clustered in the eastern South Pacific region, by US underwater detection and monitoring systems (including the remnants of SOSUS – the oceanwide hydrophone array used during the Cold War to detect submarines approaching the USA). This page links to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and their Acoustic Monitoring Program, which is part of their effort to investigate undersea volcanic vents. And on the page you’ll find links to a selection of odd acoustics which their detection systems have logged. The sounds are in WAV format and can be played by clicking on the spectrogram – a little more information about each sound can be found by clicking on its name. Bear in mind the sounds have been speeded up considerably, otherwise they’d take several minutes – but the point is that they’re not consistent with the sort of noises you normally hear underwater. It may be that they’re some sort of perfectly natural seismic effect; but the Lovecraft fans amongst us should probably consider that the area of that cluster of noises does seem to include a certain point at 46°S by 126°W

(Note: I would link all the sounds individually, but to be honest my Internet connection gives me speed ‘Up To’ something-or-other, and today I’m on the very, very low end of ‘Up To’.)

Suitably eeried out? Okay, while we’re down here, I’ll just touch briefly on Quackers. Russian frogs, as should be obvious, speak Russian Frog rather than English Frog. So instead of our word ‘croak’, they say ‘quack’; which to English ears sounds a bit like the English Duck word for everything-a-duck-will-ever-say. In fact, I believe there was a popular movie about an English duck who lands on a Russian lake and falls in with the frog community, with hilarious results. Or maybe I imagined that. Anyway. Where was I? Oh yes: submarines.

During the height of the Cold Warwhile Russian and American submarines were stalking each other around the oceans of the world, a standard Soviet tactic – as showcased in Tom Clancy’s rather good novel ‘The Hunt For Red October’ – was to run submarines out of the northern bases in the Barents and Kara Seas, through what was called the GIUK Gap – the waters between Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom – and out into the North Atlantic. This meant there was a lot of underwater military activity around this region through the 1970s and 1980s.

Now that the Cold War’s over, and the Russians aren’t so cagey about talking about what their subs were up to, various stories have come forth from those sub crews, including the story of the Quackers.

It seems that quite often, as they left the northern waters through GIUK, the submarines would pick up strange noises coming from the waters around the boat. The noises were promptly dubbed ‘Quackers’, because they sounded like the aforementioned Russian frogs. A submarine has no windows – they’d be a weakness in the hull under high water pressure, and besides, much below about fifty feet there’s little really to see, and what there is you probably don’t want to look at.

Windows, You Want?

Seriously now: would you *really* want windows?

So a sub relies on sound – through its sonar systems – to work out where it is, where the enemy is and, if it comes to it, where the weird-ass alien-esque strange croaking noises are. In the case of the Quackers, the noises seemed to circle the subs, showing every impression of living things taking in interest in their sudden big metal companion. Not unusual – whales and dolphins are known to follow ships and submarines, but their depth range is limited, and Quackers were usually detected at or below 200 metres (656 feet). And although there were some proposals for deep-sea animals that could cause the noise – giant squids were amongst those nominated – there remained three oddities. First, the distribution of the Quackers, which were initially recorded in the Barents Sea, then over the 1970s spread out into the northern Atlantic, then by the end of the 1980s had apparently disappeared. Second, the fact that only Russian crews seemed to report them. American crews operating in the area at the time have never mentioned anything similar. And third, the speed of the Quackers. Using Doppler measurements, the Soviets estimated the top speed of the Quackers at just over 100 knots (124 mph): an unheard-of speed for any vessel at the time.

The modern Russian ‘Shkval’ rocket torpedo reckons to be able to notch up over 200 knots – but it’s monumentally loud, and could never be mistaken for an animal. So were the Quackers some sort of still-secret US or NATO technology? Possibly – but that doesn’t explain the final peculiarity. Increasingly alarmed by the noises they were hearing, the Soviet crews did, very rarely and with great risk to themselves, use active sonar to ‘ping’ the water around them, knowing that any nearby ship or large object would return an echo.

No echo was ever heard, and no-one has ever settled on any explanation for what the Russians were hearing. Since the end of the Cold War there have been no more reports of Quackers.

At nearly two thousand words, it’s time I shut up. I hope you’ve found some of this interesting, and I’ve just one final weirdity to offer you. This one is indisputably natural: nothing paranormal here, except perhaps for the effect this sound may – or may not – have on you. Astronomers studying the constant barrage of electromagnetic waves from stars and planets have converted some of the emissions into sound patterns. And the planets sing. Saturn, in particular, has quite a remarkable voice, as you’ll hear if you visit the NASA website for the Cassini probe. I’d suggest you don’t play this one if you’re on your own in the house late at night.

Click HERE for the page, and click the ‘play sound’ link in blue below the sound spectrogram.

Sweet dreams.

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One thought on “Bloop, Julia! Humming, Whistling and Quackers

  1. Hi, you’ve rumbled me again. When I was a child of some four or five years of age, I was regularly taken to visit my great-grandmother (please be patient, this is relevent) who lived near to an electricity sub-station. I could always hear a low pitched hum coming from this shed in a cage labled with dire prognostications if I should force an entry into it, (the shed not the hum). I also noticed the same/similar hum on warm, still summer nights when I would lay in bed with the window open. At the time I thought it was the sub-station I could hear, but as this was about two miles away across a valley and over several roads and many houses, I deduced, on being educated in the sciences, that I could not possibly hear the low hum over such a distance and in such conditions. In my early days we had no electricity in our house and there were no sub-stations in the area, but the hum certainly was. Over the years I have heard it many times, even as recently as our last good summer when I have been able to stand in my garden in the middle of the night, no traffic in evidence. The sound is different to the motorway constant drone which sometimes drifts over Chesterfield on a balmy summer night. I heard it mentioned on the TV once, but no logical explanation was given. I did wonder if being sited over a large granite geological area has something to do with it. I lived on the Pennines as a child and there have been strange lights (thought by some to be UFOs) attributed to grinding of granite strata/electo-magnetic/radon gas effects. I do not hear it all the time, the weather conditions have to be right, but my husband can’t hear it even when it is very obvious to me. I’m sure its not in my head and I would like an explanation.

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