Hearing underwater

Hearing in a watery world.

If you’re lucky enough to be heading off on a summer holiday this year, have a listen to what you can and can’t hear as you dive into the hotel pool and submerge yourself in a watery world. Consciously listen to the difference in sounds that you hear underwater compared to those you experience on dry land.

Underwater, sounds are muffled, and it’s hard to work out where they’re coming from – left, right, back or front.

That’s because, underwater, we pick up very little sound via our normal hearing pathway. Instead, sound tends to travel directly through the head. It also travels much faster in water, so it reaches both ears almost simultaneously – affecting the directional cues that we normally receive when hearing in air. That’s why sound underwater seems to come from all directions equally.

For most of us, the water is a place to relax or exercise, but for some it’s a workplace. Commercial and military divers spend much of their working life immersed in an element their bodies aren’t designed for. What’s more, their hearing may be at risk because of the work they do.

Any scuba diver will tell you that the bubbles produced when you breathe out in scuba gear are quite noisy, but commercial and navy divers who use the standard Kirby Morgan dive helmets can regularly experience sound levels that exceed safe hearing levels.

Traditional hearing protection is of little use underwater. Using ear plugs will block the ear canals and compromise a diver’s ability to equalise the pressure in their middle ear as they move up and down in the water. A neoprene hood can help to protect the hearing at certain frequencies, however, it’s not particularly effective for divers working with underwater explosives, tools, pile drivers, and even boat noise.

It’s a fascinating subject, and one that deserves more research. But happily not one that you’ll need to worry about when you’re retrieving your kid’s goggles from the bottom of the pool. 

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