Dr Brian Miller — marine mammal acoustician

Scientists of the Antarctic: Dr Brian Miller

Video transcript

[Sound of blue whale]

My name is Brian Miller. I’m a research scientist here at the Australian Antarctic Division. I study underwater sound and particularly the sounds of whales and other marine mammals in the Antarctic.

[Sound of Antarctic minke whale]

My work involves putting specialised listening devices deep under water around the Antarctic continent so that we can record the sounds of the underwater environment.

[Sound of humpback whale]

One of the amazing things about using underwater sound to study animals is just how noisy the Southern Ocean is itself. Jacques Cousteau called the underwater world ‘the silent world’ and he couldn’t have been more wrong about that.

[Sound of crashing ice]

Some animals are much more vocal than others and in particular, blue whales and fin whales are incredibly vocal animals.

[Sound of fin whale]

We can hear them much more easily than we can see them. Listening for them is an incredibly efficient way to study them.

A lot of the questions that we're trying to answer; how many whales are there, where are they, when do we see them? These are really basic fundamental questions that you need to be able to answer if you want to have any chance of conserving and managing populations of whales effectively.

One of the things I love most about this work is that there’s still discoveries to be made. Going into the field, there’s always a possibility that we might hear something that’s never been recorded before, we might discover something new. And that opportunity to discover something new is a really satisfying part of the job.

[end transcript]

Dr Brian Miller: BSc (Hons), PhD

Research interests

I am a marine mammal acoustician, and this means that I develop and use specialised underwater listening devices and software to detect and locate sounds produced by marine mammals. I started working in this field in 2003 at Boston University’s Hearing Research Center by investigating the mechanics of cetacean (dolphin and whale) auditory systems. For my PhD at Otago University, I conducted 3D acoustic tracking of sperm whales in Kaikoura, New Zealand, and I also developed passive acoustic software for measuring individual growth in sperm whales. Since 2011 I have been working at the Australian Antarctic Division as part of the Australian Marine Mammal Centre. My work is focused on understanding the role and recovery of large whales throughout the Southern Ocean. In addition to Antarctic research, I also provide scientific advice on the effects of man-made underwater noise on marine mammals around Australia and Antarctica.

My main acoustic research tools in the Southern Ocean are sonobuoys and autonomous moored-acoustic recording devices (also known as whale recorders). I use sonobuoys to locate and track blue and fin whales in real-time during vessel based surveys. These acoustic tracking methods, which we developed for the IWC-SORP Antarctic Blue Whale Project, provide a reliable and efficient way to find and study critically endangered Antarctic blue whales. Moored acoustic recorders provide continuous sound recordings for an entire year for each deployment at each recording site. These long-term underwater recordings can give us insight into the distribution, habitat usage, and seasonal trends in vocal behaviour of more than a dozen Antarctic marine mammal species — each known to produce distinctive underwater sounds. These long-term recordings are especially useful for learning about blue, fin, and sperm whales, since these species are very vocal, but are otherwise not frequently encountered.

Current projects

International/national collaborations

Key outcome areas

  • International Whaling Commission (IWC)
  • Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR)
  • Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP)
  • Australian State and Commonwealth Government and stakeholders

Related links


BS Miller and EJ Miller (2018). The seasonal occupancy and diel behaviour of Antarctic sperm whales revealed by acoustic monitoring. Sci. Rep., 8, 5429. doi:10.1038/s41598-018–23752-1

BS Miller, S Calderan, D Gillespie et al. (2016). Software for real-time localization of baleen whale calls using directional sonobuoys: A case study on Antarctic blue whales. JASA-EL. 139(3):EL83–EL89. doi:10.1121/1.4943627

BS Miller, J Barlow, S Calderan, K Collins et al. (2015). Validating the reliability of passive acoustic localisation: a novel method for encountering rare and remote Antarctic blue whales. Endang. Species Res. 26:257–269 doi:10.3354/esr00642

See more of Dr Miller’s publications on ResearchGate.