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Ocean Sonics to supply Fundy turbine with hydrophones

GREAT VILLAGE — It looks like a woodshed.

“It’s not a woodshed,” Desiree Stockermans corrected a reporter on Wednesday.

The small shed across from the Royal Canadian Legion in Great Village, Colchester County, is actually a digital hydrophone-calibration facility. Insulated and wrapped with a grounded aluminum cage to stop electromagnetic radiation, it provides complete silence for the hydrophones placed in the large tub inside.

“So far as we know, it’s the only one in the world,” said Stockermans, who owns Ocean Sonics with her husband, Mark Wood.

In the adjacent 165-year-old Hill House — a former dry goods store, pool hall and funeral home — were engineers, computer scientists and technologists from India, Hawaii, China and Truro.

High-tech businesses like Ocean Sonics are what the thinkers championing an eco-nomic revolution for rural Nova Scotia dream of.

But it wasn’t an economic development officer or the promise of government subsidy that brought Wood, Stockermans and their 11 employees to Great Village.

“We didn’t want our children going to a school with metal detectors at the door,” said Stockermans.

Prior to 1999, Ocean Sonics was based primarily out of Houston — near the head offices of the oil and gas companies that purchased their digital hydrophones to listen for leaks in underwater offshore equipment.

But the couple had three young children and a desire for a different lifestyle.

They also had a technology with worldwide clients; they needed an airport nearby and access to good Internet service.

Nova Scotia, with its small but growing high-tech marine-services industry and an airport in Halifax, fit the bill.

Great Village had historic homes, like the one the couple purchased and renovated, and the Hill House that they have converted into an office space and testing and assembly facility for their hydrophones.

“Great Village is about as rural as would be feasible,” said Wood.

Great Village doesn’t have an immediately available labour pool of computer scientists and engineers with skills honed around the recognition of underwater sound.

“But when we recruit, we’re looking at the world, not just Nova Scotia,” said Stockermans.

“We’re attracting people who are looking for the life that can be offered here, and so our isolation can be good filter that has helped us create a strong team.”

Their computer boards are built in Lockeport and the casings and acoustic sensors are built in Dartmouth.

Ocean Sonics also has a technology industry that law enforcement and marine biologists want.

Their digital hydrophones, a bit bigger than a can of pop and running around $10,000 apiece, not only listen but compute the data and update their owners in real time.

So when a law enforcement agency is concerned with smugglers crossing a remote body of water, the hydrophone can identify the sound of a boat motor and send an email or text message instantaneously.

The equipment can hear noises a fish makes with its bladder.

The Nova Scotia-based Ocean Tracking Network is planning to install one of their hydrophones on its ocean-going sensor platform to help track right whales.

This fall, four of their hydrophones will be installed with the OpenHydro test in-stream tidal turbine being installed in the Bay of Fundy to listen for fish and marine mammals as part of research into how marine life is affected by tidal electricity generation.

“Our users want an answer now; they don’t want a pile of data three months later,” said Wood.

“We have a niche product that is geared to the needs of our customers … we’ve doubled our sales in the past year.”

So this small community at the head of the Bay of Fundy is becoming a centre for the research of underwater sound, complete with a handful of high-skilled jobs because it is a good place to raise a family.

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