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Underwater Hearing and Sound Localization with and without an Air Interface

Shupak, Avi*†; Sharoni, Zohara*; Yanir, Yoav*; Keynan, Yoav*; Alfie, Yechezkel*; Halpern, Pinchas*‡§

Basic Science

Hypothesis: Underwater hearing acuity and sound localization are improved by the presence of an air interface around the pinnae and inside the external ear canals.

Background: Hearing threshold and the ability to localize sound sources are reduced underwater. The resonance frequency of the external ear is lowered when the external ear canal is filled with water, and the impedance-matching ability of the middle ear is significantly reduced due to elevation of the ambient pressure, the water-mass load on the tympanic membrane, and the addition of a fluid-air interface during submersion. Sound lateralization on land is largely explained by the mechanisms of interaural intensity differences and interaural temporal or phase differences. During submersion, these differences are largely lost due to the increase in underwater sound velocity and cancellation of the head's acoustic shadow effect because of the similarity between the impedance of the skull and the surrounding water.

Methods: Ten scuba divers wearing a regular opaque face mask or an opaque ProEar 2000 (Safe Dive, Ltd., Hofit, Israel) mask that enables the presence of air at ambient pressure in and around the ear made a dive to a depth of 3 m in the open sea. Four underwater speakers arranged on the horizontal plane at 90-degree intervals and at a distance of 5 m from the diver were used for testing pure-tone hearing thresholds (PTHT), the reception threshold for the recorded sound of a rubber-boat engine, and sound localization. For sound localization, the sound of the rubber boat's engine was randomly delivered by one speaker at a time at 40 dB HL above the recorded sound of a rubber-boat engine, and the diver was asked to point to the sound source. The azimuth was measured by the diver's companion using a navigation board.

Results: Underwater PTHT with both masks were significantly higher for frequencies of 250 to 6000 Hz when compared with the thresholds on land (p < 0.0001). No differences were found in the PTHT or the reception threshold for the recorded sound of a rubber-boat engine for dry or wet ear conditions. There was no difference in the sound localization error between the regular mask and the ProEar 2000 mask.

Conclusions: The presence of air around the pinna and inside the external ear canal did not improve underwater hearing sensitivity or sound localization. These results support the argument that bone conduction plays the main role in underwater hearing.

*Israel Naval Medical Institute, Haifa, Israel; †Otoneurology Unit, Lin Medical Center, Haifa Israel; and ‡Department of Emergency Medicine, Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center; and the §Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, Israel

This research was financially supported by a grant from the Israel MOD, R&D authority.

Address correspondence and reprint requests to Dr. Avi Shupak, Israel Naval Medical Institute, P.O. Box 8040, Haifa 31 080, Israel; Email: shupak@internet-zahav.net

© 2005 Otology & Neurotology, Inc.