Whitlow Au touching dolphin's nose
Whitlow Au at Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology with dolphin BJ.

Whitlow W.L. Au, emeritus faculty at the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa died on February 12, 2020, after two months of heart problems at age 79. Even before becoming a researcher and professor in the Marine Mammal Research Program (MMRP), Au was a pioneer in understanding the echolocation of dolphins and whales.

Au, a graduate of Saint Louis School, earned his bachelor of science in electrical engineering from UH Mānoa and his PhD from Western Washington University. He joined the U.S. Navy’s Naval Undersea Center in Kāneʻohe to understand the biosonar of dolphins. Following his seminal paper in 1974 on the echolocation signals of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, Au went on to methodically quantify the performance and signal characteristics of dolphins and other small whales that echolocate under water. His book, The Sonar of Dolphins published in 1993, remains as the primary source for describing dolphin echolocation.

In 1993, Au co-founded the new MMRP at the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology’s HIMB on Coconut Island. Becoming a university researcher and professor allowed his academic career to blossom. He loved and respected his graduate students, and they returned his affection and propensity for hard work and success.

“He discovered how sophisticated dolphin sonar is and spent his career learning how and why,” said Kelly Benoit-Bird, a former graduate student of Au’s who went on to become a MacArthur Fellow. “Nearly everything you read in a textbook about dolphin echolocation is the result of his work. He developed dolphin-inspired machine sonars to separate different species of fish with the goal of protecting sensitive species, and made numerous contributions to our description of the song of humpback whales, helping use that information to protect whales from ship noise and ship traffic.”

Au wrote three books, edited three other books and published 230 papers in peer-reviewed literature. He was an Acoustical Society of America (ASA) fellow and a former president and was chosen for both silver and gold medals by the ASA. He served as associate editor of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, and on the Ocean Studies Board of the National Research Council of the National Academies.

He is survived by his wife, Dorothy, four children and numerous grandchildren.

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