Have you ever visited the ocean? Maybe you live along a coastline where you get to see the ocean all the time. For most others, though, seeing the ocean means taking a trip — sometimes a long trip! — to visit the ocean.

If you’ve ever walked along a seashore, you’ve probably searched for seashells. They’re not always easy to find, though. If you can’t find any big seashells, you may decide to check out the selection of shells at a local souvenir shop.

One thing most children do upon first picking up a large seashell is to hold it up to their ears to listen for the sounds of the ocean inside the shell. If you’ve ever tried this, you know that it works. No matter how far you are from the ocean, it seems like you can hear the soothing sounds of ocean waves lapping up onto the beach when you hold a shell to your ear.

Obviously, the ocean isn’t inside the shell. So what exactly is it that you’re hearing? If not the ocean, what in the world is it?

One popular myth that many people believe is that, when you hold a shell up to your ear, what you’re really hearing is the echo of the blood pumping through the blood vessels in your head. It sounds believable, but scientists have proved that the echo of pumping blood is not what you’re hearing.

Others believe what you hear is the sound of air flowing through the shell. Scientists have disproved this theory, too, though. When tested in a soundproof room — where there’s still air flowing — shells don’t produce the same “ocean” sound.

So what IS that sound you hear? Scientists believe the most likely answer is that it’s the echo of the noise in the air around you. They call this ambient noise. The seashell captures the ambient noise, which then resonates inside the shell.

Depending upon the size and type of shell you listen to, different frequencies of sound will be echoed back to your ear. This leads to different shells making different “ocean” sounds. The best shells are large, spiral conch shells.

Would you believe you don’t even need a shell to hear the “ocean”? You can produce the same effect with an empty cup or simply by cupping your hand over your ear. You may want to try this in a noisy area. The more ambient noise there is around you, the louder the effect will be.

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    • Hi there, Nikki! Thanks for being the very first Wonder Friend to leave us a comment on today’s WONDERful Wonder of the Day®! We really like all the smiley faces you left for us! :-)

    • Thanks for stopping by Wonderopolis today and learning some fun new facts about hearing the ocean in shells with us, T! We appreciate your happy, smiley faced comment! :-)

  1. Dear Wonderpolis,
    I’ve tried to put a big seashell near my ear and I heard a lot of sounds even it was in a very quiet atmosphere where there was nobody.
    Why could I still hear the “ocean” sounds? So, I don’t really think the ambient noise is the true theory. :(

    Sophie

    :):):):):)

    • Thanks for sharing your opinion of why you still hear the ocean in a shell even in a quiet atmosphere, Sophie! We appreciate your comment very much and think you are a GREAT Wonder Friend! :-)

    • Hello, Gwen! We’re so glad you stopped by Wonderopolis today and explored this Wonder of the Day® with us! We hope you have a SUPER, AWESOME, GREAT, WONDER-filled day! :-)

  2. A couple weeks ago, I went to a beach and I had lots of fun, UNTIL :-( ! It took over the whole ocean and it is! SEAWEED, it bothers and scares me by its ticks and it has leafy spikes!! AH! x-P

    • We’re sorry you had that experience with seaweed taking over the beach you went to, Carlos! We think it would be FUN to WONDER about seaweed sometime! :-)

  3. Shells are amazing. I learned the ocean is not really inside them. I tried to listen for the ocean with a plastic cup over my ear and It sounded like the wind blowing. Then I put a glass over my ear and I heard the wind blowing again.

    I love to collect shells. I want to start to listen for the ocean in them.

    • We think it’s really AWESOME that you tried to hear the ocean inside both a plastic and then a glass cup, Helena! It’s FUN to WONDER that way about the sounds we learned of in this Wonder of the Day®! We bet your shell collection is AMAZING! :-)

    • Thanks for posting your comment, Abby! We think the imagination is a powerful thing and we hope the tunes from your imagination are just as AWESOME as you! We hope you have a WONDERful day!! :)

  4. You can also hear it when you cup your hand around your ear. And, I hear it for a split second when I push my hair back and my arms go past my ears. I think the ocean thing came because it was probably first heard in a shell. Another thing, my friend makes ceramic shells, and you can hear the ocean in them, too. :)

    • WOW, how cool, Tabby! Thanks for sharing this great information about shells and the ocean with us! We are so excited that you’re WONDERing about the waves of the sea today! :)

  5. A kid in my 3rd grade class said it was the blood flow to your brain, but he isn’t a scientist!!! Thanks for all of the information!
    I love Wonderopolis!!!!!!

    • Hey Amber, we think it’s cool that your classmate was forming guesses about what your ears hear in a shell! We’re also super glad to know that you’ve been WONDERing with us today and you learned something new! HOORAY for you! We hope to see you soon! :)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • Can you really hear the ocean in a shell?
  • What type of shell is best for “hearing the ocean”?
  • Can you hear the “ocean” in any other objects?

Wonder Gallery

Try It Out

Ready to hear the ocean in a seashell? First, you’ll need a seashell. If you live near the ocean or have been to the ocean on vacation, you probably have a seashell sitting around the house somewhere. Grab it and listen! What do you hear? Can you hear the ocean?

If you don’t have a seashell, that’s OK. Now that you know you’re not really hearing the ocean, you can try to duplicate the effects you learned about in today’s Wonder using other objects. Grab a cup, a pan and some other object you have around the house and see if you can hear the ocean in any of these objects.

For fun, get a little bit silly. Try out other objects around the house and wonder about what you might hear in them. Can you hear an elephant in a jar of peanut butter? What about the forest in a wooden box? Maybe you can hear the jungle in an empty flower pot!

Still Wondering

Science NetLinks’ How a Blue Crab Changes as It Grows lesson explores the changes that a blue crab goes through during molting and why it is important for scientists to understand these changes.

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