Ocean Noise Pollution, Whale Ears, and a Humpback Beached on Cape Cod

Excerpt from the article:

“And then there is noise. The oceans are naturally noisy places; think of waves, volcanic eruptions, storms, and sounds created by marine creatures. But now there is growing concern about underwater noise pollution—from shipping traffic, construction, seismic air guns used in oil and gas exploration, sonars, and military training—all of it occurring in parts of the sea that are habitats for humpbacks. Little is known about how this human cacophony is impacting these whales. Ketten says the major concern is twofold: Will humpbacks be disturbed by noise pollution that could disrupt their feeding, mating, and other critical behaviors? And will they be exposed to frequent, extremely loud sounds that impair their hearing?

‘How much sound are we putting into the oceans, and what is it bothering?’ says Ketten, whose authoritative and unflappable charm brings to mind the actress Frances McDormand. ‘It’s a huge question, because we realize that in some places, like the North Atlantic, we’re creating, essentially, the equivalent of an industrial plant.’

As scientists learn more about how noise pollution is impacting whales like Vector, they can create protections for species like the humpback, for example, by devising alert systems to warn whales away from harm without, as Ketten says, ‘spooking them.’

In 2000, Ketten helped lead an investigation of the mass strandings, and deaths, of whales in the Bahamas, following the Navy’s use of sonar during training exercises there. Scientists concluded that the exercises disturbed one group in particular—beaked whales. ‘The nervous Nellies of the sea,’ Ketten calls them. ‘When sonar goes off, they freak and try to run away from it. On the other hand, pilot whales really like sonar—they come up to the ships and they mimic it. So every species is different.’

Photo by Ryan Bemis

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