Measuring dolphin response to Navy sonar

By Lisa Hildebrand, MSc student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

During the summer of 2017 I was an intern for Cascadia Research Collective (CRC), a non-profit organization based out of Olympia, Washington, that conducts research on marine mammal behavior, ecology, and population status along the western US coast and around Hawaii. My internship was primarily office-based and involved processing photographs of humpback and blue whales along the US west coast to add to CRC’s long-term photo-identification catalogues. However, I was asked to join a research project investigating the behavioral and physiological responses of four dolphin species in southern California (Fig. 1). The research project is a collaborative effort lead by Dr. Brandon Southall and involves researchers from CRC, Kelp Marine Research, NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, and SR3. Since my internship with CRC, there have been three pilot efforts and one full field effort of this project, called the SOCAL Tagless Behavioral and Physiological Response Study (BPRS), and I have been a part of all of them.

The marine environment is stressed out, and so are the millions of flora and fauna that inhabit the global ocean. Humans are a big contributor to this stress. During the last few decades, we have produced more and more things that have ended up in the ocean, whether by choice or by chance. Plastic pollution has become a pervasive and persistent problem, especially after the discovery that when large plastic items are exposed to UV light and seawater they break down into smaller pieces, termed micro- and nano-plastics (Jambeck et al. 2015). Increased demand for oil and gas to supply a growing human population has led to much more marine oil and gas exploration and exploitation (World Ocean Review 2013). Since 1985, global container shipping has increased by approximately 10% annually (World Ocean Review 2010) and it is estimated that global freight demand will triple by 2050 (International Transport Forum 2019). The list of impacts is long. Our impact on the earth, of which the ocean makes up 71%, has been so extreme that expert groups suggest that a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – needs to be declared to define the time that we now find ourselves in and the impact humanity is having on the environment (Lewis and Maslin 2015). While this term has not been officially recognized, it is irrefutable that humans have and continue to alter ecosystems, impacting the organisms within them. 

Noise is an impact often overlooked when thinking about anthropogenic effects in the marine environment, likely because we as humans do not hear much of what happens beneath the ocean surface. However, ocean noise is of particular concern for cetaceans as sound is their primary sense, both over long and short distances. Sound travels extremely efficiently underwater and therefore anthropogenic sounds can be propagated for thousands of kilometers or more (Weilgart 2007a). While it is widely agreed upon that anthropogenic noise is likely a significant stressor to cetaceans (Weilgart 2007b; Wright et al. 2007; Tyack 2008), very few studies have quantified their responses to noise to date. This knowledge gap is likely because behavioral and physiological responses to sound can be subtle, short-lived or slowly proliferate over time, hence making them hard to study. However, growing concern over this issue has resulted in more research into impacts of noise on marine mammals, including the GEMM Lab’s impacts of ocean noise on gray whales project.

The most extreme impact of sound exposure on marine mammals is death. Mass strandings of a few cetacean species have coincided in time and space with Navy sonar operations (Jepson et al. 2003; Fernández et al. 2005; Filadelfo et al. 2009). While fatal mass strandings of cetaceans are extremely troubling, they are a relatively rare occurrence. A cause for perhaps greater concern are sub-lethal changes in important behaviors such as feeding, social interactions, and avoidance of key habitat as a result of exposure to Navy sonar. All of these potential outcomes have raised interest within the U.S. Navy to better understand the responses of cetaceans to sonar. 

The SOCAL Tagless BPRS is just one of several studies that has been funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research to improve our understanding of Navy sonar impact on cetaceans, in particular the sub-lethal effects described earlier. It builds upon knowledge and expertise gained from previous behavioral response studies led by Dr. Southall on a variety of marine mammal species, including beaked whales, baleen whales, and sperm whales. Those efforts included deploying tags on individual whales to obtain high-resolution movement and passive acoustic data paired with controlled exposure experiments (CEEs) during which simulated Navy mid-frequency active sonar (MFAS) or real Navy sonar were employed. Results from that multi-year effort have shown that for blue whales, responses generally only lasted for as long as the sound was active and highly dependent on exposure context such as behavioral state, prey availability and the horizontal distance between the sound source and the individual whale. Blue whales identified as feeding in shallow depths showed no changes in behavior, however over 50% of deep-feeding whales responded during CEEs (Southall et al. 2019).

The SOCAL Tagless BPRS, as the name implies, does not involve deploying tags on the animals. Tags were omitted from this study design because tags on dolphins have not had high success rates of staying on for a very long time. Furthermore, dolphins are social species that typically occur in groups and individuals within a group are likely to interact or react together when exposed to an external stimuli. Therefore, the project integrates established methods of quantifying dolphin behavior and physiology in a novel way to measure broad and fine-scale group and individual changes of dolphin behavior and physiology to simulated Navy MFAS or real Navy sonars using CEEs. 

During these tagless CEEs, a dolphin group is tracked from multiple platforms using several different tools. Kelp Marine Research is our on-shore team that spots workable groups (workable meaning that a group should be within range of all platforms and not moving too quickly so that they will leave this range during the CEE), tracks the group using a theodolite (just like I do for my Port Orford gray whale project), and does focal follows to record behavior of the group over a period of time. Ziphiid, one of CRC’s RHIBs, is tasked with deploying three passive acoustic sensors to record sounds emitted by the dolphins and to measure the intensity of the sound of the simulated Navy MFAS or the real Navy sonars. Musculus, the second CRC RHIB, has a dual-function during CEEs; it holds the custom vertical line array sound source, which emits the simulated Navy MFAS, and it is also the ‘biopsy boat’ tasked with obtaining biopsy samples of individuals within the dolphin group to measure potential changes in stress hormone levels. And last but not least, the Magician, the third vessel on the water, serves as ‘home-base’ for the project (Fig. 3). Quite literally it is where the research team eats and sleeps, but it is also the spotting vessel from which visual observations occur, and it is the launch pad for the unmanned aerial system (UAS) used to measure potential changes in group composure, spacing, and speed of travel.

The project involves a lot of moving parts and we are careful to conduct the research with explicit monitoring and mitigation requirements to ensure our work is carried out safely and ethically. These factors, as well as the fact that we are working with live, wild animals that we cannot ‘control’, are why three pilot efforts were necessary. Our first ‘official’ phase this past October was a success: in just eight days we conducted 11 CEEs. Six of these involved experimental sonar transmissions (two being from real Navy sonars dipped from hovering helicopters) and five were no-sonar controls that are critical to be able to experimentally associate sonar exposure with potential response. There are more phases to come in 2020 and 2021 and I look forward to continue working on such a collaborative project.

For more information on the project, you can visit Southall Environmental Associates project page, or read the blog posts written by Dr. Brandon Southall (this one or this one).

For anyone attending the World Marine Mammal Conference in Barcelona, Spain, there will be several talks related to this research:

  • Dr. Brandon Southall will be presenting on the Atlantic BRS on beaked whales and short-finned pilot whales on Wednesday, December 11 from 2:15 – 2:30 pm
  • Dr. Caroline Casey will be presenting on the experimental design and results of this SOCAL Tagless BPRS project on Wednesday, December 11 from 2:30 – 2:45 pm

All research is authorized under NMFS permits #16111, 19091, and 19116 as well as numerous Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and other federal, state, and local authorizations. More information is available upon request from the project chief scientist at

Literature cited

Fernández, A., J. F. Edwards, F. Rodríguez, A. Espinosa de los Monteros, P. Herráez, P. Castro, J. R. Jaber, V. Martín, and M. Arbelo. 2005. “Gas and fat embolic syndrome” involving a mass stranding of beaked whales (Family Ziphiidae) exposed to anthropogenic sonar signals. Veterinary Pathology 42(4):446-457.

Filadelfo, R., J. Mintz, E. Michlovich, A. D’Amico, P. L. Tyack, and D. R. Ketten. 2009. Correlating military sonar use with beaked whale mass strandings: what do the historical data show? Aquatic Mammals 35(4):435-444.

International Transport Forum. 2019. Transport demand set to triple, but sector faces potential disruptions. Retrieved from:

Jambeck, J. R., R. Geyer, C. Wilcox, T. R. Siegler, M. Perryman, A. Andrady, R. Narayan, and K. L. Law. 2015. Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science 347(6223):768-771.

Jepson, P. D., M. Arbelo, R. Deaville, I A. P. Patterson, P. Castro, J. R. Baker, E. Degollada, H. M. Ross, P. Herráez, A. M. Pocknell, F. Rodríguez, F. E. Howie II, A. Espinosa, R. J. Reid, J. R. Jaber, V. Martin, A. A. Cunningham, and A. Fernández. 2003. Gas-bubble lesions in stranded cetaceans. Nature 425:575.

Lewis, S. L., and M. A. Maslin. 2015. Defining the Anthropocene. Nature 519:171-180.

Southall, B. L., S. L. DeRuiter, A. Friedlaender, A. K. Stimpert, J. A. Goldbogen, E. Hazen, C. Casey, S. Fregosi, D. E. Cade, A. N. Allen, C. M. Harris, G. Schorr, D. Moretti, S. Guan, and J. Calambokidis. 2019. Behavioral responses of individual blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) to mid-frequency military sonar. Journal of Experimental Biology 222: doi. 10.1242/jeb.190637.

Tyack, P. L. 2008. Implications for marine mammals of large-scale changes in the marine acoustic environment. Journal of Mammalogy 89(3):549-558.

Weilgart, L. S. 2007a. The impacts of anthropogenic ocean noise on cetaceans and implications for management. Canadian Journal of Zoology 85(11):1091-1116.

Weilgart, L. S. 2007b. A brief review of known effects of noise on marine mammals. International Journal of Comparative Psychology 20(2):159-168.

World Ocean Review. 2014. WOR 3: Marine resources – opportunities and risks. Report No 3. Retrieved from:

World Ocean Review. 2010. WOR 1: Marine resources – Living with the oceans. A report on the state of the world’s oceans. Report No 1. Retrieved from:

Wright, A. J., N. A. Soto, A. L. Baldwin, M. Bateson, C. M. Beale, C. Clark, T. Deak, E. F. Edwards, A. Fernández, A. Godinho, L. T. Hatch, A. Kakuschke, D. Lusseau, D. Martineau, M. L. Romero, L. S. Weilgart, B. A. Wintle, G. Notarbartolo-di-Sciara, and V. Martin. Do marine mammals experience stress related to anthropogenic noise? International Journal of Comparative Psychology 20(2):274-316.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *