By: Amanda Holdman, MS student, Geospatial Ecology and Marine Megafauna Lab & Oregon State Research Collective for Applied Acoustics, MMI
It was March 15th, 2000; Kenneth Balcomb was drinking coffee with his new summer interns in the Bahamas when a goose-beaked whale stranded on a nearby beach. Balcomb, a whale researcher and former U.S. Navy Officer, gently pushed the whale out to sea but the beaked whale kept returning to the shore. He continued this process until a second beaked whale stranding was reported further down the beach; and then a third. Within hours, 17 cetaceans had stranded in the Bahamas trying to escape ‘something’ in the water, and Kenneth Balcomb was determined to solve the mystery of the mass stranding. The cause, he eventually learned, was extreme noise – sonar tests from Navy Warships.
The world is buzzing with the sounds of Earth’s creatures as they are living, interacting, and communicating with one another, even in the darkest depths of the oceans. Beneath the surface of our oceans lies a finely balanced, living world of sound. To whales, dolphins and other marine life, sound is survival; the key to how they navigate, find mates, hunt for food, communicate over vast distances and protect themselves against predators in waters dark and deep. Yet, this symphony of life is being disrupted and sadly destroyed, by today’s increasing noise pollution (Figure 1). Human activities in the ocean have exploded over the past 5 decades with ocean noise rising by 3db per decade (Halpern et al. 2008). People have been introducing more and more noise into the ocean from shipping, seismic surveys for oil and gas, naval sonar testing, renewable energy construction, and other activities. This increased noise has significant impacts on acoustically active and sensitive marine mammals. However, as the Discovery Chanel’s new documentary Sonic Sea points out “The biggest thing about noise in the ocean is that humans aren’t aware of the sound at all.” The increase of ocean noise has transformed the delicate ocean habitat, and has challenged the ability of whales and other marine life to prosper and survive.
Figure 1: Anthropogenic sources contributing to ocean soundscapes and the impacts on marine megafauna survival (sspa.se)
Like the transformative documentary from 10 years ago, An Inconvenient Truth, which highlighted the reality and dangers of climate change, Sonic Sea aims to inform audiences of increased man-made noise in the oceans and the harm it poses to marine animals. The Hatfield Marine Science Center and Oregon Chapter of the American Cetacean Society offered a free, premier showing of the award-winning documentary followed by a scientific panel discussion. The panel featured Dave Mellinger, Joe Haxel, and Michelle Fournet of Oregon State University’s Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies (CIMRS) marine bioacoustics research along with GEMM Lab leader, Leigh Torres, of the Marine Mammal Institute.
Sonic Sea introduces us to this global problem of ocean noise and offers up solutions for change. The film uncovers how better ship design, speed limits for large ships, quieter methods for under water resource exploration, and exclusion zones for sonar training can work to reduce the noise in our oceans. However, these efforts require continued innovation and regulatory involvement to bring plans to action.
Around the world the scientific community, policymakers and authorities such as The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the European Union (EU), the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and other authorities have increasingly pressed for the reduction of noise. NOAA, which manages and protects marine life in United States waters, is trying to reduce ocean noise through their newly released Ocean Noise Strategy Roadmap, where the challenge is dealt with as a comprehensive issue rather than a case-by-case basis. This undersea map is a 10-year plan that aims to identify areas of specific importance for cetaceans and the temporal, spatial, and frequency of man-made underwater noise. After obtaining a more comprehensive scientific understanding of the distributions and effects of noise in the ocean, these maps can help to develop better tools and strategies for the management and mitigation of ocean noise.
Sonic Sea states “we must protect what we love” but then asks “how we can love it if we don’t understand it?” Here at GEMM Lab and the Marine Mammal Institute, we are trying to understand marine species ecology, distributions and behavioral responses to anthropogenic impacts. One of the suggestions Sonic Sea makes to reduce the impact of ocean noise is to restrict activity in biologically sensitive habitats. Therefore, we must know where these important areas are. In an ideal world, we would have a good inventory of data on the marine animals present in a region and when these animals breed, birth and feed. Then we could use this information to guide marine spatial planning and management to keep noise out of important habitats. My thesis project aims to provide such baseline information on harbor porpoise distribution patterns within a proposed marine energy development site. By filling knowledge gaps about where marine animals can be found and why certain habitats are critical, conservation efforts can be more directed and effective in reducing threats, such as ocean noise, to marine mammals.
Noise in our oceans is hard to observe, but its effects are visibly traumatic and well-documented. Unlike other sources of pollution to our oceans, (climate change, acidification, plastic pollution), which may take years, decades or centuries to dissipate, reducing ocean noise is rather straight forward. “Like a summer night when the fireworks end, our oceans can quickly return to their natural soundscape.” Ocean noise is a problem we can fix. To quiet the world’s waters, we all need to raise our voices so policy makers hear of this problem. That’s what Sonic Sea is all about: increasing awareness of this growing threat and building a worldwide community of citizen advocates to help us turn down the volume on undersea noise. If we sit back and do nothing to mitigate oceanic noise pollution, the problem will likely worsen. I highly suggest watching Sonic Sea. Then, together, we can speak up to turn down the noise that threatens our oceans — and threatens us all.
Sonic Sea airs TONIGHT (6/8) for World Ocean’s Day on Animal Planet at 10pm ET/PT!