Cacophony in the Oceans May Confuse Whales and Drown Out Their Songs

By Eliza Strickland | December 4, 2008 12:22 pm

whale flukeThe oceans are getting noisier, and that’s bad news for whales, dolphins, and sea turtles who use sound to communicate and navigate, researchers declared at a United Nations wildlife conference. Rumbling ship engines, seismic surveys by oil and gas companies, and intrusive military sonars are triggering an “acoustic fog and cacophony of sounds” underwater, scaring marine animals and affecting their behavior. “There is now evidence linking loud underwater noises with some major strandings of marine mammals, especially deep diving beaked whales” [Reuters], says Mark Simmonds of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

Researchers have long worried that high-powered sonar pulses confuse whales and dolphins and may cause the animals to beach themselves. Marine mammals are turning up on the world’s beaches with tissue damage similar to that found in divers suffering from decompression sickness. The condition, known as the bends, causes gas bubbles to form in the bloodstream upon surfacing too quickly. Scientists say the use of military sonar or seismic testing may have scared the animals into diving and surfacing beyond their physical limits, Simmonds said [AP]. He points to two recent strandings as possible results of the noisy waters (although a link has not been proved): the 100 melon-headed whales that were found on a Madagascar beach, and the two dozen dolphins that got stranded in southern England.

The current U.N. conference is considering a resolution that would oblige countries to reduce sound pollution. Other suggested measures include re-routing shipping, cutting speed and banning tests and sonar use in the habitats of endangered animals…. A spokesman for the UN Environment Programme said governments seem ready to take action to alleviate the problems caused by noisy oceans. [BBC News]. However, whale conservationists had a recent setback in the United States, where the Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing the Navy to conduct military exercises using high-powered sonar.

A study published this fall also found an indirect cause of noise pollution: global warming. Researchers found that rising levels of carbon dioxide are increasing the acidity of the Earth’s oceans, making sound travel farther through sea water. The study by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute … shows the changes may mean some sound frequencies are traveling 10 percent farther than a few centuries ago. That could increase to 70 percent by 2050 if greenhouse gases are not cut [AP]. Animals like humpback whales that “sing” to each other during mating season may be having trouble finding each other, researchers said, as marine noise is drowning out their songs.

Related Content:
80beats: Navy 1, Whales 0: Supreme Court Allows Navy’s Sonar Exercises
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DISCOVER: Killing Whales With Sound

Image: flickr / nestor galina

  • Larian LeQuella

    All this does is reinforce my view that Douglas Adams was correct. Humans are in no way the most intelligent species on this planet. We willfully and blithely go about our business without any thought of the consequences. Oh, I just thought of a label for humans:

    The most INCONSIDERATE species on the planet! :)

  • Debra

    We are the most destructive, wasteful and cruel species on the planet, too!!
    We ruin everything we come into contact with, especially the lives of God’s animals! NOT OUR ANIMALS!! It makes me sick to my stomach that “humans”, I use the term “humans” loosely, because I really do not think that most of us deserve that title! Like I was saying, it makes my stomach burn with sickness, because we believe that we can do whatever we want to whatever animals we want, whenever we want, no matter what or how we want it! Absolutely nothing will stand in their way! Their way of getting their MONEY, because really, let’s face it, that is what everything in the world that goes on boils down to! Even in our good ol’ military!!;) They are the sneakiest of all!!;) We think that we are in control of God’s animals! We think, well, we do, actually, take, move, kill, eat, buy, sell, own, operate, capitalize, destroy, anything that we have to do to get what we THINK we NEED to get!!!! We should not be just going into an animal’s enviornment and doing as we please! In reality, basically all of the universe’s animal’s were here long before we ever were!! They are not our’s to do as we please, they are the world’s, they are God’s, he make’s the decision’s, NOT US!!!! Just leave ALL of the world’s animal’s alone, for once, and for all!! They do not belong to us!! Let them be! If you stupid’s want to do something, and an animal, any kind of animal comes across your path of getting what you want, they adjust your plans!! Do not adjust the animal’s life, home, families and happiness!! They do not deserve that kind of treatment, they deserve the best treatment that “humans” can possibly give them, it is our responsibility!!!

  • Corey

    I can’t believe the U.S. supreme court is more worried about the navy than the whales actually you know what I can. It’s so typical whales are never considered first the military the economy and even cost then they think of the whales. It makes me sick the way are governments are treating this planet they should consider the environment and the animals first. When the marine animals start declining and if they die out they’ll blame everything accept there party. Let’s save the whales and all the marine animals!

  • Andrew

    It would be good to consider WHY the Supreme Court made the decision that it did and is “more worried about the navy than the whales”, rather than just bashing it. The Supreme Court’s function is to apply the Constitution (and any interpretations of it that apply) to cases that come before it. The opinions of the judges and what’s “right” do not (and should not) come into the picture.

    Although I definitely agree that what the Navy is doing should be curtailed, the ruling in favor of the Navy is by no means the fault of the Supreme Court. The supreme justices merely do the best they can to apply the Constitution to cases they preside over. Before you bash the justices, read the case ruling and the reasons for the ruling, then present a legitimate case as to why they shouldn’t have ruled the way they did (Constitutionally speaking).


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