How Our Consumer Culture Is Killing Whales

A new documentary explores the boom in noise pollution from ocean shipping that is disrupting the habitat of marine mammals.
May 19, 2016·
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

What sight is to most people, sound is to marine mammals—the sense they rely on most to perceive their surroundings and thrive in an underwater world. Near the beginning of Sonic Sea, a documentary film airing Thursday night on the Discovery Channel, a scientist describes his awe on discovering the richness of this aural world; he recounts the first time he dropped a microphone into the Arctic Ocean, through a hole in the sea ice.

“Bearded seals coming out of the ether, as though they were from The Martian Chronicles. Beluga whales chirping and chattering and clicking,” says Chris Clark, a bioacoustics expert at Cornell University. “And then the bowhead whales: roaring, low-frequency moans, and it was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is fantastic!’ ”

But this undersea soundscape is being destroyed by humans. “We are basically acoustically bleaching the ocean,” says Clark in Sonic Sea. The movie features footage of wild whales interspersed with expert interviews and artful animation, all tied together by actor Rachel McAdams’ calm but urgent narration, to make a compelling case for quieting the din.

Sonic Sea explores the ecology, intelligence, and sensitive hearing of whales, along with the three main sources of the clamor that threatens to deafen them: naval sonar, offshore oil and gas development, and commercial shipping.

Environmentalists and the United States government have battled in court for years over naval sonar, which can injure and kill dolphins and whales. In September, a federal judge approved a legal settlement limiting the Navy’s use of underwater sonar and explosions in its training exercises in whale feeding grounds off the coasts of California and Hawaii.

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Seismic surveying for offshore oil and gas involves setting off air-gun explosions that can disorient and harm ocean life. In April, dozens of marine scientists asked the Obama administration to suspend permitting for oil and gas exploration off the Atlantic coast. Sound travels so far underwater, they argued—a point also made in Sonic Sea—that any seismic testing in the region threatens the survival of the 500 remaining North Atlantic right whales, a species among the world’s critically endangered.

But the major culprit is a dramatic rise in transoceanic commercial shipping. Up to 60,000 container ships are traversing the ocean at any given moment, according to Sonic Sea. “Some whales—they live to be 150 to 200 years old,” says Clark in the film. “When those whales were teenagers, the world was quiet.”

Consumerism is the driver of ocean noise pollution, says Patrick Ramage, director of whale programs for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which coproduced Sonic Sea with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “About 98 percent of all the products we consume in this country that come from somewhere else, they come by ship: container ship, oil tanker, what have you,” he explains. “The contribution to ambient noise is massive. Shipping—not seismic, not military sonar—is the principal contributor to the change in ocean noise levels over the last 50 years, with no end in sight.”

Solutions to marine noise pollution include a new class of super-quiet scientific research ships that Tim Gates, an acoustic engineer with ManTech International Corporation, helped design for the U.S. Navy. One of the planned two vessels, the R/V Neil Armstrong, was completed in 2015 and is part of a fleet managed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

“As far as I know, we created the first Navy specification to control radiated noise,” sound that travels away from the ship underwater, “so that it doesn’t put noise into the marine environment,” he said. “Essentially if there’s a whale a mile away in a moderate sea state of six- to eight-foot waves, the ship will make the same amount of noise as the waves.”

Getting that result meant evaluating every part of the ship for its noise potential, says Gates. “There were vibration isolation mounts put between the machinery and the deck plate. All of the piping was isolated with hangers and rubber decoupling material. The decks and the shell of the ship were coated with material to minimize noise transmission through the water.”

Because there are few if any mandatory requirements for reducing underwater noise from commercial ships, it remains to be seen whether and when shipping manufacturers and operators will adopt such innovations. “Every piece of silencing material and machinery utilized is available for commercial use,” Gates says. But “they’re not going to spend money unless they have to, and this increases the cost of a ship.”