Sound is as important to whales as vision is to us. Sound travels farther in the ocean than light does — so whales and dolphins grunt, call, click or sing, or listen intently, and their lives depend on sending and receiving these acoustic cues reliably. They’re quite good at it. Whales and their prey have evolved these acoustic systems over millennia. The problem is that in the last hundred years or so, we have started competing with whales for acoustic space by using ships and conducting other activities that create a lot of underwater noise (mostly unintentionally). So a whale singing in a noisy habitat is like having a great cell phone that relies on a terrible network provider. Unfortunately for whales, fish, squid and other marine life, the consequences of a “dropped call” are more serious than they are for us. If human activities jam whale acoustic signals, the information lost is not trivial. We suspect that the acoustic information being transmitted is of the kind: “There is a predator just around the corner.” Or, “Eat this fish. It may be the last one you see for days.” Or, “Mate with me.” You don’t want to miss these calls.
We’ve been making a lot of noise about ocean noise for years.
Today, the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Marine Fellows Program announced that they’re listening. Our co-founder, Dr Rob Williams, won a 3-year Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation. He will use the award to expand his studies of impacts of ocean noise on whale, fish, and the interactions between marine predators and their prey. More importantly, he will use the award to help identify solutions to reduce ocean noise levels in important marine habitats.
This award makes it possible for our organizations (Oceans Research and Conservation Society, a registered charity in Canada, and Oceans Initiative, a nonprofit in Washington state) to take on much more logistically challenging projects, with a bigger team. We’re looking forward to taking on more bright students like Inge van der Knaap, who blew us away with her pilot study last year on the effects of noise on wild Pacific salmon, herring and rockfish. Of course, to do so, we’re gonna need a bigger boat!
The work we do on ocean noise has been made possible with a whole host of visionary funders. We’re grateful to them for seeing the value and potential of this work, which we started in 2008. We’re also grateful to our main co-conspirators in ocean acoustics, Dr Chris Clark at Cornell University and Dr Christine Erbe at Curtin University, as well as our colleagues at University of St Andrews’ Sea Mammal Research Unit (Prof Philip Hammond and Prof Ian Boyd) and Centre for Research into Ecological & Environmental Modelling (Dr Len Thomas), who help us integrate the noise studies into ecological models of what the noise means for whale health and population conservation status. Together, we’re building up a solid evidence base on the ecological effects of noise, but there is a lot more work to do. And of course, thanks to all of you for supporting our charity to do this important work. It’s starting to get noticed.