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Noise Pollution – Marine Mammals Ought to Get Ear Plugs

Whales and Dolphins Ought to get Ear Plugs

            Picture yourself on a luxurious summer cruise.  You are laying back in a beach chair, basking in the sun, eyes closed, and breathing in the refreshing ocean air.  You are so relaxed that you could fall asleep.   *HOOOONNNNNNNNKKKKK!!!!!!!!* You jump up and look around as you clean out your ears.  The sound of a foghorn of another vessel that almost hit your cruise ship wakes you from your joyous mood and leaves your ears ringing.  Now imagine that decibels and decibels higher, moving through the water.   You are a whale and the sound waves from the sonar of a military ship blow out your ear drums, your brain, and ultimately kills you.  This is noise pollution.  Every year hundreds upon thousands of marine mammals are killed by it.  This includes “explosives, oceanographic experiments, geophysical research, underwater construction, ship traffic, intense active sonars and air guns.”(EII)  Noise pollution is caused by these activities, and they are a serious threat to marine mammals and the way they live.

            First there is the use of military experimentation.  “As stated most recently by the Cetacean Specialist Group of the IUCN-World Conservation Union: ‘“Military operations involving the use of high-intensity sonar, explosive devices, and other intense noise sources pose both lethal and sub-lethal threats to cetaceans.”’(EII)  Some navies use low-frequency sonars that stretch for hundreds of kilometers, doing damage to animals that are far away from base.  Air guns of high intensity sound can injure and reduce the catching rates of certain fish and already poses a threat throughout the world’s ocean. 

            And what exactly do all these things do to a marine mammal’s health?  They cause “death and serious injury caused by hemorrhages or other tissue trauma; strandings; temporary and permanent hearing loss or impairment; displacement from preferred habitat and disruption of feeding, breeding, nursing, communication, sensing and other behaviors vital to the survival of these species. Similar concerns exist for potential impacts on other marine species, including fish.” (EII)  It may be hard to imagine an animal experiencing such traumas, but imagine a human experiencing such traumas.  Not something you can stand thinking about is it?  So why let it happen to such magnificent creatures, let alone any creature at all? 

            Some people may be thinking “well a whale’s a whale; so what if one dies from some experiment that is probably important.”  However, the death of one whale, after another, after another, and as it piles up, can have a huge impact on its ecosystem and the ocean as a whole.  It is the same thing as on land, and activists trying to save an endangered species.  If nothing is being done about noise pollution, and the deaths of marine mammals, then why should anyone try and stop whaling?   Noise pollution is almost as intense as whaling, but without direct intentional effect.  Does one not find whaling a cruel and unnecessary process; so why not find noise pollution an unnecessary and harmful process?  “First there was hunting, then habitat loss and chemical contamination. Does noise also represent a serious threat to whales?” (Whales-Online)

            Other activities that contribute to noise pollution are drilling activities.  This also involves the use of air gun arrays which cause thousands of explosions. “Low frequency sound travels a great distance and this characteristic has made it an interesting research tool. As the speed of sound is directly related to temperature, it is possible to evaluate the average temperature of the water by measuring the time sound takes to cover a known distance.”(Whales-Online).  The sound beacons created could affect the habitats that coastal animals such as the harbour porpoise use.  The way they live is altered and living conditions become disoriented for them.  Humpback whales use “singing” as calls to find a mate in reproduction.  This species is already an endangered species, and naval sonar, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, is showing to disrupt the patterns of the humpback whales singing, affecting the reproduction rate ever so slightly, but eventually greatly. 

            Aside from death and physiological affects that noise pollution can have on a marine creature, it can also cause changes in behavior.  Powerful sound can cause marine creatures to deviate from their original trajectory, abandon habitats, stop vocalizing for hours or even days, cause problems in detecting prey, failure to escape a predator, and being able to find family members or not.  If it does not cause death to the creature, the effects noise pollution has on it, decreases its survival ability, and will eventually be the death of the animal. 

            Each year the volume of noise in the ocean increases.  When you were a child and you went swimming with your siblings or friends, I am sure you sat at one side of the pool while your sibling or friend sat at the other end, and you would try talking to each other through the water and guess at what each other was saying.  You find that you can hear the other person, even from the other side of the pool, underwater.  This is because water is a good carrier for sound waves.  Everything listed before contributes to the increase in noise pollution.  Ships, such as military, drilling, ice-breaking, etc, cause noises of up to 500 Hz, constantly running through the ocean.  NATO and the American army use low-frequency sonar systems to detect submarines, thus producing sonar beams of up to 230 decibels.  (215 decibels is equal to the intense sound of a twin-engine fighter jet taking off). (NRDC)

            In some ways noise is used to intentionally affect whales or dolphins and porpoises.  In the issue concerning fisheries, noise pollution is used to keep these species away from fishing boats, so one, they do not catch and eat their fish that they are trying to make a profit off of, and two, so that they do not get tangled up in the fishing nets.  One could argue that this is for the protection of the animals and for a market.  However, the damage done by the sound pollution could have a long term affect on the animals by disturbing their critical habitats.  In March of 2000, four different species of whales were beached upon the shores of the Bahamas.  The cause of this was due to U.S. navy active sonar use in the area.  “Investigators found that the whales were bleeding internally around their brains and ears…Since the incident, the area’s population of Cuvier’s beaked whales has all but disappeared, leading researchers to conclude that they either abandoned their habitat or died at sea.” (NRDC)  According to the NRDC this was “just the tip of the ice berg” and that near many other Navy bases throughout the oceans, similar happenings occurred on beaches nearby.  Whales that wash up on shore appear to have suffered from a case of “the bends”, all having “developed large emboli, or bubbles, in their organ tissue” according to NRDC information from a scientific journal, Nature.

            Perhaps noise pollution is not too far from being harmful to our own health.  According to Article 1(1)(4) of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, pollution is defined  “if these sounds cause ‘harm to living resources and marine life, hazards to human health, hindrance to marine activities, … [or] reduction of amenities.”’ (EII) 

            Once a year a phenomenal event occurs on our beaches as thousands upon thousands of grunion fish come ashore to spawn.  For years their population was decreasing until organizations and institutions such as the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and Pepperdine University pushed for the protection of these animals.  During the grunion mating season it was asked that traffic of lifeguard vehicles be beyond the tide line (the part of the beach behind kelp lines), for boats to avoid areas at certain times of night, and that people be fined if they collect the fish (to sell) during the closed season.  This has proved successful thus far in repopulating the species, which increases each year because of people watching out for these little creatures, and going out of their way to avoid harm to them, or to avoid receiving a fine.  So why can we not do the same for larger creatures such as whales?  Perhaps a compromise can be made, and activities such as drilling and military sonar testing, can still take place with the precaution and awareness of mating seasons, and migration patterns of marine mammals, and avoiding areas at those times.

Hope for marine mammals may seem like it is near impossible or at least going to be long time in the making.  Organizations such as the NRDC or the Ocean Noise Coalition, are working on reducing noise pollution and saving the lives of thousands of animals.  Cooperation internationally is needed in order to make this possible, as it affects not only the U.S. but the entire ocean the world as a whole.  Actions can be taken to prevent the deaths of many animals.  A list from the Ocean Noise Coalition includes the alternative use of technologies, and strengthening “legal remedies to address the uncontrolled use of these technologies in the marine environment.” You would not go to the beach and throw trash on the sand or intentionally spill oil into the ocean, thus polluting our beaches.  So why allow the pollution of the ocean through sound?  The land is our domain and the place where we have to tolerate pollution, and analogous to it is the ocean water to marine mammals. 





Works Cited

Earth Island Institute.  (2006). Ocean Noise Coalition: Petition to the United Nations and its

Member States for Action on Underwater Noise Pollution.  Retrieved April 12,

2006, from http://www.earthisland.org/project.genPage2.cfm?generalID=211&


Natural Resources Defense Council. (2006). Protecting Whales From Sonar Danger.  Retrieved

                        April 19, 2006, from http://www.nrdc.org/wildlife/marine/sonar.asp.

Whales On-line.  (2006). Noise Pollution. Retrieved April 12, 2006, from http://www.whales


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