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Northern Right Whale mother & calf (Eubalaena glacialis) off Atlantic coast of Florida. Aerial views..

A North Atlantic right whale mother and calf swim in the Atlantic off the coast of Florida. Only about 500 of this species remain.

Photograph by Brian Skerry, National Geographic Creative

Doug Struck

for National Geographic

Published August 9, 2014

Whales talk. But what makes them stop talking?

Scientists have long known that the marine mammals use creaks, groans, growls, and buzzes to communicate with each other—often over long distances—to find food, and even for mothers to keep track of their calves.

But what happens when the watery echosphere of their communication is filled with a drumbeat of undersea booms?

To the dismay of some who study whales, they may soon find out. The Obama administration this month gave the go-ahead for oil and gas companies to seek permits to use seismic noise cannons to map the Atlantic Ocean off the East Coast, to prepare for possible drilling after 2017.

Drilling companies already have carved up a target zone from Delaware to Cape Canaveral, Florida. The permits will allow their ships to crisscross the area dragging an array of cannons that erupt with a shock wave of sound every 10 to 15 seconds. The sound travels to the seafloor, enters the substrate, and bounces back to receivers on the ships.

A diver gets up close to a right whale and her newborn calf off the coast of Argentina.

From the seismic pattern of those bounces, the companies' geologists can make some good guesses about the location of gas and oil deposits under the ocean floor.

May Silence Whales

But some scientists believe the sonic booms will be a deafening cacophony to whales and dolphins, and may prompt them to stop communicating with one another.

"This is going to add more noise to the already huge problem whales are dealing with—man-made noise in the ocean," said Sofie Van Parijs, who studies acoustics for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Northeast Fisheries Science Center at Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

"The long-term effects are not easily observed or clear," she said. "They may not hear each other as well, find each other, find mates. Socializing, breeding, and foraging may be affected."

The whales may just clam up. Douglas Nowacek, an associate professor of conservation technology at the Duke University Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina, has studied whale behavior in the Gulf of Mexico, where seismic cannons are used extensively for seabed mapping.

Graphic of noise in the ocean and right whales.

In 2000, he and other researchers set off sonic cannons in a relatively quiet area of the Gulf and recorded the reactions of sperm whales. Those whales use what he calls "buzzes" to home in on fish at depths of 1,300 to 2,000 feet (400 to 600 meters), and especially to nab their favorite snack of giant squid.

When the scientists fired the cannons, "we saw the sperm whales tended to reduce the numbers of eco-buzzes. The rate of buzzes dropped off," he said. If the cannons cut down on their feeding success, that's not good for the whales, he noted.

Singing Patterns Changed

This behavior was similar to that of humpback whales in the Mediterranean. Faced with noise interference, the whales changed their singing patterns over long periods, Nowacek said.

The researchers are particularly concerned about the majestic North Atlantic right whale. The right whales' documented response to sudden noises is to shoot for the surface, and then remain just under water.

"That's a terrible place for right whales to be," said Michael Jasny, director of the marine mammal protection program for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Faced with noise interference, the whales changed their singing patterns over long periods, Nowacek said.

When they hover just under the surface, the whales are vulnerable to becoming aquatic road kill for the ships that do not see the animals.

The species was nearly extinguished by whalers, who found that their thick blubber and propensity to float near the surface made them the "right whale" to hunt. The ban on commercial whaling in 1986 has helped other species rebound, but the North Atlantic right whale has struggled. Because it is often near the surface, its biggest threat now is ships.

Only about 500 of the whales remain, and scientists keep meticulous track of them. They scour the waters to monitor the whales, and keep careful photo records of each known whale, often identified by the scars from the animal's encounters with propellers or bruises from hull strikes.

"It's critical to understand that the ocean is an acoustic world," Jasny said. "Many species—whales, dolphins, fish, invertebrates—depend on their hearing, and the ability to be heard, for survival and to reproduce.

Map of whale deaths.
NG Staff. Sources: Boem, New England Aquarium, NOAA

"Air-gun surveys put out more noise than any other human source short of dynamite," he said. "Human noise can destroy the ability of right whales to communicate. If the whales are silent, then that means they are unable to feed cooperatively, unable to find mates. A silent whale is, for all intents and purposes, blind."

Another Viewpoint

But those predictions of grave effects on whales are rejected by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM).

"I think those assertions are wildly exaggerated and not supported by the evidence," William Y. Brown, BOEM's chief environmental officer, said in an interview.

The agency issued the decision July 18 allowing drilling companies to take the first steps toward exploration of the East Coast waters, a move promised by President Barack Obama in 2010 but delayed by the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The real question is ... whether it disrupts them in a whay that makes them move away from food or disrupts breeding.

"The real question is whether [whales] are just hearing a noise and turning around, or whether it disrupts them in a way that makes them move away from food or disrupts breeding," Brown said. "There's just no evidence that happens."

The bureau, part of the Department of the Interior, insists it has taken every precaution. To help "mitigate" the seismic blasts, BOEM ordered that mappers must watch and listen for whales, motor slowly and stop if a whale comes near, avoid right whale breeding grounds in the spring, and take other measures.

Critics said those steps are too meager. The American Petroleum Institute, on the other hand, complains they are unneeded. "Operators already take great care to protect wildlife, and the best science and decades of experience prove that there is no danger to marine mammal populations," the oil industry association said in a statement.

A federal environmental impact statement released in February asserted most impacts to sea life would be "negligible or minor, and no major impacts were identified."

The Atlantic area involved contains some thousands of species, including 39 mammal species, seven of them endangered: the humpback, sperm, fin, blue, sei, and right whales and the West Indian manatee, according to the environmental impact statement.

"We should be concerned about effects of sound on marine mammals and make sure it doesn't hurt them," Brown said. "But I am pretty sure the overall noise level in the Atlantic will only be incrementally affected by these surveys. There are orders of magnitude more noise from vessel traffic."

Southern Right Whales, (Eubalaena australis) underwater off the Auckland Islands, New Zealand (sub Antarctic islands)..
A southern right whale encounters a diver off the Auckland Islands, New Zealand. Man-made noise in the ocean is affecting the animals' ability to communicate.
Photograph by Brian Skerry, National Geographic Creative

Whales vs. Ships

Scientists already have seen a dramatic, if tragic, demonstration that shipping traffic is weighing on the whales.

Susan Parks, an assistant professor of biology at Syracuse University in New York who studies whale acoustics, and Rosalind Rolland of the New England Aquarium in Boston, who studies stress hormones in right whales, were working on September 11, 2001, the day of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.

Scientists already have seen a dramatic, if tragic, demonstration that shipping traffic is weighing on the whales.

When the world's ships docked for a week following the attacks, the seas went quiet and the stress-level indicators "showed a dramatic drop that we haven't seen any other years," she said.

The finding showed that the whales are much more affected by human behavior than we might have thought, Parks said.

"We just really don't know what it's going to do, but we know these are endangered species that are going to be put in harm's way," she said.

Doug Struck is a veteran journalist and teaches at Emerson College in Boston.

Charles Fox
Charles Fox

Right whales are already being pushed to extinction by human impacts and this sound blasting scheme will only make things a little bit worse. 

Blasting the Atlantic Ocean with weaponized sound loud enough to deafen and kill is an immoral act. Doing so to get more oil to kill the climate even faster is insane. This is an insane policy.

Another species consigned to extinction for an outright, pathetic and totally lethal addiction to oil.

Lacey Wallace
Lacey Wallace

I'm making some art & organizing a beach clean up after reading this.  As Right Whales are forced up into the top of the water column they will be at the center of the trash zone.

Even if this is the one thing I can do to help- I hope I can make a small difference.

Join me here or share your cleanup photos & art with tag #SeaTrashTransform

Barney Beckett
Barney Beckett

To line pockets only. Leave their world alone. Must we ruin everything?

Richard G.
Richard G.

Greed always wins. Oil company logic would be to harvest the remaining whales, then we don't have to worry about killing them when we drill.

Darshana Vel
Darshana Vel

How crazy can the president be to pass such an order?? When we already know the consequences of anthropogenic activity on wildlife (some of them on the brink of extinction) and make treaties and promises every year to save our earth, then why is more harm than good being done to these poor creatures? Why is the US still depending on oil and gas and surveying potential ground that lie under fragile and delicate ecosystems? Wasn't there a conference regarding changing our power sources from conventional to renewable and clean?

All the policies apart, doesn't anyone think from the animal's point of view? The whales are much more sensitive to sound and there is evidence of how much a cargo ship's noise hinders communication between two whales, especially if it is a distress call. Just imagine yourself trapped in a heavy traffic day after day with all the vehicles honking around you and your kids constantly pestering you since they are getting restless. What kind of feeling would you have? Unless you are completely deaf, you ought to be frustrated; it would affect your work ethics and you would really give anything to have some peace and quiet. If it was an emergency situation, you would be mentally worn out..and would probably have a nervous breakdown yourself, apart from the worsening condition of the patient in your car.

Its always back to square one...never has there been any real change to save our planet.

Ellison Chan
Ellison Chan

We're like that noisy neighbour upstairs.  Someone call the landlord.

m s
m s

That's like asking if pesticides in farming will harm Bee population. Duh! Or hasn't anyone else been paying attention to the mass die offs of dolphins in the gulf and along the east coast after the 2010 oil spill and the dumping of deadly chemicals into the waters there by Haliburton?

John Barrett
John Barrett

Unfortunately ! in today's world, the only thing that seems to matter is money.

Bore Head
Bore Head

Oppose all industrial development along the East Coast, including wind farm, open ocean aquaculture, oil and gas drilling. Our wild fish resource is to fragile to take chances with it?

Alex Metzelaar
Alex Metzelaar

we are destroying the planet, people say i overreact, but i'm pretty sure.

Joel Bhatt
Joel Bhatt

@Charles Fox Yeah, and when you have only 500 whales of a species left, a little push is all it takes.


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