Whales Are Dying to Human Noise Pollution: Here’s How Scientists Are Trying to Fix It

by Alex Falls
Rodrigo Friscione / Getty

Beneath the ocean surface is a delicate ecosystem. Light only penetrates just a few hundred feet of water. But where light doesn’t reach, sound can. Marine life, like whales, depends on sound waves to locate food, navigate the vast openness, and to communicate.

Our understanding of this delicate world beneath the waves is still young. Even well into the last century, we’ve only just begun to wrap our heads around it. Humans can’t hear the low frequencies that travel most effectively through water. French bioacoustics expert Michel André called the ocean a “silent world.”

“We, humans, ignored this acoustic dimension,” André said to CNN. “We contaminated the ocean with sound, without even having the first idea that this could have damaged it.”

Over the last few decades, the oceans have become increasingly filled with ships transporting goods and supplies across the world. Oceans have become filled with the sounds of rumbling engines, intense pings of military sonar, and even seismic blasts used to find oil and gas deposits. All of these man-made sounds are drowning out the sub-sonar chatter of marine life. The impact of these sounds could be life-threatening to much of the ocean.

Noise pollution is having a major effect on ocean mammals like whales. Partners are becoming isolated from their mates because their sonar is becoming drowned out. Migration patterns are becoming disrupted, and in some cases, noise pollution can cause permanent hearing loss. In sonar-reliant animals, hearing loss can be fatal.

“Sound is life in the ocean,” André said. “If we pollute this channel of communication, we are condemning the ocean to irreversible change.”

What Scientists Are Doing to Try to Fix Noise Pollution and the Whale Population

André’s team developed technology to detect the presence of whales in shipping lanes. They developed software called Listen to the Deep Ocean Environment (LIDO), which monitors acoustic sources in real-time.

Using buoys equipped with this software outside of Chile. An area filled with ship and whale activity. Using LIDO, navy ships were able to receive real-time updates that encouraged them to change course and speed in response to nearby whales.

“Technology is transforming our understanding of the ocean,” André said. “It has brought back this capacity to hear underwater and to listen to creatures underwater and understand the need for them to survive in this environment.”

André would like to see it become more widespread, crossing countries and continents. “My hope is that we can replicate this effort along the Pacific coast so we can cover the tracks of these whales up to Alaska,” he said.

Providing the tools to identify sources of sound and to monitor biodiversity can help reconnect humans with nature and help recover the marine life that’s become damaged. “If we find a way to monitor, to listen, and to understand the message from sound, then we have a way to understand the health status of the Earth,” André said.