Guest blogger Nigella Hillgarth is President and CEO of the New England Aquarium and a W2O board member
Several hundred years ago there was said to be a strange and fierce sea creature that attacked ships. The Water-Owl or Ziphius had the body of a fish and a head of an owl with huge eyes and a beak-like a sword. Today we think the animal behind these stories is Cuvier’s beaked whale or Goose-beaked whale. This deep water whale is the most widely distributed beaked whale species.
In early February I was on a sailing ship in the Caribbean passing through the channel between St Lucia and Martinique. It is deep in that area – several thousand feet and suitable for beaked whales. I was not thinking about whales at the time because I was busy photographing the brown boobies that were following the ship. Suddenly a robust, chocolate brown animal appeared next to the ship below me. I took as many photographs as I could before it disappeared into the deep. I was pretty certain I had seen a beaked whale but I had no idea what species. It was not large – about 10 to 12 feet long but had the typical curved dorsal fin towards the back of the body and a strange elongated and slightly bulbous head. When I returned one of our marine mammal scientists at the New England Aquarium identified it as a young Cuvier’s beaked whale. I feel so lucky to have seen one of these elusive animals.
Cuvier’s beaked whales can dive deeper than any other marine mammal. A recent study shows that at least one individual went down as far as 9,816 feet! Not much is known about these elusive and extreme divers, but there is concern that noise in the ocean from sonar and seismic testing may cause these whales to strand. There is evidence to suggest that some of these stranded animals have surfaced too quickly and developed damage similar to that of the bends in humans.
Noise in the ocean is a serious threat to marine mammals and other marine life. Commercial shipping noise, sonar testing and seismic surveys can clearly have significant, long-lasting, and widespread impacts on marine mammal and fish populations. Normally, when we think about pollution in the seas we don’t think about noise. We think about plastics and chemicals and ghost fishing nets. Noise in its various forms is just as big a problem for life in the ocean. If we care about the future of strange and elusive mammals such as the ‘Water-owl’ we need to understand and mitigate noise impacts in the ocean far more than at present.
Photo: Nigella Hillgarth
Learn more about seismic testing and how you can help stop ocean noise HERE
Sink a hydrophone in the ocean and discover a marine jungle of animal noises from the tiniest shrimp to the largest blue whale. Marine life depends on this soundscape for mating, finding food, navigation and avoiding predation.
This ocean cacophony was all natural until the advent of the industrial revolution when human-made sounds from blasting, drilling, military, and shipping began drowning out these important biological cues. Imagine, if you will, not Rachel Carson’s famous silent spring, but the opposite. Imagine if there was so much human-made noise in the spring that it drowned out all of the birds’ calls. What would happen to those birds? For marine life, the intrusion of these sounds in the mix is the equivalent of being asked to wear a blindfold.
Photo courtesy of Ocean Matters
So what’s at stake for our world’s oceans and for us? Here are six amazing things about sound and marine life:
- About half of all fish species are estimated to emit sounds. These sounds help fish find spawning grounds and function like the call of a bird does, as specie specific signatures. By understanding and tracking these sounds, scientists can also identify important spawning grounds in the oceans, track numbers of individuals in a species, and by doing so more strategically protect these important spawning areas.
- Scientists have discovered that each whale population has its own “language,” which is understood only by individuals of the same population. For a population that migrates hundreds of miles of ocean basin from feeding to mating grounds, most whales depend on hearing these songs to find other individuals to accurately navigate.
Impeding this important whale communication by drowning in human-made sound has implications for fisheries. Recent science has found (perhaps counter-intuitively) that increasing the population of large whales might help to increase the number fish in the ocean.
- As the largest creature on Earth, blue whales can also boast of being the loudest. At 188 decibels, their loudest vocalizations can be heard a thousand miles away and is louder than a jet, which peaks at only 140 decibels. Humans can’t hear most of the blue whale’s song, however—it’s too low. They sing at frequencies between 10 and 40 Hz (the unit measurement of sound frequency) and infrasound under 20 Hz cannot be heard by humans. While other large whales are rebounding, blue whales do not appear to be. Blue whales number in only 1% of their historic population. Scientists speculate their lack of comeback is due to the wide scale disruption of the marine ecosystem in the Southern Hemisphere by the blue whales population’s decimation. Without blue whales, there had been a cascade of other marine life losses that has made for a severely altered environment, one that continues to be difficult for other marine life to survive and rebound
- Dolphins are thought to have an individual signature whistle, invented as a calf and kept throughout its life. They use these whistles to call to one another and seem to be able to remember the calls of other individuals for decades. No other species other than humans and dolphins has been shown to have this capacity.
- Noise has always been a driver of evolution and adaptation in the sea, providing “acoustical niches” inhabited by different species. Scientists speculate that the ocean was actually noisier in pre-whaling 1800, before the addition of human generated noise. This speaks volumes about the biomass of a “healthy” ocean pre-1800 as compared to now.
- There is no place to escape from the intrusion of human-made sounds in the ocean. Sounds from shipping were recently recorded at the very deepest part of the ocean: the Mariana Trench, at 10,000 meters under the sea.
Join us at Beeps, Rumbles, and Blasts: How Human-Generated Noise Threatens Marine Life on April 7th featuring Dr. Christopher Clark of Cornell University and Dr. Scott Kraus from the New England Aquarium. For a sneak preview hear Dr. Clark speak briefly about the importance of this topic in this beautiful and short NPR production
“[If] I’m a blue whale my heart beats once a minute. My ‘metronome’ is completely different from yours. And yet I, as human observer, am expecting their communication to be somehow synchronized with mine? Whales have their own listening culture. It will take a long time to begin to understand it.” – Dr. Christopher Clark
Blog contributor Laura Parker Roerden is Executive Director of Ocean Matters and is on the board of Women Working for Oceans.
On April 7th, W2O, along with the New England Aquarium will present Beeps, Rumbles, and Blasts: How Human -Generated Noise Threaten Marine Life. Scientists Chris Clark and Scott Krauss will educate us about how shipping, seismic testing and other human generated noise create a cacophony of sound drowning out the voice of whales, dolphins and all marine life communicating to each other during feeding, migration, breeding, and while detecting predators.
A very nice man, Dr. Stan Szyfelbein (pronounced Shi-fell-bine) told me today that when he shops here and in his native Poland, he uses all different sorts of reusable bags. His favorite is what he calls a “siatka.” Siatka is Polish for “anything that has the appearance of a net.” Stan, a wise man of 81, and retired Chief of Anesthesia at Shriners Hospital here in Boston says “Bags need to be functional and fashionable. Every man and woman use to carry a siatka rolled up in their pocket when they went shopping.”
The cotton siatka (or today’s string bag) is durable, washes easily and can be very beautiful too. Here are some wonderful examples of siatkas to add to your repertoire of reusable bags. Nix the plastics! Good for you, good for our oceans.
Pinterest has bags to own and to make!
Ecohip cotton string bag on amazon.com
Photo: Libby Davidson
With all our worrying world issues, it’s hard to keep climate on our minds. New Years’ resolutions often include topics of health, happiness, wealth, safety and security. Of course, all of these are directly tied to the success of our planet and climate. A healthy planet gives us joy, feeds us, and provides us with our precious natural resources, which dictates economic stability.
Should we be more hopeful about the future of our climate in 2016? Books will be written about whether or not the Paris21 Climate talks will lead to real action for curbing human emissions that contribute to climate change. Arguments will ensue about whether or not we are doing enough, quickly enough, to make an impact. Some will move on in hopes that others will continue the discussion and come up with the answers. But 2016 will be an important climate year and W2O will be encouraging you to stay hopeful and act.
Hashtags are not enough. Sometimes you have to write a letter or make a call to get someone’s attention. W2O often asks its members and event attendees to write or call their elected government officials to encourage the passing of legislation that protects our oceans. Does it make a difference? According to legislative aids at the Massachusetts State House: Yes! Letters and calls keep topics on the minds of legislators encouraging research that contributes to the process of pushing a bill through to success.
More tips for your action on climate in 2016:
We are often asked, “What can I do?” Here are some tips from the New England Aquarium and the New York Times on how you can help curb carbon emissions:
- Eat vegetables and cut down on intake of meat and dairy. The production of meat and dairy is carbon intensive.
- Take the bus, ride a bike or walk. If you drive to work alone, your commuting eats up more than your entire carbon budget for the year.
- Shop wisely, avoid waste. Wasted food adds to the total amount of the food that is produced. A large portion of wasted food ends up in landfills and, as it decomposes, adds methane to the atmosphere.
- Fly less, drive less. Take the train or bus. If you do fly, avoid first class. On average, a first class seat is two and a half times more detrimental to the environment than coach because it takes up more room resulting in more flights.
- Reduce your mileage input by driving the speed limit. Tune your engine, keep tires inflated and avoid buying that third car.
- Buy less stuff; waste less stuff. Each thing that you recycle is one fewer thing that has to be produced.
- Advocate public policies that develop clean energy and efficient transportation. Vote with the oceans in mind.
Good for you. Good for our oceans.
W2O and the Massachusetts Sierra Club hosted Heroes of the Oceans at the MA State House last week, honoring those that have helped pass bills banning single use plastic pollution in their towns and cities.
Educating about refusing single use plastic is not enough. The real heroes are those that take up the challenge in their communities and enacting lasting change through legislation. Mindful change matters, but those changes that spark local, city and statewide initiatives, that is what its all about.
Plastic pollution clogs our drains, litters our parks, destroys our oceans and then ends up in us. The plastic ends up in us.
Our Heroes of the Oceans made endless phone calls, spent hours explaining the damage that single use plastic does to our environment, oceans and families, and convinced town chamber, town meeting members, selectman and legislators that now is the time to act and ban single use plastic in our communities. It is hard work getting that done.
The “Heroes” with legislators on the grand staircase at the MA State House (photo: Gretchen Powers)
Join us to celebrate the real heroes of the ocean! Across the country it is the towns and municipalities that have stepped up to the plate, done the dirty work and pushed for action to ban single-use plastic pollution. Massachusetts has 18 towns that have bans on plastic bags, bottles and polystyrene and on November 12, along with the Massachusetts Sierra Club and the office of Rep. Lori Ehrlich, Women Working for Oceans will host Heroes of the Ocean to honor their hard work. This event is FREE and open to the public.