Reducing ocean noise to help sea creatures

Reducing ocean noise to help sea creatures

Researchers have linked the growing racket to deafness and disorientation in sea animals

Reducing ocean noise to help sea creatures

Perhaps we can save the whales – or at least their hearing. Scientists have long known that man-made, underwater noises – from engines, sonars, weapons testing, and such industrial tools as air guns used in oil and gas exploration – are deafening whales and other sea mammals.

The Navy estimates that loud booms from just its underwater listening devices, mainly sonar, result in temporary or permanent hearing loss for more than a quarter-million sea creatures every year, a number that is rising.

Now, scientists have discovered that whales can decrease the sensitivity of their hearing to protect their ears from loud noise. Humans tend to do this with index fingers; scientists haven’t pinpointed how whales do it, but they have seen the first evidence of the behaviour. “It’s equivalent to plugging your ears when a jet flies over,” said Paul E Nachtigall, a marine biologist at the University of Hawaii who led the discovery team. “It’s like a volume control.”

The finding, while preliminary, is already raising hopes for the development of warning signals that would alert whales, dolphins and other sea mammals to auditory danger. Peter Madsen, a professor of marine biology at Aarhus University in Denmark, said he applauded the Hawaiian team for its ‘elegant study’ and the promise of innovative ways of “getting at some of the noise problems.”

But he cautioned against letting the discovery slow global efforts to reduce the oceanic roar, which would aid the beleaguered sea mammals more directly. The noise threat arises because of the basic properties of seawater.


Typically, light can travel for hundreds of feet through ocean water before diminishing to nothingness. But sound can travel for hundreds of miles. The world’s oceans have been getting noisier as companies and governments expand their undersea activities. Researchers have linked the growing racket to deafness, tissue damage, mass strandings and disorientation in creatures that rely on hearing to navigate, find food and care for their young.

The danger has long been a political football. In 2008, the Supreme Court heard a lawsuit by the National Resources Defence Council against the Navy over ocean noise; the court ruled that naval vessels had the right to test sonar systems for hunting submarines. But environmentalists saw a tacit victory in getting the nation’s highest court even to consider the health of sea mammals in a debate over national security.
The latest development took place at a research facility off Oahu – at an island where the opening shots of ‘Gilligan’s Island’ were filmed. Scientists there are studying how dolphins and toothed whales hear. In nature, the mammals emit sounds and listen for returning echoes in a sensory behaviour known as echolocation. In captivity, scientists taught the creatures to wear suction-cup electrodes, which revealed the patterns of brainwaves involved in hearing.

The discovery came in steps. First, Nachtigall and his team found that the animals could adjust their hearing in response to their own loud sounds of echolocation, mainly sharp clicks. The scientists then wondered if the animals could also protect their ears from incoming blasts.

Conditioned behaviour

The team focused on a false killer whale named Kina and sought to teach her a conditioned behaviour similar to how Pavlov taught dogs to salivate upon hearing a bell. First, the scientists played a gentle tone repeatedly. Then they followed the gentle pulse with a loud sound. After a few trials, the warning signal alone caused Kina to decrease the sensitivity of her hearing.

“It shows promise as a way to mitigate the effects of loud sounds,” said Nachtigall, founding director of the Marine Mammal Research Programme at the University of Hawaii. “People are generally very excited about it.” In May, Nachtigall and his colleagues presented the findings to acoustic scientists and groups meeting in Hong Kong, including the Acoustical Society of America. The team cited the protective deafening as a potential way to help sea mammals cope with noisy blasts from naval sonars, civilian air guns and other equipment.

In the future, the team plans to expand the research to other species in captivity and ultimately to animals in the wild. “We have a problem in the world,” Nachtigall said of the oceanic roar. “And we think the animals can learn this response very rapidly.”
Scientists unconnected to the mammal research called it important. “It’s a big deal,” said Vincent M Janik, a prominent marine biologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. In an email, he said it revealed a rare ability among the planet’s creatures.

Scientists say the extraordinary hearing of sea mammals evolved to compensate for poor visibility beneath the waves and to take advantage of the unique qualities of seawater. Sound travels five times faster than in air and undergoes far less diminishment. The heads of whales and dolphins are mazes of resonant chambers and acoustic lenses that give the animals not only extraordinary hearing but complex voices. The distinctive songs of humpback whales appear to be sung exclusively by males seeking mates.

In recent decades, scientists have linked the human cacophony to reductions in mammalian vocalisation, which suggests declines in foraging and breeding. And the problem is poised to get worse: In May, the Navy disclosed draft environmental impact statements (Atlantic and Pacific operations) that said planned expansions could raise the annual hearing losses among sea mammals to more than one million.

In September 2002, more than a dozen beaked whales beached themselves in the Canary Islands. Rescuers tried to water down the stranded animals and keep them cool. But all of them eventually died. Nearby, Nato naval forces were testing sonar devices meant to detect an enemy’s submarines, and public knowledge of the deaths eventually came to strengthen suspicions of a link between whale distress and loud ocean noises.
The theory is that the mammals seek to escape the roar of the deep, rush toward the surface and in some cases end up stranding themselves. (Beaked whales look like oversize dolphins and are poorly understood because they dive extraordinarily deep and can stay beneath the waves for more than an hour before coming up for air.)

For decades, environmentalists have worked to reduce the undersea din – usually with little success, given the growing industrialistion and militarisation of the oceans. They have filed lawsuits and waged letter-writing campaigns, including a recent petition that asks the Navy to drop its testing of underwater sound equipment.

The discovery by biologists in Hawaii that whales can decrease the sensitivity of their hearing to protect their ears from loud noise adds another dimension to the debate.
Michael Jasny, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defence Council, which is based in New York, called the Hawaiian research fascinating and said he hoped it would prove effective in protecting whale hearing from such threats as military sonar. But he characterised the finding as a work in progress that posed many unanswered questions. “A lot more work needs to be done,” he said in an interview. “Could it be replicated in the wild? It’s a huge question.”

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