The Unquiet Oceans

Undersea Noise Experiments Threaten the Sensitive Hearing-And Communications-Of Marine Mammals
© Donal Tipton/Greenpeace 1994

Finned marine mammals like these dolphins are especially sensitive to sonic disruptions.

Anyone who has ducked beneath the surface of the ocean is familiar with the sensation. The screech of gulls, the laughter of children in the surf, even the distant whine of pleasure craft are all shut out for the moment.

But, in fact, the oceans are full of sounds, most of which are inaudible to human ears. Because water is a very efficient conductor of sound waves, moving them at five times their airborne speed, it is no surprise that some sea creatures have capitalized on the use of sound for navigation and communication.

While flippered animals such as seals, sea lions and walruses have shown some proficiency utilizing underwater sounds, the real stars of underwater acoustics are the finned marine mammals, including whales, porpoises, and dolphins. These animals not only use sound to locate prey (and each other), but some evidence suggests that they also communicate in a code of clicks, whines and squawks that scientists have yet to crack completely.

Producing these sounds is, of course, only half of the picture. These marine mammals must also have hearing sensitive enough to discern these signals, sometimes over great distances. Bottlenose dolphins, for example, have been tested to have a normal hearing range of frequencies from 200 to 150,000 hertz (Hz). Humans, by comparison, hear only between 20 to 20,000 Hz.

Such sensitivity to sound has left marine mammals vulnerable to the man-made hazard of underwater noise pollution. Military, industrial, and scientific activities all do their part in contributing the racket beneath the sea.

The U.S. Navy, for example, is preparing an environmental impact statement on the sub-surface noise generated by a new submarine detection program. To improve detection of the new breed of quieter submarine, the Navy hopes to employ a low-frequency active sonar array. As opposed to passive sonar, which simply listens for unnatural sounds, active sonar produces a low-frequency signal (between 75 and 1,000 Hz) to create echoes off of hostile submarines. These signals, which would cover vast tracts of ocean, are to be produced at 230 decibels (dB), well above the noise level of a jet engine (120 dB).

On the Pacific coast, scientists studying global warming are also adding to underwater noise while hoping to get accurate readings of the oceans’ temperature. But gathering this data requires the use of sonar on a large scale. The $40 million acoustic thermometry of ocean climate (ATOC) program of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California hopes to capitalize on the fact that sound travels through cold water faster than through warmer water. By tracking the variations in the time it takes a 75 Hz tone (within the hearing range of many marine mammals) to travel from a sonar transmitter in California to a receiver 6,000 miles away, the ATOC program can begin to plot the changes in ocean temperature over time.

Military, industrial, and scientific activities all do their part in contributing the racket beneath the sea.

At their source, ATOC’s sonars, in action since December 1995, produce a deafening 195 dB. In humans, permanent hearing loss can result above 150 dB. Even at half-a-mile’s distance, the transmissions register at 136 dB, still louder than a jet engine. In addition, although the decibel level will drop with distance, the frequency remains the same. This means that marine mammals in the sound’s path may not be subject directly to a loud noise, but suffer consistent exposure to low-frequency sound waves.

It is still unclear what long-term effects such programs will have on the sensitive hearing of marine mammals. In a study published by the Naval Health Research Center, scientists found that 24-hour exposure to low-frequency sonar at only 77 decibels produced “adverse effects on health, performance, and morale” on human sailors.

Response from environmental groups has been swift. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is worried about the global scope of the program, which could affect as much as 80 percent of the planet’s oceans. Joel Reynolds, an NRDC senior attorney, says, “We simply cannot afford to play Russian Roulette with our global oceanic ecosystem.”

The American Oceans Campaign has been working in coalition with a number of other environmental groups to keep tabs on government and industry underwater sound generation. According to Joan Hartmann of AOC’s Senior Policy Council, “What marine mammals in the Pacific Ocean experience now is akin to living next to a freeway with the window closed.” While that may not seem too dramatic at first, Hartmann adds, “We don’t know what that level of sound means to marine mammals—creatures who are very dependent on their hearing.”

Concern for marine mammals by environmental groups has led ATOC to set up a sister program, the Marine Mammal Research Program (MMRP), to monitor the ATOC’s effects. Dr. Christopher Clark of Cornell University’s Bioacoustic Research Program, is leading the MMRP to try to determine the hearing capabilities of marine mammals and sea turtles, and to measure their response to man-made sounds.

The MMRP’s six-month summary report claims, “In all types of data collection programs…no significant effects on marine animal abundance or distribution as a result of ATOC transmissions have occurred.”

Some underwater sound programs, however, are designed with the idea of helping marine mammals. Dr. Jon Lien of Newfoundland’s Memorial University has developed a localized underwater acoustical alarm to help North Atlantic commercial fishermen solve the problem of the unintentional by-catch of marine mammals, such as harbor porpoises.

By attaching “pingers” to the nets of commercial fishing boats, marine mammals are alerted to the net’s presence without scaring away targeted fish species such as cod.. So far, the experiment has been successful. According to Dr. Lien, the data “overwhelmingly indicated that the devices worked to reduce by-catch.” The ratio of marine mammal by-catch in unalarmed nets to alarmed nets was 20 to 1, a stunning success.

Although the increase in noise beneath the surface of the oceans is a serious problem, careful research and planning can help to ensure that vulnerable species are protected. Marine mammals live a life that is finely attuned to their environment, and they can use all the help they can get to ensure that this delicate balance is not disrupted.