The Invisible and Fatal World of Oceanic Noise Pollution

It is a pollution that few of us notice, that we cannot see and cannot truly comprehend: oceanic noise pollution. It’s easy enough to ignore, until we start seeing whales deliberately beaching themselves on our shores just to escape it.

In a must-read article in Aeon Magazine, Peter Brannen explores how ocean noises have been influencing whale behavior around the globe.

Although he is quick to point out that the ocean was never ‘quiet,’ after all, it is subjected to the noise of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and various oceanic creatures, the intense pollution humans have created in the waters have largely impacted whales’ ability to communicate.

Whale songs, notorious for their beautiful and haunting melodies, are no longer carrying the way they used to. Although some whales have the ability to project these songs hundreds, and even up to a thousand miles, scientists have noticed that in the past few years, the octaves have changed. The same whales that once sung low vibrations across the ocean are now, in essence, raising their voice to project over the sounds of ships, propeller blades and sonar.

In an article entitled ‘Whales Scream Over Noise Pollution,’ author Jennifer Viegas notes that if the noise around whales is too loud, they will abandon any attempt to communicate at all.

These blasts of human made noise can throw whales off, separating them from their pod and causing them to swim to shore, often resulting in their death.

The impact of military exercises are described in the article as such:

“Active military sonar comes in different flavours – much of it quite unlike the rasping pings of Tom Clancy-inspired Hollywood productions. There are the plaintive howls of low-frequency sonar to the almost deliberately annoying whinnies and squeals of powerful mid-frequency sonar. Deep-diving beaked whales are terrified of the noise, which they can interpret as exceptionally frightening killer whales. Mass strandings of more than a dozen beaked whales have happened in the wake of military exercises, with autopsies on the whales revealing symptoms of the bends – a strange injury for an animal accustomed to diving almost two miles down.”

Other noise pollutants such as offshore drilling, which blasts through rock and sediment on the ocean floor, reverberating for miles around, can cause huge disruptions. This is especially true now that regulations have been loosened in the Atlantic Ocean, with regular blasts heard off of Africa’s oil rich coast.

In a startling graphic created by the Monterey Institute, you can watch a simulation of how whale migrations can be disrupted by noise. It starts quietly, with just the whales communicating by sonar. But you can slowly amp up the noise levels to include natural ocean sounds, sonar, propeller noise and ship traffic.

The Center for Biological Diversity is attempting to fight the unnecessary use of underwater noise pollution. Although obviously we can’t put a halt to all man-made noises as we do need sonar capabilities aboard military crafts, we can limit the use. They’ve been able to intervene in military training exercises and limit the scope of radar used within marine reserves.

Still, much more needs to be done. It’s clear that what we’re doing out there, even though it goes largely undetected by humans, is having fatal consequences for the ocean’s ecosystem. If we are unwilling to find new, less invasive ways of communicating, the migrations and lives of whales could be permanently damaged.


Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 years ago

thanks for the article.

Jennifer H.
Jennifer H4 years ago

Many good comments as to the abuse that humans have put the oceans through. We have put ourselves on a pedastal and seem to have no problem destroying another species for selfish gain.

Janice Thompson
Janice Thompson4 years ago

We are bad people!!!

heather g.
heather g4 years ago

I don't think the military forces or fisherman give the damage they do a second thought.

Humans have polluted the earth, the sea and even space.........

Mandy H.
Mandy H4 years ago

Humans have absolutely no respect for any other animal around. We really need to reduce the noise we're making quickly or we're going to loose all the beautiful animals we've got in the ocean.

Charlie Rush
Charlene Rush4 years ago

It's disgusting how many humans think they have the right to inconvenience, disrupt, and/or destroy anything that gets in their way.

Kim Erik M.
Past Member 4 years ago

After humanity started to use sonar the sealife of all oceans on this planet got confused and lost, thats why we have started to see more of this...

Claire Panman-van der Mee
Claire P4 years ago

Very frustrating problem. Poor whales!

Maria Teresa Schollhorn

Thanks for sharing.

Roberto Meritoni
Roberto Meritoni4 years ago

Thanks for sharing