Human-Generated Noise in the Oceans: Time to Lessen the Crescendo

Written By Susan Kahoud

In 1851, Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick, “We cannot live only for ourselves.  A  thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among these fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.” Today for the sake of whales and other forms of life, many of us at last are beginning to comprehend that thousands of fibers connect not only our fellow humans, but are intertwined with all of life that shares this planet with us.

Part 1:  Cetaceans’ Songs are Being Drowned Out

Sound is the principal means of communication for whales, dolphins, porpoises, and other marine species that live in a world with very little light. “Save the Whales” was the fervent cry in the 1970s by whale lovers, environmentalists, and scientists.  In recent years, scientists published a growing number of promising studies with the intention of doing just that.  Over the past 50 years, whales and other cetaceans’ health and well being has been severely compromised; they have been forced to adapt to increasingly troubled waters, oceans saturated with the ceaseless din of man-made noise.  And, with every decade since the 1960s, underwater noise levels have doubled and are rapidly rising.

It has been 60 years since the publication of Jacques Cousteau’s classic book, “The Silent World.”  Today the oceans, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, are teeming with  blasts from seismic surveys for gas and oil exploration, booms from active naval sonar training and exercises, and the widespread, chronic thrum from propellers of commercial ships and passenger vessels.  These anthropogenic (human-generated) sounds are increasingly viewed as a serious threat to marine life as they interfere with the animals’ primary sense of hearing, and in many instances cause disorientation, physical trauma, or fatal injuries.

A project by NOAA to map underwater human-made noise in the ocean. Frequencies range from 115 decibels to 40 decibels with red areas representing the highest level and blue areas representing the lowest. This image shows noise levels in the North Atlantic from large commercial vessels with frequencies in a 1/3-octave centered at 400Hz. Photo credit: NOAA Underwater Sound Field Mapping Working Group;HLS Research; NCEAS

Whales, dolphins, and other sea mammals rely primarily on sound for navigation, communication, feeding, finding mates, and detecting predators.  Before the age of “progress,” great whale songs once echoed throughout oceans, intended for mates across the vast seas.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,  whales have lost two-thirds of their ability to communicate with each other compared with 50 years ago. On North America’s east coast, noise generated from commercial shipping is a significant threat to North Atlantic right whales that are on the brink of extinction with only approximately 450 left. Christopher Clark, Ph.D., director of Cornell’s bioacoustics research program states, “…in today’s ocean off Boston, compared to 40 or 50 years ago, the cumulative noise from all the shipping traffic is making it difficult for all the right whales in the area to hear each other most of the time, not just once in a while.” The International Fund for Animal Welfare report cites research that explains: “The effective range of blue whales calls is only about one-tenth of what it was before the era of engine-driven commercial shipping.”  In an instant of time we have flooded the seas with our acoustic intrusions and have drowned out the songs, moans, whistles and clicks of whales whose ancestral beginnings span millions of years.


Susan Kahoud is a longtime environmentalist with special interest in protecting endangered wildlife and habitat.

Top photo is a North Atlantic right whale taken by Carl Safina. 

9 Comments on “Human-Generated Noise in the Oceans: Time to Lessen the Crescendo

  1. Pingback: Mexico: world’s smallest whale threatened by extinction | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. A beautiful article on a very important issue. The sense that all about us is interconnected is both a somewhat spiritual/philosophic notion; it is also a practical fact – which Ms. Kahoud articulates clearly and poignantly. Beginning with an absolutely beautiful quotation by Herman Melville, Ms. Kahoud quickly introduces and connects a devasatating problem facing today’s whales who due to commericalization can no longer hear one another with ease. Ms. Kahoud implies, quite successfully, I do believe, that there is a greater issue moving beyond the clearly ennunciated plight of whale song: if indeed we are all connected on this spinning cerulean marble that we all share – how long will it be before noise at untenable decibels drown out our ability to hear one another?
    Ms. Kahoud states “In an instant of time we have flooded the seas with our acoustic intrusions and have drowned out the songs, moans, whistles and clicks of whales whose ancestral beginnings span millions of years.”

    Yet, through this noise, Susan Kahoud’s voice sings loud and clear – she has proven herself to be a wonderful advocate for issues that effect us all and need to be heard.

  3. Excellent and informative article. Thank you for this info and the wonderful way in which it’s presented. Passing it on on FB…

  4. What well written article about such a tragic happening. These gentle giants and all creatures in our oceans are suffering at our hands. And we the people feel so helpless as big money, military and others make their home an intolerable place to live. Thank you, Susan for this wonderful article speaking of their plight.

  5. Yes, human kind needs a rewind. Instead of striving for more through technology, we need to back peddle, learn to grow food again, learn to spend time around families, re-learn the joys of nature, and remember that the ocean is our life line.

  6. There are many aspects of this issue with far reaching implications, but at the most basic level, it is evident that human beings willingly inflict suffering in exchange for their own purposes. Yet, we avoid our own suffering at all cost. The most vulnerable are at the mercy of the most powerful; and aren’t we all vulnerable at one level or another?

  7. Timely article on an important topic. I am not usually a visitor to this site but this captured my attention. Well written and beautifully conveyed.

  8. Beautifully written and informative! especially for those of us with limited knowledge about the mysteries of the under water world or how this such noise pollution could have such a huge impact in marine life preservation

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