Written By Susan Kahoud
In 1861, 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.
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.