Common Sense Canadian

Douglas Coupland-narrated video shows ship noise impacts on whales

PostedOctober 24, 2013 by in BC

For threatened whale populations, sound is essential to every element of their lives – from eating and mating to family connection. In a new video on the subject, narrator and famed BC author Douglas Coupland explains:

You can think of sound as their dinner menu, their 9-11, J-date, e-harmony, GPS, facebook and twitter – and, more importantly, their family stories.

The video, from science-based conservation group Oceans Initiative, uses 3-D animation to visualize how whales interact with their environment and how ship noise impacts whales off BC’s coast.

New scientific research

The short film accompanies the publication of new paper in the  scientific journal Animal Conservation, co-authored by world-renowned whale researcher Dr. Rob Williams from BC-based Oceans Initiative and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, his colleague Erin Ashe, and Chris Clark and Dimitri Ponirakis from Cornell University’s Bioacoustics Research Program.

For three years, the research team placed state-of-the-art underwater microphones from Cornell University up and down BC’s coast, measuring ocean noise over six month periods. What they found is that critical orca habitat on BC’s south coast – around the Salish Sea and Strait of Juan de Fuca – is rife with noise pollution that threatens their survival.

Ship noise creates what Williams refers to as the “cocktail party effect”, whereby louder background noise competes with whales ability to navigate their world and communicate with each other.

The paper concludes that current median noise levels “reduce the communication spaces” for fin whales, humpbacks and orca by 1, 52 and 62%, respectively.  Under “noisy conditions” the impact rises to 30, 94, and 97%.

Oil, LNG tankers threaten quiet, north coast habitat

Meanwhile, BC’s north coast offers unusually quiet habitat for humpbacks and other cetaceans – but all that would change dramatically if proposals for new supertankers carrying oil and liquefied natural gas go ahead.

Ship noise graphic

These 2 graphics illustrate the difference in marine noise between BC’s north and south coasts. The relative quiet of northern whale habitat would be shattered by proposed oil and LNG tankers                  (from Animal Conservation journal article)

The video explains, “Some species have evolved a sophisticated sonar system called echo-location to find what they need to survive. As a killer whale moves through its murky, blue world, it looks around with focused beams of sound. If, say, a Chinook salmon passes through a beam, it will identify it and eat it.”

“But for whales and dolphins, sound isn’t just about what’s for dinner – it’s also about avoiding predators, finding mates, navigation, and staying connected to their family.”

New proposals for multiple oil and LNG terminals in Kitimat and Prince Rupert would place similar stresses on north coast whale and dolphin habitat.

Sound solutions

Besides reconsidering plans for new tanker traffic, solutions can be found in ship quieting technology. As the study’s lead author Rob Williams told the Vancouver Sun’s Larry Pynn, “You don’t have to quiet every ship. It turns out…if you can identify the noisiest 10 per cent of the ships, and quiet those, you’ll probably get a 50-per-cent reduction.”



About the Author

Damien Gillis

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon - working with many environmental organizations in BC and around the world. He is the co-founder, along with Rafe Mair, of The Common Sense Canadian, and a board member of both the BC Environmental Network and the Haig-Brown Institute.



    excellent educational tool!

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