Noise Pollution: The Unheard Of Threat For Whales

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Ferry and Mt. Baker. The ferryboat "Whatcom Chief" sails from Gooseberry Point to Lummi Island across Hales Pass in the San Juan Islands of Puget Sound. Mt. Baker is seen in the background at sunrise.

Image: Shutterstock/Edmund Lowe Photography

Noise Pollution: The Unheard Of Threat For Whales

Pollution is everywhere, and if you live in a highly populated part of the world, it’s probably much higher than the overall average. Pollution comes in many forms, but what we think of most when we hear this word are things like trash, smog and general everyday occurrences that just aren’t great for our health or that of the environment in which we live.

One form of pollution that is steadily on the rise is that of underwater pollution. We may think that when we head to our beaches and wade into the water that we’re immersed in a harmless ocean, but it’s quite the opposite. Not only are our waters polluted and harming us as humans, but more and more sea life is washing ashore deceased or tangled in plastic. One of the species that lives below the surface of the water that is being harmed the most is the whale, and not only is underwater pollution seriously damaging its natural abilities to reproduce, but it is no longer able to navigate as easily.

You may not realize this, but the ocean is a world that thrives on sound. When waters have low visibility, whales rely on sonar and their own form of sound communication to navigate and to stay together in pods. Through whistles and clicks, whales are better able to socialize, migrate and hunt to keep themselves and their families alive.

A male killer whale surfaces in the calm waters of the Salish Sea

Image: Shutterstock/Monika Wieland

The Salish Sea connects Seattle, Washington and Vancouver to the Pacific Ocean. The sea is home to a large number of killer whales. Within this large whale population there are a number of families that have their own dialect and tone of communication to help them differentiate between family and friend. Drifting away from their own family is a recipe for disaster and often death for these whales. Because of its location to the U.S. and Canada, the Salish Sea is heavily populated with tankers and cargo ships. These vessels contribute enormous amounts of pollution, especially underwater noise pollution.

These boats with their horns, propellers and large engines, make life for the whales extremely difficult. By essentially deafening the whales with all of the sound they generate through the waters on these constant trips through the Salish Sea, the threat of extinction is quite possible for these whales.

Instances of acoustic sanctuaries have been garnering some traction among those that know the real danger that all of this noise pollution has on the whales’ lives. These sanctuaries are specific places in the ocean that keep the whales safe from noise. Ships will likely be told of these designated areas, and would have to avoid them in order to bring quiet zones to the areas in which the whales reside. Shipping routes would not be altered, and the noise pollution would be lowered significantly.

However, until that day comes the threat of noise pollution is almost out of sight and out of mind for many people. Conservationists, marine biologists and the like are still fighting this uphill battle to try to save the marine life that lives in these waters. With shipping via large loud freighters being a multi-billion dollar industry, the fight may be one that goes on for quite some time.

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