Whales use their ears far more than their eyes. And their world is getting noisier.

Noise pollution

Whales live in a world of sounds, and they use their ears far more than their eyes. Noise doesn’t kill them directly, but it makes life difficult. Right whales make frequent calls over distances of 20 miles or more. The calls let whales stay in touch, share information about food, help mates find each other, and keep groups together along migration routes. Constant, heavy ship traffic can drown out these sounds, stranding whales in a soup of noise. 

Until the end of the nineteenth century, the ocean was a quiet place. Now, more than 87,000 shipping vessels grind along under power of massive engines. Petroleum prospectors set off explosions on the seafloor; many ships use sonar to search the water and map the seafloor. Scientists estimate that the area over which right whales can hear one another has dropped by 90 percent. It’s like trying to have a conversation on the median strip of a busy interstate.

Listen to ship noise recorded in Massachusetts Bay
Read Dr. Christopher W. Clark on whales and noise

More about threats to right whales

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The research and conservation work of the Bioacoustics Research Program is made possible by friends and members of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a nonprofit organization. Please consider becoming a member of the Lab. Your vital support makes possible our work using cutting-edge technology to understand and help the world’s most rare and elusive animals, including endangered birds, whales, and forest elephants.