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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