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Environment

Whales Enjoy Unexpected Break From Ocean Noise Pollution Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

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The health of the ocean is endangered by climate change, pollution, and more. The United Nations’ Global Goal 15 calls on countries to protect and rehabilitate the ocean. You can join us in taking action on this issue here

As the COVID-19 pandemic depresses the global economy, marine traffic has declined, making the oceans significantly less loud. 

And that’s good news for whales, according to NPR

Whales sing, laugh, and talk to each other incessantly. Communication is a fundamental part of being a whale — it helps them find food, perceive threats, plan trips, and have fun.

The sudden disappearance of ship traffic has removed a major source of sound pollution, allowing them to communicate more easily, NPR reports. 

In fact, sound pollution in Glacier Bay in Alaska was half as loud in May 2020 as it was in May 2018, according to research from Cornell University cited by NPR.

Marine sound pollution around Vancouver also declined by half in recent months.

Teams of scientists have used hydrophones — underwater acoustic devices — to track sound levels and are still exploring the scale and extent of decreasing sound pollution.

But preliminary research shows promising effects that could have a beneficial impact on whales. 

"More needs to be done," Jason Gedamke, who manages the ocean acoustics program at NOAA Fisheries, told NPR. "When you have animals that for millions of years have been able to communicate over vast distances in the ocean, and then once we introduce noise and have increased sound levels and they can't communicate over those distances, clearly there's going to be some impact there."

The rise of marine traffic in recent decades has made communication considerably harder for whales. Their sounds are often muffled by the overwhelming and sometimes explosive sounds coming from cargo vessels, industrial mining projects, cruise ships, and more. 

In highly trafficked areas, the ocean becomes a relentless cacophony of painful sounds ranging from piercing screeches to seismic blasts.

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As a result, whales sometimes have to shout and often fail to hear one another. 

Noise pollution disrupts echolocation, causes hearing loss, and harms immune systems.

The ocean advocacy website Marine Insight reports that noise pollution can cause hemorrhages, internal organ damage, and significant stress. It can also force animals to migrate to new areas, potentially disrupting their ability to mate and find food.

Some marine creatures die from prolonged exposure to extreme sound pollution.

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The temporary decline in noise pollution due to the pandemic could allow scientists to better understand how it affects whales, which could bolster efforts calling for better regulation around marine traffic in the future, according to NPR.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, countries have the opportunity to embark on green economic recoveries that prioritize the health and well-being of humans, animals, plant life, and the planet as a whole. 

Such efforts would call for countries to reevaluate every facet of their economies, phasing out environmentally destructive industries and fostering those that are environmentally regenerative.

As far as the ocean is concerned, industries including fishing, cruise ships, and fossil fuel extraction would have to be better regulated or downsized and eliminated, according to experts.

A byproduct of this push would be quieter oceans for whales and all marine creatures.