Exploring the harmful effect of man-made noise pollution on the whales and dolphins inhabiting Irish waters in a new radio documentary by producer John Higgins: A Sea of Sound
Over 90% of Ireland’s territory is under the sea and this vast underwater environment is home to 25 different species of whale, dolphin and porpoise, from deep diving beaked whales hunting squid in the spectacular mountains and valleys of the ocean floor off our west coast, and humpback whales feeding and foraging here on their long migratory routes from Africa to Iceland, to resident species such as the bottlenose dolphins living all year round in the Shannon estuary.
All of these species effectively ‘see’ through sound. In the underwater environment sound travels five times faster and farther than it does above water. Marine Mammals use it to search for food, to breed, to navigate pathways through the ocean and connect with other individuals and groups. Some species of whale sing to one another across thousands of kilometres, even developing their own languages or cultures.
Featuring the peculiar, beautiful and otherworldly sounds created by whales and dolphins, this engaging and accessible documentary brings our incredible ocean soundscape to life for listeners.
As Simon Berrow, CEO of the Irish Whale and Dolphin says in the documentary, “They live in an acoustic landscape rather than a visual landscape like we are, so to understand the life they lead, the pressures they are under- think acoustically.”
With each passing decade however, man-made noise in the ocean from sources such as fishing and shipping has effectively doubled, creating a dense acoustic smog which our marine mammals are forced to navigate through, impacting massively on these highly intelligent animals and their ability to feed, reproduce, migrate and communicate.
As Conservation Officer Dave Wall tells John, “We think that a lot of the impacts of noise pollution are chronic. It’s the long-term impacts on entire populations… Shipping noise sonifys, makes noisy, thousands of square kilometres of ocean… So what long term impact is that having on whale and dolphin populations? Most of the species we are dealing with are long lived species with slow reproductive rates, and it’s going to take many years to figure out what those impacts are….and by the time we figure it out, who’s to say it’s not going to be too late?”
The documentary also explores other threats in the ocean which have an even more immediately damaging effects on marine mammals, such as seismic surveys for oil and gas, pile-driving in the construction of offshore windfarms, and the use of military sonar, used by a whole range of international vessels conducting military exercises in Irish water - with devastating effects for marine life.
What happens when the ocean becomes so full of noise that whales and other cetaceans can no longer hear each other sing? In the midst of a worldwide extinction crisis, the increasing number of dolphins and whales washing up injured or dead on Irish coves and beaches is a major cause for concern.
Dr Joanne O Brien of GMIT says, if the hearing of whales and dolphins is impaired temporarily, “they may just go hungry for a few days or they might not find their way and that is when they can come ashore. Sometimes they might be able to refloated and they might go off again. Sometimes they’ll come in and they’ll die… And if it’s permanent, if their hearing doesn’t recover from the exposure to these types of sounds, then they are totally lost."
A Sea of Sound also examines what can and is being done to turn down the volume of man-made noise in the sea and what might be done to try and protect this beautiful acoustic environment and the creatures that live there into the future.
Over the course of the documentary John travels around the Irish coast, on land and on the water, talking to a diverse range of people who care about our marine environment, from scientists, conservationists and volunteers to politicians and fishermen.
A Sea of Sound is an As the Crow Flies production funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and is produced by John Higgins, edited by Francesca Lalor and mastered by Neil Kavanagh,
A Sea of Sound will be broadcast on Newstalk on Sunday March 27th at 7am, repeated Saturday April 2nd at 9pm and will be available as a podcast.
Image Credit: Nick Massett