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"Open ocean" (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by maroulis

The Macaulay Library in the Sonic Sea

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Jacques Cousteau’s The Silent World (1956) seriously underestimated the sounds marine life make, but he may have captured a bygone time when the ocean was quieter than it is now. The Sonic Sea documents the cacophony humans have created in the ocean. With increasingly global commerce, ships with loud engines are crisscrossing oceans on super highways, carrying the products we buy. These huge container ships, along with fleets of military and fishing vessels, use sonar, pings of sound that bounce off the ocean floor, to navigate. Adding to the noise are the rhythmic, constant seismic waves that are shot from specialized airguns on ships to penetrate the ocean floor in search of fossil fuels. Consider a pastoral countryside that is converted into malls and airports. How much louder would it feel to you as you stand there and witness the transformation?  For the ocean’s residents—whales, dolphins, and fish— who have been making a living in their pastoral countryside, are now facing the same kind of urbanization of their landscape. So how do the animals respond, and how do they manage this new neighborhood?

Dr. Christopher Clark, senior scientist in the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, was featured in this documentary produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Dr. Clark’s research career has focused on animal communication, particularly endangered North Atlantic right whales, and so he has become intensely interested in how the noise humans create in the ocean impacts the ability for whales, and other wildlife, to successfully communicate and survive in the ocean.

“Industrial Dolphin” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by OneEighteen

The Sonic Sea profiles the major sources of ocean noise and illustrates how the acoustic environment of the ocean has been changing. The filmmakers, “did a good job getting across to the audience all the insults we throw into the ocean,” says Dr. Clark. To aid in creating the acoustic environment for the audience, producers teamed up with the Macaulay Library to use recordings of whales and dolphins to accurately portray the sounds these animals make to communicate with each other. The Macaulay Library the filmmakers with a diverse collection of verified recordings from the ocean’s deep, though the film still took some artistic license—while the audience hears humpback whales singing, the film shows images of blue whales. This is because blue whale song is a lower frequency than humans can hear; thus, a true representation would create a shockingly quiet moment.

At each screening of The Sonic Sea, at film festivals and other local venues across the country, the audience is treated to a Q&A with filmmakers or a profiled scientist. For many audience members, this is their first time learning how much noise pollution there is in the ocean. Dr. Clark sees this as an opportunity for the audience to start to think about our impacts on the ocean. He’s also hopeful about the response from the marine engineering industry. This documentary grabs their attention, and they are more engaged to discuss how to change. Dr. Clark says that they response with, “’we can change that.’”