Acoustic solutions to ocean noise pollution

"This extraordinary year [2020] has shown us that wherever we step back the space we leave is providing wildlife with new opportunities." — David Attenborough

"Sound is life in the ocean. If we pollute this channel of communication … we are condemning the ocean to irreversible change." — French bioacoustics expert Michel André

In the documentary The Year Earth Changed, directed by Tom Beard, David Attenborough narrates a joyous and hopeful film about what happened when people changed their social habits as a result of COVID-19, and animals were able to have unfettered access to their habitats. You can check out the trailer here.

"From hearing birdsong in deserted cities and seeing whales in Glacier Bay, to meeting capybara in suburbs across South America, people worldwide have had the chance to engage with nature like never before. In this documentary special, viewers will witness how the smallest changes in human behavior—reducing cruise ship traffic, closing beaches a few days a year, identifying more harmonious ways for humans and wildlife to coexist—can have a profound impact on nature."

Particularly for whales and other marine animals that navigate their worlds using sonar, the increased noise pollution from commercial ships, explosions due to gas exploration, and military sonar traffic have seriously limited their capacity to communicate with each other. This has impacted migration patterns, species regeneration, and ocean ecologies, as well as causing permanent hearing damage. This clip for The Year Earth Changed focuses on the stress that humpback whales have been experiencing.

The whales in Glacier Bay, AK, are also familiar with the coastline of Chile, which runs along the western edge of South America. The Gulf of Coronado is a 50-kilometer area between Chiloé Island and the mainland that attracts nine different species of whales. This is the sight of this experiment with a new technology.

New technology developed as part of the Blue Boat Initiative, a research project organized by the MERI Foundation in Chile, may help reduce the negative impacts on marine life and ecologies.

"Technology that uses acoustics to detect the presence of whales in shipping lanes could help to avert these collisions. André and his team at the Laboratory of Applied Bioacoustics in Barcelona have developed software called Listen to the Deep Ocean Environment (LIDO), which monitors acoustic sources in real-time and uses artificial intelligence to identify them.

In October, a two-meter-long buoy equipped with this technology and other sensors will be dropped into the Gulf of Corcovado, off the coast of Chile, an area busy with both whales and ships. Using LIDO, it will be able to detect whales within at least a 10-kilometer radius and automatically send an alert to Chile's navy, which will, in turn send a message to nearby vessels, encouraging them to change course or reduce their speed. Ship engines make less noise at lower speeds, which makes it easier for whales to home in on their location."

French bioacoustics expert Michel André: "We (humans) ignored this acoustic dimension. We contaminated the ocean with sound, without even having the first idea that this could have damaged it."

At the bottom of the scroll for this article, you can listen to the sounds of the Blue, Humpback, Sei, and Right whale species.