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The Unbearable Din Of Being A Dolphin

The Unbearable Din Of Being A Dolphin

The ‘Silent World’, our great oceanic realm, is subject to a cacophony of human-produced noise that impacts marine life. Vivek Menon thinks it’s time we concentrated on quietening our sonic seas.

One of 90-odd short-finned pilot whales that were found stranded on the Tamil Nadu coast. It is now thought that the rise in ocean noise is interfering with the echo-location capabilities of cetacean species, causing them to strand. Photo: Ravichandran Saravanan/WTI.

I have never been very good with noise. As a child I shied away from crackers at Diwali. As a teenager I ran away from heavy metal music. All my life I have avoided concerts, live football matches and Indian festivals with a vengeance. This, despite my being a very convivial animal who loves conversation and social contact.

Loud music has never been calming to my soul. Sound of any great volume drives a sharp splinter up my auditory canals, through my eardrums, and into a part of my brain that screams silently till I switch off the offending noise. In my youth this anathema towards loudness led to my being labelled ‘Aurangzeb’ by certain music-loving friends, after the emperor who banned music in the Mughal period.

So it came as a pleasant surprise to hear singer-songwriter Sting say that loud music had affected his hearing as well.  “I have been exposed to industrial levels of sound,” he bemoaned. But our commonalities of auditory suffering were not why I was glued to the movie I was viewing. I was in Reykjavik at the European launch of Sonic Sea, a brilliant new documentary on ocean noise by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the National Resources Defence Council (NRDC). It was brilliant because it tackles an enormously important issue that has not been addressed thus far by the conservation world. It was brilliant because it used that genius Sting in a most resonant way as an ambassador for a crucial conservation message. Brilliant, because it answered a question that has personally troubled me for ages: why do whales and dolphins get stranded?

Sonic Beings in a Sonic Sea

On the night of January 11, 2016 there was a distress call from Tamil Nadu. A pod of 90 or so short-finned pilot whales had been found stranded on the coast between Manapad and Tiruchendur. A small team from Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), trained in cetacean rescue techniques by its international partner IFAW reached the site the next day. Over half the whales were dead and the rest had been dragged into the sea by fisherfolk and the Forest Department using ropes and boats. Most of these ‘rescued’ cetaceans were stranded again in a few hours. The team found only three whales still alive. Using different protocols of rescue, they took the animals out to deep sea in a boat and released them. Half an hour later they returned, satisfied that the whales had swum off. They reported that the earlier ones re-stranded as they were released too close to shore – the tidal action and shore profile did not allow them to swim away. But was that the whole truth? And why did the whales strand in the first place?

The truth could well be that these intelligent, social beings live in a sonic sea. Over the last century, increased shipping, oil exploration and naval sonar have transformed what famed explorer Jacques Cousteau once referred to as ‘The Silent World’ into a cacophony of sound. The constant movement of ships creates a wall of sound when heard through hydrophones. Sonar booms by the larger navies of the world and underwater explosions by corporations looking for new hydrocarbon reserves blast seismically through this chronic noise. Marine mammals that move by echo-locating and have extremely sensitive hearing are, simply put, rendered deaf. Many whales and dolphins examined by experts after stranding show hematomas and internal bleeding from burst eardrums. So it may not be, as was traditionally believed, tidal and climatic conditions that make whole pods of dolphins strand. The truth may well be that we have entrapped them (much like I felt during an early foray into a discotheque) in an anthropogenic prison of noise. I could get up and walk away. The dolphins can’t. They end up on shore, disoriented, traumatised and bleeding internally, victims of a hitherto unreported threat to the wild world.

The Quiet Imperative

The most important thing I learned from Sonic Sea was not that there was this problem. That was shocking, true, but the most important thing is that there is a solution. Noise-quietening devices are common among advanced nations. The U.S. Navy funds the maximum research on this and other ocean noise related issues. Our navy and petroleum companies could use these devices, most certainly at a cost, to greatly reduce ocean noise.

India has had conservation measures in place for several hundred years; several thousand if one counts monarchic preservation regimes. But almost all of them have dealt with the terrestrial realm. Forests and antelopes, tigers and lions, have all received some protection by king or colonial regime or the modern Indian state. Yet very little is known about or done for the marine realm. WTI’s Whale Shark Conservation Project drew us into the Gulf of Kutchh and the Arabian Sea. The stranding of whales and dolphins is now drawing us into the very depths of the ocean. Some preliminary work has been done on ocean noise by an enterprising ex-naval officer but there is nothing else.

I would want to focus the attention of the country, its conservationists and its political leadership on this disturbing new trend. I say new as we have not examined it earlier; perhaps it has been happening for several years now. My mind will not be quietened unless I know that the dolphins leaping out of the water off our coasts are doing so in exuberance, not to escape the noise that we have created in their habitat. I, for one, share with the cetaceans, at a very personal level, their abhorrence of noise.

One of 90-odd short-finned pilot whales that were found stranded on the Tamil Nadu coast. It is now thought that the rise in ocean noise is interfering with the echo-location capabilities of cetacean species, causing them to strand.
Photo: Ravichandran Saravanan/WTI.

Author: Vivek Menon, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 8, August 2016.

 
 
 

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