Whales, the earth’s largest marine mammals, have had more than their share of ecological problems in all parts of the world’s seas and oceans. One of their biggest risks is noise in marine habitats caused by drilling for oil and gas.
Who’s at risk? Those in unlikely marine habitats such as the Eastern Mediterranean, where a rare grey whale was sighted.
A previously unknown sub-species of humpback whale, named Arabian Whale, was also found swimming in waters off Oman. Sites of regular oil drilling.
Whales communicate and find their way by emitting sounds to one another as well as off marine objects such as reefs. Studies made by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that migrating Western Grey Whales are greatly disturbed by underwater intense seismic sounds produced by oil and gas exploration companies in areas where they often frequent; such as near Sakhalin Island, north of Japan.
The seismic surveys conducted by these oil and gas exploration companies involve using intense underwater sound blasts when searching for subterranean oil and gas deposits.
The intense sounds affect the whales, which rely on sound for communication, navigation and foraging for food.
Exposure to loud noise from seismic surveys can result in stress and behavior changes, which affect foraging and nursing calves. The intense noise can also cause direct physical damage to the animals themselves. The company carrying out the surveys, Energy Investment Company Ltd, claims that the surveys are carried out in a manner that “has not revealed significant impact on the whales”.
Migrating whales are often seen swimming together with other marine mammals like dolphins.
Other whale species, such as Pilot Whales, have been involved in numerous incidents involving being stranded on beaches.
The most recent incident occurred off Ft. Myers Florida January 21. Marine biologists believe that Pilot Whale beachings may be the result of the animal’s communication and direction finding senses being “confused” by various factors; including marine pollution and possibly by conflicting undersea noises as well.
The IUCN study was published in the Journal of Aquatic Mammals; and based its research on the migration routes and prime feeding grounds of the Western Grey Whale species.
The survey co-author, Dr Greg Donovan, is Chairman of the Western Grey Whale Advisory Panel (WGWAP) Seismic Survey and Noise Task Force. He is also Head of Science at the International Whaling Commission. To reduce the chance of seismic soundings disturbing the whales, he recommends that: “In the Sakhalin case it is advisable to conduct the surveys as soon as the winter ice has melted but most of the whales have not yet arrived.”
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Image via WWF