This weekend on Documentary on Newstalk, producer John Higgins explores the harmful effects of human-made noise pollution on the whales and dolphins that inhabit Irish waters in a new radio documentary: A Sea of Sound
Over 90% of Ireland lies under the sea and this vast underwater environment is home to 25 different species of whales, dolphins and porpoises, ranging from deep-diving beaked whales to squid hunting in the spectacular mountains and valleys from the ocean floor off our west coast, and humpback whales feeding and feeding here on their long migratory routes from Africa to Iceland, to resident species such as bottlenose dolphins living throughout the year in the Shannon Estuary.
All of these species effectively “see” through sound. In the underwater environment, sound travels five times faster and further than above water. Marine mammals use it to search for food, reproduce, navigate the ocean, and connect with other individuals and groups. Some species of whales sing to each other over thousands of miles, even developing their own languages or cultures.
Showcasing the peculiar, beautiful, 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 do, so to understand the life they lead, the pressures they face, think acoustically.”
However, with each passing decade, man-made noise in the ocean from sources such as fishing and shipping has effectively doubled, creating a dense acoustic smog in which our marine mammals are forced to navigate, which has a massive impact on these highly intelligent animals and their ability to feed, reproduce, migrate and communicate.
As conservation officer Dave Wall tells John, “We believe that many of the impacts of noise pollution are chronic. These are the long term impacts on entire populations… Ship noise sonicates, makes noisy, thousands of square miles of ocean… So what long term impact does this have on whale and dolphin populations ? Most of the species we deal with are long-lived species with slow reproductive rates, and it will take many years to understand what those impacts are… and by the time we do, who’s to say it won’t? won’t be too late?”
The documentary also explores other threats in the ocean that have even more immediate effects on marine mammals, such as seismic surveys for oil and gas, pile driving in the construction of offshore wind farms and the use of military sonars, used by a range of international vessels conducting military exercises in Irish waters – with devastating effects on marine life.
What happens when the ocean gets so loud that whales and other cetaceans can’t hear themselves sing? Amid a global extinction crisis, the growing number of dolphins and whales stranding injured or dead on Irish coves and beaches is a major cause for concern.
Dr Joanne O Brien of GMIT says that if the hearing of whales and dolphins is temporarily impaired, “They may just be hungry for a few days or they may not be able to find their way around and that’s when they can disembark. Sometimes they can be bailed out and go again. Sometimes they come in and they die… And if it’s permanent, if their hearing doesn’t recover from exposure to those types of sounds, then they’re totally lost.”
A Sea of Sound also looks at what can and is being done to reduce the volume of man-made noise in the sea, and what could be done to try to protect this beautiful acoustic environment and the creatures that live there in the future.
Over the course of the documentary, John travels the Irish coast, on land and water, speaking to a wide 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, editing by Francesca Lalor and mastered by Neil Kavanagh,
A Sea of Sound airs on Newstalk Sunday, March 27 at 7 a.m., rebroadcasts Saturday, April 2 at 9 p.m. and will be available as a podcast.