A Sea of Noise: A Conversation With Local Non-profit Ocean Conservation Research

“A deaf whale is a dead whale”

– Lindy Weilgart, Los Angeles Times, March 22nd 1994

I had the pleasure of sitting down with the founder and director of Ocean Conservation Research (OCR), Michael Stocker recently. OCR is a non-profit based in San Rafael addressing noise in the oceans by changing policy and communicating noise pollution issues to the public. Noisy oceans have major implications for cetaceans that communicate, forage and navigate using sound. OCR has been working for ten years to tackle this issue and I was intrigued to discover how complex and dynamic ocean noise is and the major implications of ocean sound.

On the motivation to start OCR:

Since 1992 Michael had been involved with ocean noise. He worked for environmental groups such as Sea Flow as a scientific advisor because the background in physics and biology he had lent themselves perfectly to the study of ocean noise. It was around this time that Walter Munk proposed the Acoustic Thermography of Ocean Climates (ATOC) project. The idea was that the oceans could be used to transmit sounds around the world. It was popular because the project could be used to measure major oceanographic changes, such as temperature, but also be used like an early internet, to transmit communication across vast distances. Environmentalists, including Michael, saw the projects dangers. Using the oceans unique properties of sound transmission to blast loud sounds into the ocean for years would cause serious harm to marine animals that used sound as a part of their life history. It would, among other things, disrupt baleen whales ability to communicate and navigate across ocean basins using low frequency moans, like they have done for millions of years. The phrase “a deaf whale is a dead whale” became the rally cry from public opposed to the project.

Part of Michael’s role as a science advisor to various organizations was to produce critiques of insonification proposals in the ocean. In 2001 during the public review of ATOC, Michael produced a 40 page critique of the Navy proposal. At this time the public was worked up about noise pollution because in 2000 the infamous Bahamas stranding, in which 17 whales washed ashore due to low frequency active sonar, occurred. This issue would rage from 2001- 2005 and the major environmental groups all had an ocean noise component because the public was rightly worked up about the issue. Unfortunately there was a point where these environmental groups had to stop pressing the issue as hard because the conversation became less about majestic, endangered whales and more technical physics and policy.

It was around this time in 2007 that Michael saw a pressing need for there to be an organization that would continue to focus on the ocean noise debate and would be able to communicate the technical details of noise pollution and policy jargon into forms members of the public could understand. In 2007 OCR was formed and ever since Michael and OCR have been distilling policy and communicating technical information about noise pollution to the public in order to keep marine noise pollution issues present in people’s minds.

On the types of noise dangerous in the marine environment:

Part of the problem in OCR’s eyes is not the level of noise there is in the oceans but the types of sounds produced. Michael has modelled sound in the past and estimated that the oceans were once noisier than they are today. Before whaling decimated population numbers there were millions upon millions of whales in the oceans all communicating with each other using low frequency sound. On top of this they had evolved with background noises of earthquakes and erupting volcanos, they were used to loud biological sounding noises. Michael has coined the term ‘Kurtosis’ to mean the scratchiness or unpleasantness of a sound and it distinguishes between biological sounding noises and those more harmful synthetic ones.

Underwater communication is such a sound; it must be deliberately synthetic sounding with clear leading edges to embed code within it. Part of the reason Michael was so alarmed with ATOC  in 1992 was because if you could get a sound across ocean basins you could use the oceans as an early internet to broadcast sounds which would be useful for giving marching orders to submarines surreptitiously, which the Navy had a great need for at that time.

Blog 8- Fig 1Arrays of underwater equipment communicating with each other using high pitch ‘scratchy’ sounds.

The idea of kurtosis is so important because it is unrealistic to get all anthropogenic noise out of the oceans but if you can identify and remove the nasty noises it becomes a much more realistic task.

Through OCR’s work, the term Kurtosis is finally making its way into technical discussion when talking about noise pollution. Michael has had it entered as terminology at an international standards organization working group. The ultimate goal is to produce a working metric of kurtosis and have it used to mitigate noise pollution. Presently, when talking about how much of a sound a whale can tolerate, it is measured using sounds that are easy to listen to. Animals won’t necessarily be adverse to these less synthetic sounds but in the oceans there is much harder-to-listen-to sounds being used that are having unknown effects on cetaceans.

On the biggest noise polluter in the oceans today:

The process of extracting oil from the oceans is not a simple matter of puncturing a straw into the ocean floor and pumping out the oil. Due to all the steps in the process and the technology used, the exploration for sub-sea oil and subsequent extraction is the nosiest thing in the ocean today.

  Firstly air guns are used to find the oil. Compared to all the anthropogenic sounds in the ocean, these are the loudest. Air guns are blasted from a ship for hours or days at a time all around the globe to search for pockets of oil. This noise pollution is omnidirectional, meaning it is sent out in all directions and can be heard hundreds, even thousands of miles from the source.

Blog 8- Fig 2This is a map of global seismic operations. Those happening in the eastern Atlantic will be heard across the other side of the ocean on the east coast of America.

The subsequent pile driving and extraction also creates a large amount of noise. What is extracted is not simply oil but a mixture of brine, sand, gas and oil. There are huge pieces of equipment dedicated to separating the oil to be pumped to the surface and more still dedicated to pumping the gas, brine and sand back into the ground. If you look at the ocean floor beneath an oil rig, the sub-sea equipment looks like a moon colonization base with machinery of various shapes all attached to the sea floor. This is all operating under huge pressures and is much louder than the ocean background noise. It produces high pitch communication signals as well, right in the range of social communication and vocalization of odontocetes.

When extracting oil in the open ocean (deeper than 1500ft), floating platforms are required. Traditional tower designs can’t reach to the sea floor so they are float on the ocean surface and need to stay in place while the oil is pumped up. They have 4 huge propellers, one at each corner, that counteract the waves and currents continuously while the oil rig is in commission.

blog 8- Fig 3.jpgThe propellers are each the size of a super tanker so it is equivalent to having 4 supertankers constantly producing noise into the oceans for the life of the oil rig, which is 10-15 years.

An oil platform being held in place with giant propellers.

Presently there are close to 1000 oil platforms in the oceans and due to the scale of oil exploration and extraction this is now the biggest danger to marine life in terms of both high frequency noise that affects small cetaceans and low frequency noise affecting larger ones. One thing I have heard Michael mention to me a number of times now is that the oil men have their hands on the tiller in a Trump Administration which doesn’t bode well for the future of cetaceans around America. Case and point would be President Trumps America First Energy Plan putting marine protected areas and important cetacean habitat in danger.Blog 8- Fig 4

On current project OCR is working on:

“Citizen Science sailors”-

There is a dire need for acoustical mapping of the oceans. Presently we have a fairly rudimentary understanding of how noise propagates in the oceans which is mostly based on shipping noise. On top of this monitoring stations in the oceans are only measuring the low frequency stuff like shipping sounds, blue whale calls and earthquakes. They’re not getting the high frequency sounds that are more and more adding to the global din of sound in the oceans, and because this is the unpleasant sounds; the navigational signals, scanning sonar and communication signals, it is even more important. The solution is to use citizen science to map ocean sounds instead. OCR wants to get sailor involved by equipping them with hydrophones that can be deployed over the side of the vessel while ships travel the world.

Farallon shipping project- With roughly 600 blue whales off the coast of California intersecting with busy shipping channels there needs to be a monitoring system put in place to keep the blue whales away from commercial ships. OCR wants to, depending on funding, put some permanent hydrophones off the Farallon Islands to document the sounds of the ships and the sounds made by blue and fin whales. By combining this data with on board ship identification systems, when an aggregation of blue whales is in the shipping lanes an alert could be sent out to the ships for them to slow down. Boats have to be careful around large whales because they have evolved as the largest creatures in the ocean so when they hear an unusual sound approaching their natural response is to come to the surface, which is exactly the wrong thing to do in order to avoid ship strikes. This is why this project would be so valuable.

Follow OCR’s work:

Website: OCR.org

Facebook: ‘Ocean Conservation Research- OCR’

Blog: ocean-noise.com