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Reduced water traffic gives researchers opportunity to study impact of noise on whales

Last Updated May 6, 2020 at 9:11 pm PDT

Summary

With less water traffic, researchers have the chance to study the impact of noise on local whales

The situation could be giving whale populations a break from almost constant stress-inducing noise

A researcher says marine animals are profoundly acoustic creatures

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — As travel restrictions during the pandemic continue, researchers say they may have an unprecedented opportunity to study the effect of noise on local orcas.

A reduction in marine traffic caused by COVID-19 could be giving whale populations a break from almost constant stress-inducing noise.

Dr. Lauren McWhinnie from the University of Victoria says ship activity, whether it’s commercial fishing or ferries, has notably declined recently.

“And so, for the first time, in many of these whales’ lives they will be in a waterway that is quite considerably quieter than they would normally be experiencing,” she says.

Numbers from the Port of Vancouver are similar year over year, expect April where there is a slight decline in ship traffic.

McWhinnie says her team and UVic, in partnership with Oceans Network Canada, have started working to measure how much the noise has actually dropped and what impact it will have on the whales.

“Normally, we don’t get an opportunity to make recordings when there isn’t the traffic around, and that’s what this current situation has presented us with the opportunity to gather information.”

Valeria Vergara, a research scientist with Ocean Wise, says marine animals are profoundly acoustic creatures.

“They use sound pretty much for every aspect of their life. They use it to navigate through communication, they use it to communicate with each other and keep their groups together – they’re very social creatures – [and] they use it to find food,” she says.

The research scientist also explains sound doesn’t transmit the same in the water as it does in the air, and it moves about five times the rate.

“Another way you can picture what it might be like is if you’re having a conversation with somebody and a firetruck passes by. You need to literally stop talking, let the firetruck pass, then you resume your conversation,” Vergara says.

Both researchers agree less noise might mean whales have an easier time hunting salmon.

In recent years, the body condition of whale populations has been a concern, and the hope is aerial photography will show if the whales will be able to gain weight with the reduced ambient sound.

“It’s going to be a little bit of time yet before we get a true insight of what the pandemic means for these whales,” McWhinnie says.