Excerpted from Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car and Food on Your Plate, by Rose George. Metropolitan Books, August 2013.
I leave a note for duty officers on the chart table of the container ship Kendal. It says, “Watch keepers, if you see whales or dolphins, please call me on 227.” For days, southward slowly through the Indian Ocean, grazing India, heading for Sri Lanka, the note reaps nothing.
But one day the crew member Marius says with careful innocence, “I saw whales the other day, and hundreds of dolphins.” I ask him what kind of whales. He says, “The blowing-spout kind.” He tells me that in the Strait of Gibraltar, ships are allowed to do only 14 knots so that they don’t run over whales. That is considered the maximum speed that allows the animals time to get out of the way. (Actually, it’s nearer 10 knots.) On one ship Marius worked on, the captain was doing 18 knots in the Strait and a cadet dared to speak up. “Captain, we are killing the whales!” There is the odd grumbling from grumpy columnists in Lloyd’s List about slowing down for little purpose, but in general, seafarers like to see sea life. It makes a change. Some ships carry whale-spotting books. But the captain on that ship was different. He said he didn’t care. His ETA was more important.
Did he kill any whales with his 18 knots? Who knows? The only evidence of ship strikes against whales is when injured animals are beached with gashes and horrible injuries, attracting huge crowds and headaches for authorities charged with disposing of the carcass. The most notorious whale disposal incident occurred in 1970, when the Oregon State Highway Division was tasked with destroying a forty-five-foot sperm whale that had arrived on the beach at Florence. Perhaps because of their experience with moving large boulders, the highway officials decided to use dynamite. A crowd gathered, the charges were blown, and then everyone ran as giant chunks of blubber rained from the sky and crushed the Oldsmobile 88 of Walter Umenhoefer, who became known as “the blubber victim” forevermore, to his annoyance. The tale of the exploding whale was singular enough to have been investigated and authenticated by the myth-puncturing website Snopes.com. It is more singular that the detonation of whales still occurs.
Off Western Australia, for example, in 2010, a whale was exploded. A courteous man named Douglas Coughran e-mailed me from the Senior Wildlife Office of the Nature Protection Branch of Western Australia to explain why. It was, he wrote, an example of the “very challenging issue of human/ whale interaction.” Whales that are beached on unpopulated shores are left to break down into the nitrogen cycle “as nature has done for millennia.” A carcass on a more public beach is a health hazard: those animals are usually removed with ingenuity and earthmoving equipment and buried elsewhere. This particular dying humpback had beached on a sandbank and could not move or be moved. It was too big to shoot, so it was dynamited while not quite dead. The Department of Environment and Conservation tried to give reassurance: sandbags would be placed around the whale’s head before it was exploded to death, and a helicopter would patrol afterward to prevent a shark feeding frenzy.
At sea, whales are bashed, battered, gashed, pinioned, and stuck. The true scale of trauma is unknown, like much else about whales. The size of big ships means they can hit giant sea animals, lost boxes, or yachts and not notice. A bump, maybe, a faint jolt among all the pitching and rolling and jolting already. Visual evidence of fatal encounters is rare enough to draw crowds. When a tanker brought a whale into Baltimore in 1940, newspapers reported that it attracted ten thousand spectators. In June 2012, Maersk Norwich arrived in Rotterdam with a whale, long dead, draped over its bow.
Off Sumatra, the animals come. I am watching and peering as usual, with little hope, and there is something off to the corner of my eye, and then there they are. A dolphin gang, zipping and zooming beside the bulbous bow right beneath my fo’c’sle perch. Perhaps it is because I have been at sea for a month, or perhaps I would do this anyway, but I talk to them. In fact, I shout. Get out of the way! You will be hit by the bow! I don’t want any deathly draping on this ship to provide some preserved horror on YouTube. The dolphins laugh at me. They understand ships. They are fast enough to outpace us, even at 14 knots. So they come and go, racing against the red bow pushing through the underwater, taking turns, propelled by the bow wave. They can feel the action that the bulbous bow makes in the water, flattening it, creating speed and giving them some. Half a dozen gangs come and go, veering and carousing and bow surfing, using the ship to their advantage. It is fabulous, a treat, a beautiful harmony of animal and machine. This is not how the sea’s animals and its machines often get along.
In a laboratory about eight thousand nautical miles from Sumatra, I am peering again, now at creatures in a plastic specimen container. They are minute but not microscopic. My eyes can see them fine, and their little bodies and shrimpy legs that would be terrifying if magnified. They are such tiny things to be linked to such huge matters as devastation, pollution, and extinction, of man and beast.
The creatures are copepods. They look like nothing much. When I ask if they have brains, one of the laboratory researchers needs to look up the answer because she had never considered it before. (Yes, they do.) Another researcher says her friends call her the Bug Counter because they think she works with sea bugs and that’s funny. The brains aren’t of much interest because copepods are fascinating as food. Specifically, as the major food source for fifty-ton animals that for some reason have chosen to survive off minuscule, elusive bugs.
Copepods feed the North Atlantic right whale. The right whale’s beautiful Latin name is Eubalaena glacialis (the true whale of ice), but whalers gave it a more prosaic one, because this, they concluded, was the right whale to hunt. It was plentiful, slow, and it floated when it died. Also, it contained satisfying amounts of whale oil and baleen, the keratin fringes and fronds that span its huge mouth and filter seawater, and that were, confusingly, sold as “whalebone,” a substance so essential and ubiquitous it was the nineteenth century plastic. A Mr. J. A. Sevey of Essex Street, Boston, sold fifty three varieties of whalebone items, including divining rods, tongue scrapers, plait raisers, and policeman’s clubs.
The Basques were the first to hunt the true whale of ice, a thousand years ago. Then came North Americans, Portuguese, British, French, Danish, and German. Everyone wanted this whale. For two hundred years, through the high times of whaling, mothers, fathers, and calves were harpooned and slaughtered. Whale researchers don’t know how big the population was before that, but it was devastated enough for the right whale to be given protected status in 1935. Now there are about four hundred North Atlantic right whales left. This figure makes Eubaleana glacialis one of the most endangered large whales, and one of the most endangered species in the world, despite having no natural predators in the ocean. But it still has an unnatural one: the greatest threat to their survival is the ship itself. Because of its habit of feeding and breeding close to the eastern shores of the United States, the right whale now has a new name. It is the urban whale, because its habitat is usually within one hundred miles of the U.S. coastline and in busy shipping lanes.
The laboratory is in Provincetown, on Cape Cod. It is off-season now, and the town is quiet. It is so determined in its off-season quietness that its status as a famed hedonistic summer destination—popular with gay visitors because of its tolerance—is difficult to imagine. I like the stubborn seasonality of places like these, in the way that I miss the half-day closing of shops on Wednesdays. There is time to breathe.
Provincetown is mostly closed. Though it is early April, the weather is also off-season, with a biting wind on the pier where I wander, stretching car-crunched muscles and shaking off soda sugar, looking into the beach-hut kiosks that are quiet as sentinels. One belongs to the Provincetown Coastal Studies Institute. Its purpose is instructional as well as commercial. A display board educates about the particular, peculiar currents of Provincetown’s bay, about the way that the movement of currents brings waves of copepods, which make whales come every year as punctual as the seasons to feed their fi ll. Opposite the booth is a large white boat named Dolphin VI, a whale watcher. Provincetown is one of the places where whale watching began. Dolphin aren’t running now, but there are other ways to see whales even off-season. My whale-watching facilitator is Stormy Mayo. His legal first name is Charles. I forget to ask him where “Stormy” came from, and then I think, it doesn’t matter. People who are interested in whales learn to accept not knowing something because they soon learn that they will never know very much. The Mayo family is tenth generation in Provincetown, arriving sixteen years after the Pilgrims. Stormy has inherited land in the east end of town and a private beach. It was there, thirty years ago, that he set up a summer school with his wife. This led him to whales.
He knew of them before that. Anyone who grows up in Cape Cod knows that whales come there. Stormy used to go out with his father on boats and saw them. But whales were not his calling. He had a marine biology doctorate from the University of Miami in marine ichthyoplankton, “the planktonic state of big fish.” That meant his interest dwelled in the midlayers of oceans. His wife, Barbara, worked on the flora and fauna of the benthos, the bottom layer, where clams live. After university in Miami, the Mayos returned to Provincetown so that Stormy could build a schooner, a wooden square-rigged sailing boat. He is still building it. But having a family beach, two PhDs, and a clientele of seasonal summer people, Stormy and his wife decided to give outdoor lectures. The title was Marine Ecology and Oceanography; the venue was the beach or sometimes a boat; the dress code was bathing suits. It was successful. Tourists who wanted more than the beautiful light that has attracted artists to Provincetown for one hundred years could sign up for a few weeks of instruction in wave action, moon action, and the day-to-day activities of clams.
The course did not cover whales. The Mayos didn’t think of that. This was the 1970s. No one was yet saving the whales. Scientifically, says Stormy in his office next to the bug-counting lab, whales were “a blip on the radar. They were thought to be insignificant in the ecosystem.” He has a spare and dry delivery. When I ask what is in a plastic specimen jar on his desk, he says, “Well, I’m prepared to call it a blob.” Back in the 1950s and 1960s, he says, “Who gave a damn about whales? Just big blubbery cowlike things.”
Then Albert Avellar, a Provincetown skipper, noticed that the tourists he was taking out fishing were more fascinated by the big blubbery cowlike things than by the fi sh. Stormy and the captain didn’t get along, because Stormy was known to be an environmentalist, a protector of the ocean, while fishermen were the ones who consumed and plundered. They were supposed to be on different sides. But the captain thought a whale-watching cruise would be a good idea, and having a PhD on board talking about seabirds and whales was an even better idea. Stormy was dubious. How could they be sure to find whales? Avellar was certain. Right whales, he said, come to Race Point every April 15. And still Stormy doubted. “I didn’t know much about them but one thing I know is, this is a rare animal. But we went out to Race Point on April 15 and there they were.” Since then, the Avellar family has built one of the largest whale-watching operations in the country, and Stormy—his wife died in 1988—is now head of Right Whale Habitat Studies at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, counting bugs and trying to save whales.
The Coastal Studies boat is RV Shearwater. RV stands for “research vessel.” Often, research vessels are expensive and technologically advanced to be quieter, greener. Shearwater is more low-tech. The center is not richly funded and the boat was a donation from a wealthy inventor, so Stormy took what he was given, and it was a fishing trawler. Modifications were made for its changed purpose, such as plastic seats installed on the observation deck for marine mammal watching, but the engine still belches diesel and smells of fumes. It is not quiet.
Today the research team is all women. The principal investigator, Christy, will decide where to go according to what sightings we get. We will follow the whales. Up top there is Beth, a former biology teacher, whose task is to help Christy gather water samples to count copepods, and Eliza, a Harvard student interning for her third summer and who is today’s photographer. It is the task of everyone to watch for whales, constantly. The captain is Ted, standing in for the regular skipper. Normally he takes tourists out on dinner cruises from Chatham. He has a calm air that I associate with sea people, though that may be fanciful.
Stormy can’t come along because there is a conference call to be made. He sits on many boards, task groups, and committees, including the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team. He used to be one of the few official whale disentanglers, which explains the two lacrosse helmets on a shelf in his office. Whales get entangled in fishing ropes and lines and gear with heartbreaking regularity—75 percent of right whales have been or are entangled—and humans try to disentangle them. It is extremely difficult to remove ropes and cords from a thrashing fifty-thousand-pound animal at sea from a small boat. Things fly at you. There are poles being thrust. The helmets aren’t protection from the whale: one flick of a tail, says Stormy, “and my head and helmet are over here and my body is over there, so it really doesn’t matter.”
Today’s mission is bug collecting. The day is fine, the sky is blue, the weather report is not alarming, and we set off, hoping for the right whales. They arrived in January this year, far earlier than their usual appearance in April. No one knows why their schedule changed, just as no one can explain why they are not calving as much as they should, after ten good years. The southern right whale population, which lives in the southern hemi sphere, has been growing by 7–8 percent every year, but figures for North Atlantic right whales are gloomy. Researchers hoped to spot thirty to forty calves by the end of the calving season in March, but by February they had seen only five. Already, northern right whales have a Potential Biological Removal (PBR) of less than 1, the number that can safely be removed from their population each year by human causes. When their feeding grounds coincide with shipping lanes—traffic in and out of the Cape Canal toward Boston passes through here—a strike rate of one a year is hardly unlikely. On Shearwater, instructions: if anyone up top sees whales, they should stomp on the roof. The instruction is definitely to “stomp.” That is the quickest way of getting attention in the cabin and from Ted. The engines should then be immediately cut because propellers can be lethal, even if they belong to a well-intentioned boat. There is also an aerial team out today, who will help with spotting from a small aircraft. The whale aviators are seasonal, working only in feeding and breeding seasons. They are also women. A disproportionate number of right whale researchers are, says Beth. She thinks it’s because women will work for no money. You don’t go into right whale research for riches.
We head out of the harbor toward Race Point. The point got its name from two currents that meet here and seem to race each other. Copepods like the currents here and so do the whales. Their favorite food is a variety of copepod called Calanus finmarchicus, which whales follow to all their known feeding grounds: Cape Cod, lower Bay of Fundy, Great South Channel, and Jeffreys Ledge. A chapter in The Urban Whale, a compilation of right whale research that manages to have scientific rigor and to be gripping, is entitled “Enormous Carnivores, Microscopic Food, and a Restaurant That’s Hard to Find.” In it, Mark F. Baumgartner writes that right whales “are among the Earth’s largest animals, but they feed on creatures that are the size of fleas.” The ratio of a right whale to a copepod is 50 billion to one. It is like humans choosing to eat only bacteria. It makes little sense. Perhaps it’s the taste? Beth can answer that. She has eaten copepods blended to a paste, with crackers. They taste like the sea. If they are eaten alive, they zip around the mouth like Pop Rocks candy.
Northern right whales have a whole ocean to live in, but they still stay close to humans, feeding in Cape Cod and the Bay of Fundy, migrating south to Georgia to give birth, then back up north to feed again. The aerial team reports in. A group of whales has been spotted “sagging.” I hear Beth say this and think whale talk would sound rude to the hard of hearing. Whales can also take a “fluking dive,” with their tails—flukes—last to disappear. Sagging derives from “Surface-Active Group,” which sounds like a World War II battle formation but describes a group of right whales getting friendly or frisky. Right whales can dive below for twenty minutes at a time, but for friendly socializing or determined mating they stay in surface waters. Beth and Eliza point out the SAG in front of the boat. There: look. But there is only a mass of black shapes just under the green water, rolling, seething, and rolling. I can’t distinguish a whale, and neither can Eliza. She exhorts them to be more identifiable. Come on, she says to the SAG, show me a ped scar. She means a scar—probably from a propeller or boat strike—somewhere along the peduncle, a part of whale anatomy reaching from the tail fluke to the midback. But scars mean nothing to me. Right whales have no dorsal fins, so they are just black slabs. Even if I could see them, they would not impress. These are not poster whales. Stormy Mayo calls them ugly as sin. He thinks our fascination with them is a size issue. “If the right whale were the size of a cockroach, a slimy thing, slippery, looking like that, crawling around behind your cupboards, you’re going to tell me that you would take it out and cherish it? I’d say you’d step on it.”
Other whales have more charm, however slippery and slimy. When a northern bottlenose whale swam up the Thames in London in 2006, it drew crowds of thousands. A rescue operation cost $150,000, although the whale died while being transported on a raft back to the river mouth where its doomed navigation had begun. An Observer journalist wrote that he would never forget “the day a whale sailed through the middle of London; and the people of the city, rather than trying to hack it to death, came in their thousands and lifted it and tried their hardest to sail it back.”
The bottlenose was headline news, but in fact marine mammals strand with dismal regularity. Cetacean stranding databases list their causes of death and location. Most die of infections. But there is also starvation and physical trauma caused by propeller or a mass of ship. Between 1970 and 2007, sixty-seven right whale carcasses were reported. At least twenty-four had died from the consequences of being struck by a ship. No wonder the roof-stomping signal has been devised: our research vessel propeller could cut through whale skin like any other. We can approach up to five hundred yards away, a distance granted only with a federal permit and not permitted to commercial whale watchers. Researchers used to puncture right whales with identifying tags—Stormy calls this practice “sticking things into whales”—until they noticed that there were swellings around the tags, that the whale’s body responded as if to a wound. Right whales had enough stresses to deal with and the tags were stopped.
Identification in the hands-off era comes down to photographs and pattern recognition. Both natural and unnatural markings are useful: propeller scars, but also callosities, patches of rough skin that are white because they are infested with cyamids, licelike parasites. Eliza thinks she has recognized one of the frolickers from a scar. It’s Minus 1.
Minus 1. That’s his name. She doesn’t know how he got it. All right whales we know of are listed in a photo identification catalog, an effort that is comprehensive, exhaustive, and impressive in its scale and in the level of collaboration required to achieve it. Any glimpse of whale, in calving or feeding grounds or anywhere, is photographed and given a catalog number. As whales become known, they are given mnemonics, names to aid with identification. That sounds sober and rational, but the names can be enchantingly odd. There are the mother and calf, Kleenex and Snot. There is Van Halen, named after a callosity shaped like a guitar. There is Yawn and Etch-a-Sketch and Rat, named for a scar on her side that really does look like a rat chasing a ball. Some whales are named for their deeds, such as Shackleton, a young male who swam up the Delaware River into the port of Philadelphia in 1994. Like Ernest Shackleton, he got stuck, though in his case under a pier, and like his namesake he escaped and survived. Later, Shackleton was understood to be the calf of Eg #1140, also known as Wart. The names are a pleasing dash of color amid scientific rigor, somewhat like scientists who have wild tattoos of DNA chains and molecules under lab coats. But whales would be better off if there were too many for names.
Whale fieldwork is a slippery business. Researchers must understand their subjects only by glimpses, bodies on beaches, orby what RV Shearwater is doing today, which is taking samples of water, squirting them with formaldehyde, then analyzing how rich the water is in copepods and what that means for the reproduction, health, and survival of the right whale.
The SAG splits up. Who likes to be watched while they are mating? I assume that Shearwater’s presence is audible for miles ahead, with its relatively noisy engine, but then I see right whales feeding. Their activity is called skimming, because they feed just below the surface. A right whale eats like a bulldozer: opens that great mouth and takes in tons of water. The baleen fringes strain out the copepods from the water. We see two right whales skimming, but they do not see us. Or they don’t care. I don’t know how they give off an air of ferocious intent, but they do: it is something in the directness of their line, in the tenacity of their purpose. Head down, mouth open, go. One theory about why whales keep getting hit by ships—which they should hear coming, when the engines are the size of houses—is that they are too intent on eating, so nothing will disturb them. Stormy has another idea. He thinks they are tethered and handicapped by themselves. “They’re feeding, they’ve allowed the boat to get close because they’re oblivious, they’re moving slowly, and then at the last moment when they could apply huge power to diving out, their mouths are full of tons of water and they’re anchored just like a sea anchor on a ship.” A sea anchor that reduces their speed to about 2 knots, too slow to escape a ship. He is not certain, though. This is not scientific fact. He calls his theories “all my imaginations.”
Imagination is important in right whale research, because it fills in some of the unknowing. Some of the things that have yet to be conclusively proved include why right whales have periodically disastrous low reproductive rates but sometimes recover; or how whales arrive at feeding grounds that other whales have found. Chemicals? Calls? Smell? We don’t know how whales know to go to places that their ancestors have gone to, like a young whale named Porter who was discovered far from the usual feeding grounds off North America, in a fjord in Norway. We don’t know where they go in winter. We do know that right whales travel distances that make any human achievement on land seem laughable. When a young male named Churchill became entangled in fishing gear in 2001, a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of attempts to disentangle him failed. He was tracked using a tag linked to satellite. He was called Churchill because he was an obstinate animal. He stubbornly survived, although the fishing gear had wrapped around his mouth and he couldn’t feed. The scarcity of right whale food means they can fast for long periods, but not this long. Churchill swam for two months, and apparently unerringly, while starving to death, up to Georges Bank off Canada, into the Gulf Stream, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Then back, though not using the Gulf Stream because the current was against him. To Emerald Bank, southwest of Sable Island, 186 miles off Halifax, Nova Scotia, which is known for its wild horses and shipwrecks. Then down to the Roseway Basin, known for rich plankton, back to Georges Bank. There, the dying animal visited the heads of deep ocean canyons that are cut into the North American coastal platform before returning to Georges Bank and, in Stormy’s words, “hanging out.” In two months, this crippled, insulted whale had swum 5,000 miles on no food. Sightings showed that he was getting thinner and thinner. The roll of fat behind the blowhole that indicates a healthy whale was long gone. And then so was he, somewhere off New Jersey. There was no body: dying whales who don’t strand sink and drown.
The Shearwater team think the whales we have sighted are skinny. Also, they are not as numerous as expected, despite Beth’s superior ocean-gazing skills. She sees gray seals—Over there! A head like a dog!—porpoises and fi n whales where I see only waves and water. You get used to it, she says. Your eyes get better. You learn to see what she calls “funny water,” which might mean a whale is in it, and which she calls “a highly technical term.” The copepods they gather are also meager, another worry. Maybe the whales aren’t getting enough food. It is another stress on them. But one of the greatest pressures on them is not something Beth can spot even with her sea vision, because it is to do with waves, but not the kind you might expect.
Oceans are not quiet. Millions of cruise passengers go to sea for the peace, but underwater and in water there has always been noise. Waves, rain, disintegrating icebergs, other animals. The sea is a place of sound, because when light can penetrate only a hundred fathoms below the surface, sound is the best way to communicate. A great whale swimming in the deep can’t see its own flukes, but it doesn’t need to. Because water is denser than air, sound travels faster, farther, and more resonantly in it. Consequently, marine animals are vocal beings. They can transmit singing, clicking, calling. With sound, they can gossip, search for mates, avoid fishing gear, communicate. They send out clicks and understand from the echo what is around them and where they are going, just as bats do. The humpback sings in complicated sequences the length of a concerto; the blue whale makes great moans; the fi n whale sends out pulses that divers used to think were the creaking of the ocean floor. Minus 1 and his companions in that SAG group were probably producing sounds that have been described as “scream calls, warbles, gunshots, noisy blows, and up-calls,” and the watching humans in the air can hear none of them.
Sounds underwater can travel astonishing distances: a right whale can hear another from ten miles away. The ocean has natural sound channels, like noise byways: if a sound falls into a channel, it can travel hundreds of miles and perhaps thousands. It can travel an ocean. When a foghornlike signal was transmitted from Australia in 1991, it was heard off Oregon three hours later. Sound is not the preserve of mammals. Dutch biologist Hans Slabbekoorn estimates that eight hundred species of fish use hearing. Every species of fish he has investigated has been able to interpret noise, either through an inner ear or by understanding vibrations on their body. I don’t know what is more astonishing: that fish can hear or that I never considered such a possibility.
Sound means life for aquatic animals. And now, because of us, it can mean death. Humans are thoroughly embedded in din, from traffic, people, construction. It is known that excess or overloud noise can have physiological effects on humans, disrupting concentration, sleep, and reproductive patterns. It can bring insanity into a living room or prison cell. There is no reason why noise would not do the same for mammals who live in water where sound is more powerful still.
How do we pollute the ocean? With plastic and chemicals and sewage, but also with noise. We lay cables across its bed and drive piles into its floor. We fi re air guns that have the force of dynamite to carry out seismic surveys. Our fishermen send out constant pings—echolocation—to find fish. Our militaries deploy sonar that induces the bends in dolphins, porpoises, and whales, so that they arrive in mass strandings on beaches with blood on their brains and coming from their ears; with air bubbles in their lungs; with all the signs that unfortunate divers display when they rise too soon through water. All this is acoustic smog. It is pernicious, widespread, damaging, and preventable.
Modern ships the size of Kendal run on machinery that produces noise and vibration above the water but also beneath it. The movement of propellers in water produces something known as cavitation: a constant creation of tiny bubbles that constantly pop. Aquatic bubble wrap. The cavitation of a freighter leaving Cape Cod Canal can be heard all over the bay. A supertanker can be heard in the sea a day before its arrival.
Noise research is a recent field for oceanographers. Until recently, the tools required to study noise—underwater listening devices known as hydrophones—were too expensive to be widespread. Only classified military circles could afford them. The first significant civilian research was done in the 1950s, but the data were analyzed only forty years later. No one had thought to do a comparative study of long-term noise levels before. Researchers had been looking at daily, weekly, or monthly noise rates. When they compared levels over a longer timescale, the results were shocking. Ambient noise in the deep ocean was increasing by 3 decibels every decade. Every ten years, noise from commercial shipping had doubled.
The quality of the noise is a greater problem. A ship produces sounds that fall below 100 hz. This is the same frequency used by right whales and other ocean animals to communicate. I ask Russell Leaper, a researcher at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) to translate what the noise of a shipping lane might sound like to a whale. He calls it broadband noise. I want more of a translation. He says, “white noise,” background traffic, something like the constant noise of the freeway that I can hear from my office. It depends on the frequency and proximity of the shipping. Up close, the noise of a ship to a whale would be like standing next to a jet engine, or almost in it. In the vast spaces of deep sea, it will be quieter. But in the habitat of the urban whale, in the coastal areas of the Eastern Seaboard, there are many ships and less space.
There are other acoustic polluters. If the ocean floor is rocky, the loud pulses fi red by seismic air guns—to generate waves that can be used to image the ocean floor—can travel immense distances. Researchers studying fi n and blue whales in a 100,000-square-mile area of the Atlantic Ocean found that their entire research area was polluted by a single seismic survey. Sonar, pinging, and air guns are intense but discrete and short-lived. Shipping noise is always there. Christopher Clark, a Cornell University professor and acoustic specialist, calls commercial shipping “by far the most ubiquitous anthropogenic contributor to ocean noise.”
Sometimes, whales can adapt to it, in the way we raise voices in a nightclub or beside a noisy road. Some whales have shifted into higher frequencies when disturbed by noise. Sometimes they find ways around it or away from it: plenty of animals and fish have exhibited avoidance behaviors, fleeing the sound by swimming or diving. Beluga whales have taken evasive action against icebreakers thirty miles away. Gray whales alter their migration routes by up to a mile.
None of this should surprise. Who wouldn’t flee unwanted, terrific sound? But dramatic behavior change is only part of the damage. Of increasing interest and worry to scientists is what the cumulative impact of de cades of constant low- level noise can do.
Roz Rolland is a right whale researcher at the New En gland Aquarium. A veterinarian by training, she arrived at whales twenty years ago and has not left. Like many right whale researchers, Rolland spends time every year out on boats, and she has been doing this for years. She coedited The Urban Whale, which is where I discovered her work with scat and dogs.
Rolland was looking at hormone levels in right whales and it was proving difficult. It is tricky enough to trap wild land-based mammals using helicopter chases, rocket netting, or aesthetic darts. Whales are even worse. Their blubber is too thick for blood samples to be taken easily. Helicopter chases are neutralized by a simple fluking dive. Also, Rolland writes, “There is no safe method for capturing a free-swimming large whale. For biologists accustomed to working on other animals, the sheer impossibility of capturing large whales, and the near-complete lack of information on their basic physiology, is astounding.”
Creative thinking was required. Animals excrete whether on land or in water, and like the excreta of land mammals, whale poop, or scat, is filled with bacteria, hormones, and debris that can yield data about stress levels, food intake, and toxic burden. Even better, right whale scat is pungent enough to be detected by human olfactory systems. It also floats, but only briefly. Initially, scats were harvested opportunistically, if someone smelled one or if a whale defecated while being photographed. This made for a scanty research harvest, until Rolland thought of dogs.
Sniffer dogs sniff. If they can sniff on land, why not on water? She contacted Barbara Davenport in Washington State, who runs a sniffer dog training company. Davenport gets her dogs from city pounds or humane societies, because the worst pets often make the best sniffer dogs: they are rambunctious and lively and have a strong desire to play. These are good qualities for a reward-based training system. The first dog Davenport brought to meet Rolland was a three-year-old rottweiler named Fargo. He was trained, on land at first, to detect the scent of a right whale. Then they went to sea along with a small platform that became known as the fecal flotation device. It was a piece of wood with a hole cut in it: a plastic jar with whale poop was inserted into the hole; the platform, the dog, and the scientist went to sea; and the dog had to find the platform. Everybody was learning. The dog had to learn not to jump out of the boat when it tracked the scent. Rolland had to learn to read the dog’s signals when it zeroed in on the scent: pricked ears, a moving tail, a different facial expression, quicker breathing.
Scat collection rates rose significantly, allowing Rolland to track stress hormones in the right whale population. They also enabled her to make one of the biggest breakthroughs in ocean noise research in de cades. It was one of those delicious happenstance moments in science. An inadvertent illumination, a lucky fleeting thought. Rolland hadn’t anticipated that whales might be damaged by noise, concentrating instead on causes of stress such as red tides, toxins, and disease. Then in 2009, she attended a workshop organized by the U.S. Office for Naval Research on the effect of underwater noise on ocean creatures. Rolland says that science is all about the question you are asking and she began to ask a new question. She had ten years of stress data and she started to look back through it. Susan Parkes, an acoustic data specialist, mentioned how much quieter the ocean had been after 9/11. And Rolland remembered that of all her boat trips over all those years, some had been special.
On September 11, 2001, she was about to set out on a boat into the Bay of Fundy, as she did most years. The weather in those parts is unpredictable, but that week it was good: high pressure, very low winds. She would be foolish not to go out. But still, in the morning, it was foggy, so the six o’clock departure time was postponed, and then some more, and then someone on the dock said a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York City. They rushed back to watch television and cried as the second plane hit. “Then we sat around looking at each other and said, we can’t just dissolve into a heap. We have to get on with our lives.” So they got on their boats and went out to sea. It was weird. There were no whale-watching boats or fishing vessels. There were no planes flying overhead. There were no container ships passing to and from the Cape Cod Canal or in and out of Boston. There was just water and silence. “It was very much like we were the only ones out there with the whales. It was a remarkable experience.”
For the whales, it was even more remarkable—they were swimming in a preindustrial ocean. Rolland was on an ocean quieter than it had been for over a century. It stayed that way for most of the week. After the noise workshop, when she checked data for the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth of September, she was shocked. Usually, researching what noise does to right whales is extremely difficult. “You’re not able to take the noise away and then put it back and see if there is a response by the animal.” Even if you analyze hormones, the results can be inconclusive: stress markers such as glucocorticoids could be produced for other reasons. But the message of the quiet ocean data was unmistakable. During the week that ships were stilled, underwater noise was lower by 6 decibels, and the levels of whales’ glucocorticoids (stress-related fecal hormone metabolites) were lower, too.
This story is not what it seems. It is not a question of bad shipping and good environmentalists or innocent creatures and metal villains. Amy Knowlton, a colleague of Rolland at the New England Aquarium, has been studying the right whale since 1983. On her first day, she saw a young male with its tail fluke severed. She was mystified. If right whales can hear each other, why can’t they hear massive ships coming? Why don’t they get out of the way? In the 1990s, Knowlton read an article about how sailboats can get sucked into the wake of big ships. She wondered if that could also be happening underwater to whales, and she began looking into hydrodynamics with the ocean engineering team at MIT. The team discovered that a ship’s speed could be a factor in a whale’s survival, and that a whale emerging from depth could get sucked into the force around a propeller. Other theories were advanced elsewhere: that there is an area in front of a ship that is somehow soundless (it’s called a “bow-null” effect). Remedies were considered. If whales don’t get out of the way in time, then maybe more time can be given to them by slowing or moving ships? Knowlton began to study marine policy: how the shipping industry operates, how policies are enacted, and what policies might help right whales.
By the mid-1990s there was more urgency. Every carcass found seemed to be the result of a ship strike. A ship strike committee was formed. Port authorities, industry people, and whale people sat together. Ideas were put forward. Can ships be slowed? Can whales be satellite tagged and ships warned in time so they avoid them? Maybe acoustic buoys in shipping channels were the answer, although experiments in using signals to deter whales from shipping channels had not been successful, as the whales headed straight for the signals. The best options were rerouting, changing shipping lanes, and imposing speed restrictions. All these may sound simple, but they are not: they require the cooperation of a huge global industry of competing actors and changing international law. Even so, it was done. For a start, there was goodwill from the shipping industry. No one wants to accidentally kill a whale. Knowlton once met a seafarer who had been on his bridge while passing through the Indian Ocean, when he spotted a whale. “It was swimming along and coming toward the ship. He thought, I assume it will get out of my way. But it didn’t, and he ran over it and killed it. This totally upset him.” The seafarer said that he understood now to actively avoid whales, because they don’t hear him coming. He hadn’t realized there were actions he could take.
Proposals to govern the actions ships take in coastal waters were submitted to the Fisheries Service of NOAA, where a “tremendous advocate” named Lindy Johnson worked. Without Johnson, says Knowlton, it would have taken longer and probably never happened at all. But Johnson went to the IMO and somehow pushed the new rules through. Speed restrictions were put in place on a seasonal basis, once it was understood that a ship traveling at 17 knots would have a 90 percent chance of killing a whale, but 10 knots gave it a fifty–fifty survival rate. And, incredibly and impressively, shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy were moved. It was a matter of only miles, but the implications were wider than that: the Canadian Hydrographic Service had to change seven nautical charts at the cost of $30,000 per chart. It is too early for any serious assessment of the results, but Knowlton is sure of the difference, at least anecdotally. “When we’re out in the Bay of Fundy now, we see ships on the horizon. Before, we’d see them bearing down on us, where we were and where the whales were. The difference, to our minds, is dramatic.” She doesn’t think ship strikes can be eliminated, but she is sure they are being reduced.
As for the noise, pro-whale people have a strong argument: a noisy propeller is an inefficient propeller. Inefficient propellers waste fuel and now that fuel costs a fortune, increasing its efficiency has a receptive audience in shipping circles. But that is only for new ships. There is no chance of retrofitting the existing fleet of big, small, and medium-sized vessels that chug across oceans, trailing noise behind them. There is still no international regulation of noise in the ocean, and IMO talks only of installing voluntary guidelines. Anyone can sign a voluntary guideline and voluntarily not follow it.
Without global regulations, acoustic pollution will grow because shipping is growing (by 2 to 6 percent annually). Already, the acoustic habitat of the right whale—the range it needs to hear around—has been reduced by 90 percent. Humpback whales now have 10 percent of the acoustic range they used to have, so that their chances of finding a mate, food, and probably surviving have all been decimated.
Stormy Mayo is not particularly optimistic. He believes that the best thing for whales would be to leave them alone. He gave a talk once and remembers that he was “feeling poetic” and said this: “These creatures live in an ocean that once was theirs and now it’s walled by nets and crossed by ships. They once lived in a silent ocean except for the sounds of animals. They now live in an ocean whose noise impairs their very livelihood, that is perilous. They live in an ocean that arguably is changing in such profound ways that thousands of generations of them have never seen anything like it.” He thinks the future of ocean creatures and right whales is “pretty tenuous,” as much as Herman Melville did when he wondered whether “Leviathan can endure so wide a chase and so remorseless a havoc.” The chase now is inadvertent, but the remorselessness remains, of noise pollution and other kinds, of a sonified, plasticated, damaged ocean.