Ocean din is deafening to whales

And I thought New York was noisy. In my neighborhood, we’ve been subjected to high-decibel blasting and drilling for the past couple of years, while the city puts in a new subway line. But all that pales next to the noise pollution whales and dolphins are forced to endure. Definitely not nice is the manmade underwater din that’s playing havoc with their echolocation–navigation by sound–as well as their feeding and mating habits. Underwater noise has even led to mass beachings in recent years.

More than a quarter-million sea mammals are said to suffer hearing loss, and that number is  expected to rise by one million more every year once the U.S. Navy steps up its testing of underwater listening devices. And the Navy is only part of the problem.  Other sources of underwater noise pollution include ship engines, sonar, weapons testing, and oil and gas exploration. For sea creatures, daily life must be the aquatic equivalent of residing 24/7 in the New York City subway.

The good news, according to marine biologists at the University of Hawaii, is that whales seem to have evolved some sort of internal volume control. How it works isn’t yet clear, but it looks as if cetaceans may have the biological equivalent of noise-canceling headphones. The discovery has led some scientists to blue-sky a day when whales and dolphins could be sent signals alerting them to loud booms ahead.  Sort of like the warning blasts we hear before the TNT explosions on the NYC subway construction site.

We’ve already messed with the whales’ habitat.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could at least save their hearing?

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