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This podcast is brought to you in part by Geico, proud sponsor of National Geographic Geico Fifteen minutes could save you fifteen percent or more on car insurance. It was a very, very foggy evening, I could see nothing, I would extend my hand in front of me and I couldn't see my fingers.
Marine biologist Valeria Vergara was studying beluga whales in the Arctic.
My tent was right by the water and the bay was filled with over 500 belugas and there wasn't a single moment of silence. These whales were constantly communicating with one another.
Beluga whales chirp and whistle and creak. They use these sounds to talk with each other.
And I just at that moment, I had this just intuitive understanding of what it must be like for an animal that just like I was at that moment, not seeing because of the fog, an animal that navigates in dark situations very often and that relies on this constant sounds to stay in touch with with its companions. The sense of sound is just absolutely key to a whale. It is everything, really.
It's everything. And yet whales are struggling to hear each other and not just belugas, but all types of whales all over the world, because as economies around the world have become more interconnected, more ships are crossing the oceans and that means more underwater noise or, as Valaria calls it, acoustic fog.
We're a visual species, so we need to think about these things in visual terms. And it would be as if a group of us suddenly got lost in this thick, thick fog and lost the ability to see one another.
That would make it hard to drive, hard to walk, hard to do anything really like thick fog. Noise has had a serious impact on marine life and there were no signs of it letting up until covid-19 the pandemic forced humans around the world to press pause, which means whales could finally enjoy some peace and quiet.
I'm Amy Briggs, and you're listening to overheard National Geographic, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at Najia and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world this week, what happens to whales when the shipping noise almost stops? We finally have a chance to find out more after this. Geico and National Geographic are working together to make your life a lot easier. Get a quote with Geico mentioned your Nat Geo affiliation and you could get a special discount on Geico is already low rates, does it?
Geico Dotcom Nat Geo to see how much you could save. That's Geico, Dotcom, BINAGGIO Great rates, great service and a whole lot more. Geico dotcom slash Nat Geo. A sound is to wails like vision is to us, Valaria Vergara has been studying beluga whales for nearly two decades. She's a research scientist with the Ocean Wise Conservation Association in Vancouver, Canada. Belugas are a smaller species of whale. They sort of resemble dolphins. They're born gray, but get whiter as they age.
But it's what they sound like that Valaria studies whales, basically, including belugas. But all whales, you sound for nearly every aspect of their lives that you sound to, to communicate, to maintain contact with one another. Sound is the glue of their societies to navigate, to detect prey and avoid predators.
And for belugas, sound is absolutely essential because they live in the Arctic where it's dark for half the year. Maybe that's why they hear a whole lot better than we do.
We humans here up to 20 kilohertz. In the best case scenario, beluga whales can hear sounds all the way up to one hundred and fifty kilohertz in frequency frequency. You have to think about frequency in terms of pitch. So imagine Keest on a piano.
So Belugas have a lot more keys on their pianos than we do.
There's also the the fact that water transmits sound much more efficiently than air five times faster, in fact, and over much greater distances.
And it's a good thing, too, because it's much harder to see in water. So it makes sense why whales would rely on sound and the belugas that Valaria studies.
There are particularly chatty bunch of early mariners call them canaries of the sea because they could hear their whistles and chirps very easily through the wooden hulls of ships.
Valaria has identified 28 different types of beluga sounds, but the one she studies the most is what's essentially the belugas. Hello. Also known as a contact call. They are used for for group cohesion and to maintain contact between Motherson calfs, those Quantico's sound very different than the rest of the beluga repertoire. They sound like a creaky rusty door instead of their regular chirps and whistles.
Valaria sent me a recording from the Arctic. You can hear the Belugas contact calls pretty clearly.
Contact called Scene Recording and Little Cafe lost sight of it, but I'm sure it's near and we have about 10 animals within 50 meters of the boat. Valaria says whales aren't the only species to use contact calls. Imagine, I don't know, 30 humans in a dark room and we need to identify each other. The way to do that would be to enunciate your own name. It's sort of like wearing an acoustic tag. So you would you would call around.
I'm Amy. I'm Amy here. And I would say I'm Valaria Valaria here. And so people would know where I am and who I am without seeing me.
And in this sort of situation, both humans and whales can zero in on contact calls.
Contact calls in all species, including humans, have evolved to pierce through the chatter of the species, the background chatter of the species very effectively, so that even if you're far away from your kid and even if there is many other vocalizations being produced by your same species, you can pick out the contact of your kid.
As a parent, I know how important that ability is. And for belugas it can boil down to life or death.
If a cat calls, a mum can hear that cough up to about 500 metres distance, but in very noisy scenarios with a lot of pleasure boats, for example, that distance is reduced to about 100 metres.
Then there is the possibility that if mother and calf inadvertently separate because of some cause of disturbance that makes them separate, the mum won't be able to hear the calf and orient towards the calf. And the little calf might be too young to understand how to orient and and find its mum. And since baby calves are entirely dependent on their mothers, getting separated can mean that they don't survive. Marine ecologist Michelle Forni studies the impacts of noise on whales at Cornell Center for Conservation Bioacoustics.
So it is a common response to noise that whales will call louder. They can also call more often to try and increase their probability of detecting one another. They often will increase their pitch, so they'll call higher frequency to try and call above low frequency noise.
Or sometimes we will see the opposite, that whales will stop calling altogether and they'll wait until the noise has passed before they begin to call again. Michelle says Wales cope with loud noise, just like us humans do this all the time. If you go to a rock concert and you are trying to have a conversation, you will shout. And so we see that Wales will do the same thing.
But here's where it gets harder for Wales. Imagine never getting to leave that rock concert.
One of the big things that can happen if the noise is loud enough and chronic enough is that we actually can can death in animals. We can physically harm them, just like you have buzzing in your ears after you go to a loud concert that's that's called temporary threshold shift means for a few hours or days you don't hear as well. But there's also permanent threshold shifts where the animals simply can't hear as well and it sticks.
So what's making all this noise? First off, everything in the ocean causes noise.
Natsuo writer and friend of the show, Craig Welch, has been writing about the ocean for more than two decades now.
Wind causes noise, waves cause noise and then when you add the human element, you have cargo ships and commercial fishing vessels and, you know, recreation boats out on the coastal waters.
And then there are the container ships. First of all, they're massive.
They're like a several football fields in length. They will have like a big navigational centre on the front end. And then it's basically an empty back port that is usually filled up with these box containers. And these containers are essentially what you would see on a train, big colorful metal containers at one point or another.
A lot of the things we own across the ocean.
And one of these, the computer that you're typing on, you know, the clothes that you're wearing, you know, your car, I mean, everything that we as consumers buy, either all of it or parts of it came probably by ship from somewhere because that's what it means to have a global economy. Factories are set up in countries where labor is cheapest and sold wherever there's a market demand. It's a trend that's been on the uptick for a long time now.
You know, the container ships alone, there are at least a two to three fold increase in shipping traffic around the world just in the last two decades.
I mean, if you imagine, just think about how much globalisation has changed starting back in the 90s with NAFTA and then sort of moving up through the years as we've opened up economies across the world in the U.S. and China started doing more more trade. That means more shipping and all that's going by sea.
And now because of climate change, more and more sea ice at the top of the world is melting. And some of these ships are starting to pass through the Arctic Circle. Because it's it's a shortcut if you're a business trying to get your goods from one place to the other, you're trying to figure out how to do it and the fastest, most economical way possible and going across the top of the world is shorter than going all the way around the other side.
And marine ecologist Michele Flournoy says ocean trade is not going to stop anytime soon. We're not going to take all of the boats out of the ocean. Those are not realistic things that we can say on any given day that somebody will give you permission to do, barring something like, you know, like a pandemic, a pandemic, you know, like the one we're all dealing with right now. I'm not going to praise a pandemic. I'm not.
But I'm not going to waste this opportunity either, because it is an incredible opportunity for scientists who study ocean noise, a silver lining on an extraordinarily dark cloud.
Oh, it's going to be the most important work we've ever done. It will be the first time that we've been able to technically record a baseline for these animals in our history. Studying them because of the pandemic, ships around the world were docked, which means shipping noise declined and in some places it nearly ceased. Now, what we're going to have is an actual documentation of what a quiet ocean sounds like and what whales do when the ocean is quiet.
We've never had that before. No organization is funding her work, funding takes a long time to secure, and Michelle knows the moment of quiet won't last.
And so I went out and put 200 yards of line on my credit card.
And she also called on friends and colleagues relationships.
Relationships are what is funding this work. A network of people that care about this ocean is is who are funding this work. And right now we're doing it on as large a scale as we can from just like everybody else, like from our dining rooms, from our kitchen. Yeah. No one is funding this work. And this is where the silver lining stops and the dark cloud of the pandemic returns in good times, it can be challenging to secure funding for scientific research.
The global economic crisis is bound to make that situation even worse. I don't know if anyone will fund this work and they might not, and that would be really troubling because it might mean that we collect this data and that we simply can't analyze it, because at that point we're all looking for jobs.
But at least they'll have the data. And at some point down the line, when they do analyze it, they might uncover mysteries that until now have been shrouded by noise. Do you have any predictions for what you think we might find out? I do. I think that what we're going to find is that the complexity of the conversation increases, that the conversations are going to get more complicated.
After all, that's what would happen with people.
If you are at a really crowded coffee shop and it's really, really noisy and you're trying to have a conversation with a friend, you might use short sentences and be really to the point and really straightforward because it's noisy. And if you want to get the point across or if you're trying to talk to a barista, you're going to be really, really clear and really concise.
But let's say that you're sitting at home on the couch and it's perfectly quiet. The quality of the conversation can get much more nuanced.
We don't know if this happens for Wales and the only way we'll find out is if we listen. Michelle says it's a humbling task.
We have this human tendency and I hear it all the time when I take people out to see Wales that we want the whale to jump out of the water.
We say, oh, I wanted to breach. Oh, did that just for me. Oh, it's waving to me. Oh, it's putting on a show for me. And we love that. It makes us feel special. It makes us feel like nature is coming and introducing itself.
But the truth is that these animals don't exist for us. They exist despite us. And these animals definitely are not here to put on a show for us.
They are existing in their own context and in their own right. And at least for a little while, they're able to do it without us getting in the way. If you like stories about whales, check out the very first episode of overheard Humpback Whale Song of the Summer. And in the show notes, you'll find a story about why ocean animals eat so much plastic. The reason is surprisingly complex. There's also a breathtaking video of hundreds of beluga whales gathering in the Arctic.
At first, subscribers read about how the thawing of the Arctic permafrost affects us all.
You can find these stories and more in the show notes right there in your podcast overheard at National Geographic is produced by Lawson, Ryan Gutierrez and Jacob Pinter. Our editor is A.B. Caputo. Our fact checker is Michelle Harris. Constancia composed our theme music and engineers are episodes. This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. Whitney Johnson is the director of Visuals and Immersive Experiences. Susan Goldberg is National Geographic's editorial director. And I'm your host, Amy Briggs.
See you next time.
Geico and National Geographic are working together to make your life a lot easier. Get a quote with Geico mentioned your Nat Geo affiliation and you could get a special discount on Geico is already low rates, does it? Geico dotcom slash Nat Geo to see how much you could save. That's Geico Dotcom. Binaggio Great rates, great service and a whole lot more. Geico dotcom slash Nat Geo.