High levels of background noise, mainly due to ships, have critically reduced the ability of endangered North Atlantic right whales to communicate with each other.

North Atlantic right whale (photo: NOAA)

Large whales, such as right whales, rely on their ability to hear far more than their ability to see. Chronic noise is likely reducing their opportunities to gather and share vital information that helps them find food and mates, navigate, avoid predators and take care of their young.

Leila Hatch, a marine ecologist  for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, likened the whales’ situation to “A visually impaired person, who relies on hearing to move safely within their community, which is located near a noisy airport.”

North Atlantic right whales, which live along North America’s east coast from Nova Scotia to Florida, are one of the world’s rarest large animals and are on the brink of extinction. Recent estimates put their population at approximately 350 to 550 animals.

Noise from an individual ship can make it nearly impossible for a right whale to be heard by other whales.

Bioacoustic researchers studying the whales, liken the environment they inhabit off the coast of Boston as like living in a world full of acoustic smog.

Scientists worldwide are starting to quantify the implication of chronic, human-created ocean noise for marine animals. Watch for more on this here.

Source: materials provided by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.