In other cases, a beluga confronted with a noisy ship would make a sharp V-shaped dive, descending and ascending quickly rather than staying submerged as it typically would when foraging. Other times, the whales would dive just below the surface and hightail it away from the noise. If a beluga was already swimming away from a ship, it wouldn’t change its heading, but the study shows that the whale would swim faster than average when a ship was within its hearing range.
Valeria Vergara, a marine mammal scientist at the Raincoast Conservation Foundation who wasn’t involved in the research, says the study’s findings reaffirm just how sensitive belugas are to noise.
Sound is the main way many marine animals communicate and understand their environments. When a noisy boat goes by, Vergara says, the sound completely shuts down or masks belugas’ vocalizations and can lead to chronic stress. Not only that, but swimming an extra 50 kilometers off course to avoid the noise uses up energy that is especially precious in the freezing Arctic.
“When we’re talking about [noise pollution in] really important habitats like feeding grounds or covering grounds or nursery areas, then you have a problem,” she says.
“Underwater noise,” says Martin, “is one of the most pervasive forms of pollution.” But unlike an oil spill, which can linger for years or more, noise pollution, she says, is “a form of pollution that’s completely, absolutely eradicable if you just remove the source of it.”
To help beluga whales, she says, ships need to be made quieter. More than that, she adds, policymakers need to consider setting up marine protected areas and quiet sanctuaries in key beluga habitat.
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