Eavesdropping On Whales In A Quiet Ocean
you're listening to shortwave. From NPR. Maddie Safai here with NPR climate correspondent Lauren Summer Hey Lauren Hey Mattie. Sue Today, you. Me a story about the coronavirus pandemic that is not incredibly depressing. Yes, I will not let you down and here. I'll give you a hint about what it's about. It's a wail. My expert years Lauren I will guess it's a big will. Oh, expert, yeah. That was a humpback whale in glacier. Bay National Park Alaska. This is the time of year where they've arrived. They've migrated all the way from Hawaii to eat. Basically, those cold waters in Alaska have a lot of food. Okay? Ready I'M GONNA. Give you another one. ooh! I'm getting more of a willy vibe from that one. Yeah, it's Asian bonus points. Are, killer, whales. They were recorded in April, by hydrophone that the National Park Service has installed down at the bottom of those your bay hydrophone being an underwater microphone. Yeah, you got it, but what's really important? Here is what you're not hearing in those recordings, which is this? Oh Your Boat Noise Aka human noise. There's less humans out here. Making human touristy noises right exactly. I mean the cruise ships and the boat tours that people take to go see the glaciers. They're not happening, so the whales are getting a break from that noise underwater. And sound is really key for whales. It's how they experienced world. So today in the show how the global down is creating quieter oceans, and how scientists are using this moment to listen to how whales are responding, which maybe could help protect them from underwater noise pollution in future. This shortwave, the daily science podcast from NPR. So the whales in Glacier Bay are hanging out for the summer in this newfound quiet. How much quieter are we talking about Lauren? That's scientists are measuring right now. like Christine Gabriel. She's a wildlife biologist at Glacier Bay national! Park in Alaska, and while a lot of scientists have had to cancel their field work due to the pandemic this year. She hasn't. She gets in a boat alone and heads out on the water to find wheels. She recorded some of this on her smartphone for me. Yeah, there are about five Wales working this one little area breathing when they're up. One of the groups is a mother and calf are seventh for the year. We'll fourteen twenty eight in her cute little calf, so that's really good news. So. You've got this little humpback family show endowed and this year. They're out there on their own. Because humans are largely out of the picture, yeah, and normally this time of year there are a lot of cruise ships and boat tours. which is you know how visitors see the glaciers of glacier national park an underwater? It sounds like this. I hate that. Yeah, and sound is incredibly important. Underwater I mean if you think about it, vision is not super useful, because you really can't see very far underwater, but travels for miles, sometimes hundreds of miles so for whales. That's what they rely on. We know that whales use a sound in almost every aspect of their daily life. They need sound to be able to detect. They're predators as well as their prey, and they also use sound to carry out there very long complex socialize. So what you hear in Glacier Bay. Is humpbacks making these feeding calls? And they make these contact calls which is basically just keeping in touch with each other. Oh, and you also hear this in Glacier Bay. Learn what is that? That sounded like a giant burp. It's actually a male harbor seal. They may kind of as growling sounds. And then there's a couple of weeks Max in there. That's actually humpback slapping. It's fin on top of the water, which is also maybe a form of communication. How so there's a lot going down out there? Yeah, and then when you mix humans in this is what it sounds like. Or humpbacks like fazed by that at all. Yeah, basically Christine says they do what you and I would do at allowed party. Maybe if you can remember what allowed parties lake. Do you mean leave early without telling anybody what you mean? No but we can talk about that if you want. No, you mean. They get louder, so you're selling exactly the humpbacks kind of work around the noise. They call louder sometimes they repeat themselves. They had to move closer together or often. They just call less, and so he's have also shown that for other whales. A lot of loud noise can lead to chronic stress after nine eleven actually when shipping traffic also dropped, researchers found that stress hormones in right whales went down. Oh. Wow, okay, interesting I. It know that. So have the noise levels in this quieter glacier bay been measured since the pandemic started. Yeah, so kind based on an early analysis, the loudest sounds of the whales experienced in May. This year are about half as loud as a May from two years ago and Christina. Our colleagues are just they're really interested. In seeing how the humpbacks communication might change because of that the pandemic has kind of created this unexpected opportunity for. kind of a once in a lifetime. Chance to look at well communication behavior in its natural undisturbed forum. I mean it's the first time we've heard this right. Even amidst all this extremely sad human tragedy, the pandemic is creating some conditions in the natural world that are pretty unique like typically speaking. Yeah, exactly and you know scientists are doing the same thing elsewhere. Noise levels have dropped in the waters near Vancouver and Seattle to which is an area where you see a lot of shipping traffic, and it's also home to endangered killer. Whales known as southern resident killer whales. I love that so much. To Do, I would not have identified it as well. Keep going, keep going. Yeah, and sound is super important for them to because they actually use it to hunt through echo location. Right like so similar to how bats do it where they make a noise, it hits an object in the listen for sound to kind of bounce back to them. Yeah, and no researchers studied this actually by putting these suction. Suction Cup tags like a hydrophone with suction cups. Oh Yeah I've seen that. Yeah, those on the back of the killer whale, and it can record sound for like eight hours before pops off and what they do is they have hundreds of feet in the deep looking for Chinook Salmon which is their main source of food, and you know it's dark down there and when you hear, is they start clicking? You Know Salmon are pretty good swimmer. So if they find one, they have to hone in on it. And then there cliques get really fast almost like a buzz right before they catch it. Then you can actually hear the crunch. Is that actually the sound of a salmon's bones being crushed in the jaws of a killer whale. Wow Lauren first of all bank you for this so much just wanted to say that I mean in scientific terms. It is a positive forging outcome. But for killer whales to sound plays a huge role in their social lives. I talked to one scientists Marla, Holt, who is a research wildlife biologist at Noah fisheries, and she spends a lot of time listening to the calls that these whales make their very chatty. When they get in a mode, they can be chatty Kathies when you're trying to analyze calls and they're like overlapping and talking over each other like. God. But it's, but it's fun. They're actually three pods of killer whales around the Seattle area. There called the J K and l pods, and each pod has its own distinct dialect. I mean, can we? Can we nerd out on this for a quick second? Yes, of course, so the pods they share similar kinds of calls, but they make them a little differently like Marla says, take this S. S to call as it's known J. pod likes to put this little extra loop in the beginning of that call, but L. Pod the pod wells that make that same s to call. They don't have that little loop in the beginning. It's like if you think of the way that you would say the word car and then say with a Boston accent. Like car, verses Ca. I think that's right So what's cool is that you know Marla and just listen to the sound of these killer whales, and she knows exactly what group is making those calls so cool, and since they are so many parts of their life. You know they're coordinating how they feed their hunting together. There's a social behavior I mean. She spent their time trying to tease out what they're really saying. And that's important. Because ship sound could be interfering with. With their sensory world is so different from ours, and maybe that makes it harder or more challenging to convey the problem to people, because people aren't sticking their ears in the water and listening in the same way to all of the big ships, going by or the ferries or fishing vessels right in a big point here is that this break that they're getting is temporary. Right so as soon as you know. Everything opens up again and shipping traffic. Traffic goes back up, so does the noise. Yeah, but the port of Vancouver is actually one of the few examples out there where they're really trying to reduce noise. The ships they are can get a discount on their berthing fees, which is what they pay dock there. If they take measures to be quieter, so that could mean retrofitting their ships like all terrain or replacing propeller, which is the thing that makes a lot of noise or they can. Can just slow down which also reduces noise I mean. It's a voluntary program, but they are seeing a lot of participation, but you know this is just one place in the country. Though, right? It's just one place, but I think a lot of scientists are really hoping to learn things during the pandemic. You know about how whales are responding without all that noise that can really made me help them with policies that could reduce noise in the future. All right. Lauren, I, appreciate you and this like beautiful auditory journey. You've taken us on today. I mean my pleasure anytime. This episode was produced by. Paul edited by Viet Lay in fact, checked by Rebecca Ramirez at tiny humpback whale in the Cape Cod specifically I'm Maddie Safai at banks are listening to shortwave for NPR.