It’s a Saturday morning at Herring Cove Beach in Provincetown, Mass., the farthest point on the Cape. I am sleepy, hungry, and slightly dehydrated, but we are on a schedule dictated by the tides. The salty breeze wakes me up as I trudge through the sand in my steel-toed boots toward the stranded whale. Many people assume that because I work with whales, I must have a glamorous job involving being at sea with a permanent tan. In reality, I’m more likely to be swimming in whale than swimming with whales.
I study hearing in baleen whalesthe big, often endangered whales that include blue whales and North Atlantic right whales. We believe these whales are great listeners, possibly calling to each other over hundreds of miles. Unfortunately, it’s getting harder for them to hear each other in our increasingly noisy oceans. Imagine living next to an airport, with no doors to close and no earplugs to block the constant roar of airplanes jetting over your head. This may be similar to the surroundings of our local whales, which have feeding grounds across from Boston Harbor, one of the busiest shipping centers on the U.S. East Coast.
When I was in high school, I visited one of these feeding grounds, the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary just north of Provincetown. I went out on a research vessel for the first time and did a mini-project on noise pollution and dolphins. We recorded background noise levels using underwater microphones and compared these noise levels to what was known about dolphins’ hearing capacities.
I was a participant of the Aquanaut Program, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to get high school students interested in science. Sure enough, I got interested. I also learned that if I wanted to investigate the effects of noise pollution on baleen whales, I couldn’t because we lacked basic data on what range and frequencies they can hear, and even how sound gets to their ears.
The large size and inaccessible habitat of whales make them hard to study. We get few specimens with which we can learn about their anatomy, and little time because their tissues decompose rapidly after death. So what and how whales hear has remained a research frontier.
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