Sonic Sea - the widespread impacts of ocean noise on life and livelihood

The world’s oceans are symphonies of sound. Light doesn’t travel very far, so almost everything that lives in the ocean relies on sound to navigate their environment. Cetaceans – whales and dolphins – are especially evolutionarily equipped to experience their world through sound waves, which until the last hundred  years or so has served them extremely well.

That is, until human activities like seismic testing for oil and gas deposits, commercial shipping, and military activities (sonar, etc.), introduced a whole lot of noise into the oceans.

I learned all of this on Tuesday while watching Sonic Sea, a documentary detailing the impacts that ocean noise has on whales and dolphins, screened by the South Shore chapter last night.


Photo: CPONS

There are many activities that create noise and impact whale health, and the South Shore chapter has decided to focus on one that they feel particularly able to have influence over: offshore drilling for oil and gas. The chapter created the Campaign to Protect Offshore Nova Scotia almost three years ago to combat the growth of offshore drilling in Nova Scotia and to call for a moratorium on this activity and to conduct an independent public inquiry into the socio-economic, environmental and health effects of oil and gas exploration offshore Nova Scotia.


John Davis from the Clean Ocean Action Committee speaks to the crowd following the documentary. Photo: CPONS.

As part of their ongoing effort to fight for this inquiry, the chapter brought John Davis to speak about seismic testing for offshore oil to speak following the documentary. John is a fisherman and leader of the Clean Ocean Action Committee, and has a long history of fighting against offshore drilling on Georges Bank. John told us all about the ecological and economic impacts of seismic testing, including these startling facts:

  • Seismic blasting is among the loudest human-produced noise. Only nuclear and chemical explosions are louder.
  • The impact of seismic testing on whales’ hearing can be cumulative and degenerative. This means that over the lifetime of whales ocean noise causes them to lose their ability to echolocate for food, shelter, and community.
  • The impact can also be acute. Seismic blasts in the immediate vicinity of whales and dolphins can literally drive the animals to beach themselves in an attempt to escape the noise. This can cause them to surface too quickly and die of The Bends. I find this so heartbreaking.
  • The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has stated in its Review of Mitigation Measures for Cetacean Species at Risk During Seismic Operations that the measures taken to reduce impacts on cetaceans “do not adequately address impacts that may occur”
  • BP’s Tangier seismic surveys done in 2014, which preceded the company’s recent dangerous exploratory drilling foray, were subsidized by the Nova Scotia government to the tune of $12M.
  • Seismic testing and other ocean noise effects not only whales and dolphins – its impacts can be detected in all forms of marine life right down to the tiniest plankton.

I find this public funding for private profit particularly disturbing. Nova Scotia’s taxpayers contribute to public coffers so that we can benefit collectively from the wealth we generate. This money is to contribute to the public interest. Donating public funds to one of the world’s largest corporations so that it can do research on how to best extract oil that may pollute our oceans, decimate our fisheries and tourism industries, and push us ever closer to a climatic tipping point is categorically not in the public interest.

There are two upcoming seismic projects slated for Nova Scotia’s waters – one by Equinor, formerly known as StatOil, which is the state-owned Norwegian oil company that will survey near the Roseway Basin, and one by MultiKlient which will survey the entire length of Nova Scotia’s Atlantic coast. These projects pose unbelievable risks to:

  • Ocean life at large
  • Lobster Fishing Area 40, North America’s only protected LFA which produces billions of dollars of economic activity every year
  • Georges Bank, a prime fishing are that has been protected from offshore drilling activity for decades. While the seismic testing will not take place within the bounds of Georges Bank if I learned anything from this documentary it was that sound (or spilled oil, for that matter) knows no boundaries in the ocean
  • The Roseway Basin, important habitat for the endangered Right whale

It is not yet known whether these projects are directly subsidized by the Nova Scotia government the way BP’s 2014 project was, but we do know that Nova Scotia recently announced another $11.8M in funding for offshore oil and gas research at large.

It is clear that something is very wrong with a regulatory system that will allow offshore drilling and related seismic surveys to take place despite their clear and demonstrated impacts, and the clear failure to minimize those risks.

The South Shore chapter has the rights to this movie and can make them available for you to screen this doc in your community for just $5! Contact southshore.coc@gmail.com for access to the film.