Screaming to be Heard Over Ship Noise is Taking It Out of Killer Whales

killer whales off victoria photo

Photo via Paul Mannix via Flickr CC

Researchers have found that because of nearby ship noise, killer whales are having to make louder sounds to be able to communicate with one another. A particular group of killer whales in Washington's Puget Sound, called the Southern Residents, seem to be getting hit particularly hard with the strain of raising their voices. They're adapted to eat specifically salmon, and the effort going in to talking to one another may mean that they're having to work harder to hunt all while having less salmon to consume. National Geographic reports that preliminary studies of the whales have researchers thinking that the strain of having to talk louder is taking away much needed energy from the whales, who are already having a harder time feeding due to declining salmon populations.

While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has already proposed a law to keep ships at least 600 feet from whales, at least one researcher says this wouldn't make any difference.

But Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, called the proposed law a "feel-good thing." Balcomb, who has also studied whales in the San Juan Islands, said that "my observations over 35 years [are] that [whales] don't really get disturbed by anything, much less vessels."

That statement alone seems debatable, as fatal run-ins with ships is probably considered disturbing to whales. Additionally, just last year scientists stated at the World Conservation Congress that acoustic smog is directly harming whales, impacting their ability to feed, mate and migrate.

More research is needed to understand the direct impact the need to scream is having on the Southern Residents, but what is known is that the population is declining, and the strain is likely not helping.

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