Cornell professor discusses whale sounds in “The Singing Planet”

By Zack Downing, Staff Writer

UMass Dartmouth was honored to host a talk on Friday from world-renowned bio-acoustic engineer Christopher Clark. 

Clark is a research professor at Cornell University and scientist at Marine Acoustics, Inc. who has dedicated his life to studying the communication among marine life and the ways human activity affect that communication. 

He’s published over two-hundred academic papers and headed projects to monitor the lives of endangered whales such as the right whale. 

On Friday, he gave a talk to about one-hundred-fifty attentive UMass Dartmouth students and faculty titled, “The Singing Planet: Why Listen to Our Oceans?” in the Grand Reading Room. 

The subject of the talk was the fascinating nature and recordings of the way marine mammals communicate underwater, through echoes, song, and clicks. However, the ultimate message was that human activity like shipping and seismic explosions can negatively affect marine life of all kinds. 

He began with anecdotes about his early days doing research traveling around the world. When recording the sounds of whales in the Arctic Circle, he said, the natives made his equipment seem obsolete by teaching him that he could hear whale sounds by putting an oar in the water and touching the handle to his jawbone. 

The native peoples’ knowledge of the nature that surrounds them is so important that sections of scientific journals are still dedicated to what we’ve learned from them. 

Another fascinating fact that Clark shared was that whales sing on a very precise beat, even in between gulps of air they take from the surface. Some whales will bellow a note every 71 seconds, some 128 seconds, but whatever their rate, they remain consistent. 

The whale’s call stretches for thousands of miles, echoing back and letting the whale know the locations of everything in their radius from islands to ships.  

“It’s like sonar, but on an immense scale,” he said. 

It’s so similar to sonar, in fact, that WWII soldiers who heard fin whales clicking to each other thought they were Soviet submarines sending out sonar. The whales’ clicks were timed consistently enough that the soldiers thought they were machine-produced. 

Clark emphasized the remarkability of their acoustic way of living, “You have to change your sense of space, and change your sense of frequency, in order to comprehend that this is the acoustic ecosystem that these animals reside in.” 

As he continued his talk, he discussed perhaps the biggest threat to marine life, which is seismic air gun blasting. Seismic air gun explosions are constantly being set off on the ocean floor by oil rigs, searching for gas and oil underneath the ground. 

These blasts are terrible for marine life for a number of reasons. For one, any life within about a mile or so of the blasts will be injured or killed, including plankton and krill. 

The other less obvious side affect is the sound it produces, which is incredibly loud and can interfere with the communication systems of whales. Too close, it can damage their hearing, and even if they’re very far away it scrambles the sounds they send out themselves. 

“Almost all sea animals we study use sound in some way to communicate, move, eat, and more,” Clark said. 

The sounds ships make underwater and their masses on the surface also get in the way of whale communication. In an ocean filled with ships, their sonar bounces back sooner and doesn’t reach nearly as far.  

Clark ended the talk on the line, “A healthy ocean is a healthy future. Period.” Maybe we should listen to what the ocean has to say. 

 

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