Sound is very important for communication and social cohesion in beluga whales like this pod seen near Churchill, Man., William Halliday
Sound is very important for communication and social cohesion in beluga whales like this pod seen near Churchill, Man. © William Halliday

A library full of sound: How a new collection of underwater sounds will help protect marine life


William Halliday
Conservation Scientist/Arctic Acoustics Program Lead


Whales and seals Conservation planning



Forget that rule about keeping quiet in the library. I want my library to be full of noise, including sounds from a world that is mostly invisible to human eyes: the ocean.

Read this story in Canadian Geographic.

That is why I am excited to learn about plans for a Global Library of Underwater Biological Sounds (GLUBS). As a scientist who spends hours listening to the grunts, calls and songs of whales it will be a “must hear” resource to better understand what is happening deep in our oceans.

According to the scientists developing GLUBS (a name only a marine sound buff could come up with), of roughly 250,000 known marine species, all 126 mammals emit noise, as do at least 100 invertebrates and 1,000 of the world’s 34,000 known fish species. And that may be just the tip of the iceberg of underwater sound based on our listening to date. The sea is far from silent.

The ocean where I conduct my research — Canada’s Western Arctic — is particularly unsuited for visual study. Covered in ice for more than half the year and only accessible for a couple of short months, we need other ways of understanding what is going on in the dark, ice-cold depths of this huge ocean.

Sound has already told us that this remote ocean is brimming with life, including healthy populations of bowhead and beluga whales, ringed and bearded seals, and fish like Arctic cod, for a start. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Canada’s Arctic research team has had an ear to this ocean for some time now and we have amassed our own library of sound, a small sample of which you can listen to here.

Listening carefully has yielded interesting information about whale behaviour in a rapidly changing Arctic. For whales like bowheads and belugas, sound is critically important for social cohesion, navigation and finding food. But the Arctic soundscape is being impacted by a changing climate in a few ways.

First, less ice cover means more waves and wind. The ambient background sound created by these forces can make it harder for whales to communicate. It’s like trying to have a conversation in a noisy pub instead of a quiet library.

Whales in the Arctic also have to contend with ship noise — to continue with the pub analogy, that’s the equivalent of the guy who barges in talking at the top of his lungs, drowning out that perfectly crafted anecdote you were relating to your tablemate. And ships are increasing as less ice makes it easier to navigate waters that were once too treacherous for anything but ice-hardened vessels. The Arctic is still not a place for totally smooth sailing, but ship traffic is already growing rapidly as this becomes the shortest shipping route between Asia and Europe.

Our research has shown that whales can hear ships as much as 100 kilometres away and studies have shown that they move away when a ship is as much as 50 kilometres away. These findings indicate that whales may be losing valuable feeding time, or may find it more difficult to keep in touch with their offspring or pod when ship noise reaches high levels.

Sound travels differently in water than air: it travels much further in water, a characteristic whales have used to their advantage for long-distance communication. But this turns into a disadvantage when it comes to ship noise being heard throughout a large area around a moving vessel.

A sound library helps us compare marine sounds in different environments. It can also show us what might be in store for the Arctic in the future by allowing us to listen in on much noisier ocean soundscapes — such as the Atlantic, where right whales must navigate changing water temperatures, moving food supplies and ship traffic, often with dire consequences. And just as your modern librarian is not the shushing bibliophile of old, we are not just passive listeners. We have used the knowledge we have gained from listening to Arctic whales to call for speed limits for ships, which can both reduce collision risk and lower noise levels, and for the shifting of shipping routes away from key whale gathering areas, including marine protected areas.

WCS Canada is using our team’s research to call for proactive steps to be taken to lower noise impacts on one of the world’s least disturbed marine environments — before noise levels start to interfere with Arctic animal behaviours, from feeding to migration patterns. This work has already contributed to Transport Canada issuing a voluntary “Notice to Mariners” calling for ships to slow down in certain sensitive regions. We have also recommended the use of marine mammal spotters on ships transiting the Arctic and continued monitoring of the impact of growing ship traffic on whales.

On a global scale, the GLUBS project will allow researchers to explore everything from the regional dialects of whale song, to sounds that have yet to be matched to the animal that makes them, to the reactions of animals after natural disasters like hurricanes.

Libraries are about knowledge and provide us with opportunities to learn from insights gathered from around the world. What we can learn from our sound library, and now from GLUBS, is the importance of taking steps now to reduce the impacts of climate change and ships on one of the quietest places on Earth.

The sounds of the north: exploring the underwater soundscape of the western Canadian Arctic

The sounds of the north: exploring the underwater soundscape of the western Canadian Arctic

The Arctic Ocean is vast, often covered in ice, and is rarely warmer than 0 °C, yet it is host to a cacophony of interesting sounds.
William Halliday

What’s that sound? What underwater listening can teach us about the Arctic

What’s that sound? What underwater listening can teach us about the Arctic

Large whales can communicate over hundreds of kilometers, something unheard of for a land mammal.
William Halliday