Humans can’t comprehend the magnitude of the insult that we pour into the ocean

Thursday, August 9th, 2018

What is it like to be a right whale? Not good:

They take their name from having been the “right” whale to hunt, because of the value of their blubber and baleen, and as such, they’d already been driven to rarity by the time of the American Revolution. Yet they do not die easy. The intentional killing of right whales was banned in 1935, but in March of that year, it took a group of fishermen — apparently not up to speed on international law — six hours, seven hand-thrown harpoons, and 150 rifle rounds to kill a 32-foot calf off Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

If right whales are threatened with extinction, it’s not from a lack of grit. It’s because their home — which spans 2,000 miles of coastline from southern Canada to northern Florida and cannot be described as small or niche — is one of the most human-modified and influenced regions on Earth. With due respect to Kraus, the North Atlantic right whale is not so much the urban whale as the Anthropocene whale.


One of the first people to start thinking about how we make whales miserable, as opposed to how we kill them, was the marine-acoustics scientist Chris Clark, now retired as a graduate professor of Cornell University. In the 1990s, with Cold War tensions subsiding, Clark was selected as the U.S. Navy’s marine-mammal scientist.

Using the Navy’s underwater listening posts, he was able to tune in to singing fin whales — second only to the blue whale in size — across a patch of sea larger than Oregon. In a data visualization he later created, the singing whales wink on and off: hotspots that arise, spread their sonic glow, and fade. Then enormous flares ripple across the entire space. That’s the acoustic imprint of a seismic air gun, used to probe for oil and gas deposits under the seafloor. “This was an epiphany,” Clark said. He had witnessed the way that human-made sounds could overwhelm, at enormous scales, whales’ ability to hear and be heard in the ocean.

I asked for his opinion about what day-to-day life is like for right whales now, two decades later. “Acoustic hell,” Clark replied. “Humans can’t comprehend the magnitude of the insult that we pour into the ocean.” While no one can say how an animal experiences its world, there are clues that Clark is correct. When the 9/11 attacks took place in 2001, researchers from the New England Aquarium happened to be in the Bay of Fundy, just across the U.S. border into Canada, testing right-whale feces for stress hormones. Over the following days, boat traffic abruptly dropped off. The scientists were struck by how clearly they could hear whale calls through their equipment, as though they’d been standing beside a freeway that fell silent and could suddenly hear birdsong. The whale stress levels measured in those quiet waters were the lowest by far that were recorded across four summers of sampling.

Noise his what biologists refer to as a “sublethal” impact, meaning it doesn’t directly cause death. The list of sub-lethal impacts has grown long, however. Right whales have the highest prevalence of infection with Giardia and Cryptosporidium, mainly from sewage and agricultural manure runoff, ever recorded in any mammal. In humans, these cause the diseases known as beaver fever and crypto, respectively, which involve debilitating digestive complaints. No one knows what problems, if any, they cause in right whales.

The whales are similarly exposed to an alphabet soup of chemicals (DDT, PCBs, PAHs, etc.), oil and gas, flame retardants, pharmaceuticals, pesticides — all the effluvia of civilization. Then there are blooms of red tide and other toxic algae, which can cause paralysis and death in humans, and are increasingly common. One study found paralytic shellfish poisoning in the feces of all 16 right whales it sampled. Again, no one can say what effect these pollutants might be having on right whales.


For an endangered species, a lack of births is a kind of death, and this year, for the first time since reliable record-keeping began nearly 30 years ago, no calves at all were born in the right-whale population. The animals’ welfare may now be so poor, their suffering so serious, that sublethal impacts have turned lethal.


  1. Sam J. says:

    That’s very sad.

Leave a Reply