Our Acoustic Litter: The Whale Poop Story

I love everything about this sad story.  [both links via NPR ]

amy Whale, breaching, Stellwagen Bank National...
Image via Wikipedia

It tells volumes about how the world works–the parts we know, and the far greater parts we don’t know. If we comprehended how complex and beautifully integrated and orderly this place was, our heads would explode.

Featured prominently: labrador retrievers, for their incredible sense of smell. This comes to me as no surprise, after living with three of them. We’ve watched our labs running at full tilt in one direction, only to veer suddenly 90 degrees and 50 yards and commence excavation right on top of a mole. The sense of smell seems somehow akin to radar.

So the fact that a lab at the prow of a moving boat can sniff out whale poop underwater should seem about right. Even so, it is remarkable what these animals can sense, and how they can be taught to alert us of bombs, bodies, injured humans in bombed buildings and whale feces–simply by offering the right reward. In the case of the whale sniffers, it was a chance to play with the dog’s favorite toy–a simple ball.

Then, there is the before-and-after part of this story–an opportunity that arose from an undisputed global tragedy of September 11, 2001. Before that date, the whale poop sampling was underway. It sounds gross, but there is a treasure of information about individual animal diets and nutrition and growth, and population migrations and and general ecology.

What these scientists discovered was a change in one of the substances they had been measuring in the fecal samples located by the dog and collected by (hopefully well paid) divers. That substance was probably cortisol, described in this story as a “stress hormone.”

Before 911 it was high. In the days immediately following that terrorist attack, when shipping and overflights dropped to practically nothing, the right whales’ stress hormone levels fell significantly. The likely cause was the reduction in noise levels. Imagine:

To keep in contact with a baby, a mate, the pod; to locate food; to avoid collision with ships and underwater obstacles, and to maintain group order, these animals rely on sound. Before 911, that was like trying to whisper critical conversation at a cocktail party.

After, suddenly, they had their world back, free from what our world has inflicted on them. It doesn’t draw blood, it seems innocuous enough, and it makes not a bit of difference in your or my day to day living. it is simply the collateral noise of human economics at work.

It is part of the Anthropocene: the epoch in which every biome and habitat on the face of the planet is touched–and too often marred–by both what we do and the mindless ways we do it.

Acoustic interference and consequent stress represents a significant impact and harm to an entire class of animals–the cetaceans in general–that we can not deny as one more injury to voiceless–but far from silent–fellow creatures.


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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I am very sensitive to noise and will occasionally lose my mind (figuratively speaking) at all the audible clutter. Two kids, husband, music on, dinner cooking, and suddenly I’m overloaded and crabby in the extreme.
    Yesterday I read an article in the Guardian (link: http://bit.ly/wuRnbv) about the “slow cargo” movement – someone attempting to use a refurbished tall ship to move cargo on wind power, only relying on the engine to get in and out of harbors. Maybe the whales will get a break eventually…

  2. I had seen TV coverage about the labradors used for spotting whale poop. Spotting the post-911 stress hormone reduction is amazing research to me.

  3. When I moved to my small farm in Franklin County 15 years ago, I was struck by how eerily quite it was at night. Now those days are gone forever: increasing population, increasing traffic, changes in societal preferences have all taken their toll. Yet, on those few occasions, a Sunday or holiday morning when the silence returns for a while, the soothing effect is almost palpable. We, in deed, are mammals like the whales. Perhaps some scientist will see fit to conduct analagous research on us…