Offshore drilling, noise and whale deaths: is there a connection?

A dead whale in Ghana’s Western Region. Photo: Friends of the Nation

While working in Ghana last year, I learned that an unusually high number of dead whales had washed ashore since the start of oil drilling. I talked to several local environmentalists who feared the deaths were connected to the country’s oil industry but had no resources to investigate. Without offering any details or study results, the Ghana EPA declared the whale deaths were unrelated to the oil industry.

Although there had been no significant oil spills in Ghana, another form of pollution, which may have played a role in the whale deaths, was ongoing yet invisible: Noise pollution. Shipping and drilling are two known causes of significant underwater noise. Noise pollution  — especially when it’s below the ocean surface — doesn’t get much attention. But as a recent article in the New York Times points out, the world’s oceans are increasingly noisy and the impact on marine life,  mammals in particular, may be devastating:

Today — to the dismay of whale lovers and friends of marine mammals, if not divers and submarine captains — the ocean depths have become a noisy place. The causes are human: the sonar blasts of military exercises, the booms from air guns used in oil and gas exploration, and the whine from fleets of commercial ships that relentlessly crisscross the global seas. Nature has its own undersea noises. But the new ones are loud and ubiquitous. Marine experts say the rising clamor is particularly dangerous to whales, which depend on their acute hearing to locate food and one another.

The article details a project of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that “seeks to document human-made noises in the ocean and transform the results into the world’s first large sound maps. The ocean visualizations use bright colors to symbolize the sounds radiating out through the oceanic depths, frequently over distances of hundreds of miles….The project’s goal is to better understand the cacophony’s nature and its impact on sea mammals as a way to build the case for reductions.”

In Ghana, oil is pumped up and stored offshore in the FPSO (converted oil tanker that functions as a holding vessel). Tankers then pull up to the FPSO and oil is offloaded. As more oil commercial wells are drilled, the number of FPSOs in service will increase, along with shipping traffic and noise. According to the Ghana EPA, “The potential negative effects of oil production on the environment can be immense leading to destruction of fishes and plankton in the sea. When oil is being drilled there will be noise pollution, strong vibration from seismic shooting and displacement of flora and fauna is bound to occur.” Although EPA officials recognize risks, they downplay the likelihood of pollution and rarely discuss underwater noise pollution, something that fishermen in the drilling area have been complaining about for several years. It should be noted that Ghana has yet to pass the Marine Pollution Bill into law. 

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