Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum recently featured a showing of Sonic Sea, a 2016 ocean sound documentary. Narrated by Rachel McAdams, the film addressed sounds created by human activity and how they are changing the behavior of marine mammals.
A generous amount of ocean visuals are served up in Sonic Sea portraying a scene the viewer can dive into to explore the problems of Neptune’s increasingly loud underwater realm. The concepts raised add to the ocean paradigm outside of the already commonly discussed urgencies like overfishing, acidification, plastic pollution and mass coral bleachings. It raises new ethical questions we need to ask. We are increasingly use the ocean for anthropogenic purposes as our superhighway, dumping ballasts with invasive species into new regions and emptying cruise ship wastewater into open ocean, but now sound pollution is on the radar.
Research is showing that some whales used to be able to speak to each other 1600 kms away underwater. The distance now is significantly reduced. Just to give you a picture of 1600 kms, imagine someone in Vienna, Austria talking to someone in Athens, Greece through their normal biological speech system, not a constructed machine or system like cell phones.
An issue as universal as the ocean sounds affects many species, geographies, countries and cultures. The message as well as the audience receiving it could have been strengthened with a few experts from around the world, but overall it balanced character stories, graphics and interesting animations.
The impacts of military sonar usage and possible marine mammal beachings from it are a concerning issue, as are the oil and gas industry’s prospecting technologies. They have similarly negative impacts on ecosystems. Several examples of beachings were used in the movie.
We ought to continually work on solutions to our human created ocean problems like those shown in this case. Laws and policies do not simply serve our best interests naturally, but must adapt to challenging societal priorities. A responsible ocean standard needs to move across states, provinces, national guidelines and international organizations.
Keystone species have ripple effects on ecological zones that filter through to the rest of the environment and life forms living in it. The sea otter is an example of a known keystone species. The fact is that we do not know exactly which species, keystone or otherwise, will be damaged by invasive undersea sounds. Just one keystone species affected could create major ecological consequences or contribute to extinctions.
The Sonic Sea message could benefit from audiences outside of those already dedicated to conservation and wildlife. Those working for big corporations affecting shipping industries decisions or engineers and designers of ships that decide how boats are built would be a start. The technologies used now building vessels and motors will affect the types of boats and noise floating around on the oceans for decades to come.
Sonic Sea helps voice society’s concern for addressing human animal relations and forces us to question how we can be better. There is no better time than now to start thinking about that.