CNN Opinion Piece


FYI – Christopher Clark and I had an opinion piece on CNN today.  You can find the permalink at: and the full text is included below.

Thanks also to our friends at Ocean Conservation Research <see:> and at the New Bedford Whaling Museum <see:> for their informative blogs about this article.

Any comments or perspectives on the suggestions we have put forth in this piece are welcome.  Brandon Southall


Turn down the volume in the ocean

By Christopher Clark and
Brandon Southall, Special to CNN

For many millions of years, the oceans
have been filled with the sounds of a geologically and biologically active
planet: waves, rain, earthquakes and the songs of life from snapping shrimp to
great whales. Before the age of engine-driven ships, the resounding voices of
the great whales could be heard across an ocean.

Today, in much of the Northern
Hemisphere, commercial shipping clouds the marine acoustic environment with fog
banks of noise, and the near continuous pounding of seismic airguns in search
of fossil fuels beneath the seafloor thunder throughout the waters. In the
ocean’s very quietest moments, blue whales singing off the Grand Banks of
Canada can sometimes be heard more than 1,500 miles away off the coast of
Puerto Rico. But on most days, that distance is a mere 50 to 100 miles.

So why should we care?

Over the past decade, scientists who
study noise in the ocean have tried to understand how loud, man-made sounds
disturb or injure whales and other marine mammals, even driving some to strand
on beaches and die.

It is time for us to focus on the more
pernicious influence of chronic, large-scale noise on marine life.

Whales, dolphins and seals use sounds
to communicate, navigate, find food and detect predators. The rising level of
cumulative noise from energy exploration, offshore development and commercial shipping
is a constant disruption on their social networks. For life in today’s ocean,
the basic activities that we depend on for our lives on land are being eroded
by the increasing amount of human noise beneath the waves.

These stark realities are worrying. But
emerging technologies for quantifying and visualizing the effects of noise
pollution can help drive a paradigm shift in how we perceive, monitor, manage
and mitigate human sounds in the ocean. Ocean noise is a global problem, but
the U.S. should step up and lead the way.

First, we must extend fledgling efforts
to fully comprehend the acoustic footprint of our offshore and coastal
activities. As a nation, we are failing the oceans by lacking a sufficiently
effective program for listening to them.

The U.S. should develop and maintain
dedicated undersea acoustic monitoring networks as integral parts of ocean
observing systems. This would be lead by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration (NOAA) and enabled through private and academic partnerships.
Such a plan has been developed; now it should be implemented.

Second, we should encourage and
accelerate the development of noise-reduction technologies. Thanks to proactive
collaborations among industries, scientists, environmentalists and government
officials, efforts are underway within the U.N.’s International Maritime
Organization to develop quieting technologies for the most pervasive global
noise source: large commercial ships. These and related technologies for
reducing noise in oil exploration and marine construction should be

Finally, federal regulation on ocean
noise must be changed. For decades, regulators have focused entirely on the
short-term effects of one action at a time. A more holistic and biologically
relevant risk assessment system, centered on the concepts of ocean acoustic
habitats and ecosystems, is sorely needed. Emerging trends in marine spatial
planning are encouraging signs, as is NOAA’s support of two groups that are
developing geospatial tools for mapping underwater noise and marine mammal
distributions in U.S. waters.

The loss of acoustic habitats for
marine species that rely on sound to live and prosper is increasing. Solutions
are available. The question is whether we humans value and will invest in a
healthy ocean ecosystem that supports life, and in doing so, sustain our own
health and future.





Science Magazine Article on Tag Analysis and SOCAL BRS efforts

Some of the research efforts conducted in SOCAL-BRS were presented and discussed by one of our team members Dr. Jeremy Goldbogen at the recent Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting in South Carolina.  A popular press article on some of the work Jeremy has been doing with SOCAL-BRS and other related projects ran recently in Science Magazine <>.  The first few paragraphs of the article are given here.  Nice work Jeremy!

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA—A surfacing whale is a sight to see, but it would be even more dramatic to watch one ply the ocean depths. Researchers have taken a step closer to doing just that with sophisticated radio-tagging technology and a new computer program that uses the data to recreate a whale’s path underwater. The results, presented here yesterday at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, are helping scientists understand how the school bus-sized beasts are able to take in enough food to sustain their great girth, and how underwater noises, such as sonar, might affect their well-being.

Comparative physiologist Jeremy Goldbogen of the Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, Washington, studies feeding in blue fin and other so-called rorqual whales. For almost a decade, he and his colleagues have been attaching suction cup radio tags onto the backs of the cetaceans. The tags record depth, sound, and other parameters as the whales swim. After a set amount of time, they fall off, float to the surface, and send out a radio signal so they can be retrieved and their data analyzed.

The work showed that in one giant gulp, a blue whale—the biggest creature on Earth—takes in 125% of its body weight in water and krill. During their dives, the cetaceans ram into patches of krill, opening their mouths wide and wrapping their jaws around prey-laden water, a move that stops them short. Next, they close their mouths and push water through their baleen, a system of plates that filter out the food, then speed up for another feeding bout.

But details about this feeding strategy had been lacking. This past summer, Goldbogen monitored several blue and fin whales with new tag technology that detects the changes in the whales’ orientation in space, much like smart phones “know” whether they’re held in a horizontal or vertical position and adapt screens accordingly. For the 6 to 24 hours they are attached to the whale, the tags also record depth and sound; from the loudness of the water rushing past a diving whale, researchers can calculate its speed. “We use these sensors to reconstruct what the whales are doing,” Goldbogen said.

Recent SMM presentation on Vessel Quieting Technology


At the recent Society for Marine Mammalogy Meeting in Tampa, FL, a number of us co-authored a presentation given by Amy Scholik-Schlomer of NOAA’s Office of Protected Resources.  The presentation was entitled:

Reducing Underwater Noise from Large Commercial Ships

Amy R. Scholik-Schlomer (NOAA), Trisha Bergmann (NOAA), Leila Hatch (NOAA), Michael Jasny (NRDC), Kathy Metcalf (Chamber of Shipping of America), Brandon Southall (Southall Environmental Associates/NOAA), Lindy Weilgart (Dalhousie University/ Okeanos Foundation), Andrew Wright (Aarhus University).

.pdf copies of the slides are available on request and additionally, a number of related sites and issues mentioned therein are given here.
* NOAA symposia:

* OKEANOS workshop:

* IFAW report on vessel quieting:

* Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA):

* EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive:

* American National Standard Quantities and
Procedures for Description and Measurement of Underwater Sound from Ships  (ANSI S12.64):

* IMO MEPC reports: These reports have to be
requested directly from your country representative (e.g., In U.S.: US Coast
Guard). Nevertheless, some of these reports have been posted on the web by
other groups. You can try searching “MEPC 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, or 62” and “Noise
from Commercial Shipping and its Adverse Impacts on Marine Life.”

New Book on Effects of Noise on Aquatic Life

A new book was recently released with chapters derived from presentations given at the 2nd International Conference on the Effects of Noise on Marine Life held in Cork, Ireland in 2010.  The book is entitled:

The Effects of Noise on Aquatic Life [within the Series: Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, Vol. 730]

Popper, Arthur N.; Hawkins, Anthony (Eds.)

2012, 695 p. 167 illus., 57 in color.  Hardcover, ISBN: 978-1-4419-7310-8

The book is available at:

SEA, Inc. President and Senior Scientist Dr. Brandon Southall gave the keynote lecture at this international symposium.  The resulting publication from this lecture appears as the first chapter in this book and is entitled: “Noise and Marine Life: Progress From Nyborg to Cork in Science and Technology to Inform Decision Making.”  Hard copy versions of this book chapter are available on request from




Bahamas BRS Video in Smithsonian Ocean’s Today Kiosk

Hi everyone,

Please note the availability of a short video summary of our behavioral response study (BRS) from the Bahamas in 2007-2008 — see:

This video was produced through the Ocean Today kiosk and website by NOAA and is available online as well as in touch screen format at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington DC and Coastal Ecosystem Learning Centers around the U.S.  If you have questions or comments about the project or would like a recent scientific publication of the results, please contact

Have a wonderful holidays and a great start to 2012!  Brandon

NEW PUBLICATION: A New Context-Based Approach to Assess Marine Mammal Behavioral Responses to Anthropogenic Sounds


Please note the following recent publication in Conservation Biology, co-authored by SEA, Inc. President and Senior Scientist Brandon Southall.

Conservation Biology, Volume **, No. *, 1–8
2011, Society for Conservation Biology
published online: DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2011.01803.x

The link to the full article is
The link to the abstract is
and the abstract text is given below:

Abstract: Acute effects of anthropogenic sounds on marine mammals, such as from military sonars, energy development, and offshore construction, have received considerable international attention from scientists, regulators, and industry. Moreover, there has been increasing recognition and concern about the potential
chronic effects of human activities (e.g., shipping). It has been demonstrated that increases in human activity and background noise can alter habitats of marine animals and potentially mask communications for species that rely on sound to mate, feed, avoid predators, and navigate.  Without exception, regulatory agencies
required to assess and manage the effects of noise on marine mammals have addressed only the acute effects of noise on hearing and behavior. Furthermore, they have relied on a single exposure metric to assess acute effects: the absolute sound level received by the animal. There is compelling evidence that factors other than received sound level, including the activity state of animals exposed to different sounds, the nature and novelty of a sound, and spatial relations between sound source and receiving animals (i.e., the exposure context) strongly affect the probability of a behavioral response. A more comprehensive assessment method is needed that accounts for the fact that multiple contextual factors can affect how animals respond to both acute and chronic noise. We propose a three-part approach. The first includes measurement and evaluation of context-based behavioral responses of marine mammals exposed to various sounds. The second includes new assessment metrics that emphasize relative sound levels (i.e., ratio of signal to background noise and level above hearing threshold). The third considers the effects of chronic and acute noise exposure. All three aspects of sound exposure (context, relative sound level, and chronic noise) mediate behavioral response, and
we suggest they be integrated into ecosystem-level management and the spatial planning of human offshore activities.

Keywords: behavioral context, noise, received level, signal-to-noise ratio

SEA Office Warming Party


SEA, Inc. had the pleasure recently of christening our little office, with fresh ocean-themed paint and everything (thanks Kristin!).  It was a wonderful time with great food, live music, and friends new and old, family, and colleagues.  We are so fortunate to have the people we do around us in the work we do in many different areas – people matter most of all.

Here are a few fun pictures a wonderful night at our cozy new offices in the redwoods of beautiful Aptos, California and a little musical sample…03 undr








We have reached the end of SOCAL-11.  While we had some challenges with weather (a few lightning storms near the end), personnel illnesses (nothing too serious but involved some shuffling), and a very different distribution of animals than the near-amazing abundance of animals in 2010, this was all-in-all a very successful second season.  We successfully incorporated two new teams into our efforts, including a towed passive acoustics team operating from a separate vessel (with colleagues from the NMFS Southwest Fisheries Science Center) and fisheries acoustics researchers mapping prey around foraging whales (also from NOAA and Duke University).

As a simple summary of our accomplishments, we attached 38 tags (including v2 and v3 Dtags (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), and Wildlife Computer MK-10 TDRs and TDR-satellite tags) on 25 blue whales, 7 Risso’s dolphins, 2 bottlenose dolphins, and one Cuvier’s beaked whale.  Each of these were important accomplishments, but the Cuvier’s was a highlight, as was the relatively large number of Risso’s dolphins for which time-synched movement and acoustic data were previously quite limited.  We also conducted CEEs on18 individuals (13 total sequences) including 13 blue whales, 4 Rissos, and one Cuvier’s beaked whale.  All of these were completed within all specified protocols, animals were observed following CEEs, and several were cut short because marine mammals ignored the sound source and came within the specified safety zone during transmissions.  We are aware of no live stranded marine mammals occurring anywhere near our experimental activities.  Finally, we completed three focal follow sequences in testing tagless group follow protocols, including two with common dolphins and one with bottlenose dolphins.

We will be summarizing and analyzing our accomplishments, which will be included in the SOCAL-11 project report that will be issued sometime in early 2012.  A blog post and other messages will announce the availability of this report, and it will be posted on  Additionally, SOCAL-BRS will be presented and discussed within a one-day workshop preceeding and at least three formal scientific presentations at the 19th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals in Tampa, FL in November (please see: for more information.

Finally, it has been a tremendous privilege and a pleasure to work with so many talented and dedicated people.  We have been trying to do some difficult things, some of which have not been done before, and we had the fortune of an all-star team of scientists and field personnel from all of our partner organizations (Cascadia Research, NOAA, WHOI, NUWC, SPAWAR Systems Pacific, Scripps, Duke University, Applied Physical Sciences, and SEA).  We would also like to thank our friends and colleagues at Truth Aquatics in Santa Barbara who operate the R/V Truth and who’s flexibility, patience, and dedication to doing what needs to be done have been central to the success of this project.  We also appreciate the help, support, and permission to conduct our work granted by both the NMFS Office of Protected Resources and the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.  Finally, we would especially like to thank our resource sponsors (N45 Environmental Readiness Division of the Chief of Naval Operations and the Office of Naval Research) for believing in and enabling this project to proceed. 

 Below are a number of photos from our efforts on the water (photo credits are included; all were taken under NMFS permit #14534).  Please stay tuned for more SOCAL-BRS information in the coming weeks and months, including announcements from and presentations given at th SMM conference.

Cuvier's beaked whale with the R/V Truth


Common dolphin skimming the surfaceSan Nicholas IslandSouth side of Santa Cruz Island at sunset


San Nicholas Island


South side of Santa Cruz Island at sunrise

Last days of SOCAL-11

We are wrapping things up here on the second leg of SOCAL-11.  The winds have been calm and we have had a number of visual and acoustic detections the last few days offshore in the Santa Monica and Santa Cruz basins.  However, our efforts have been somewhat compromised by those of others and we decided against doing a CEE for the one Rissos dolphin we tagged given the amount of other incidental noise it was being exposed to at the time already.

The orca interaction was interesting and seeing these animals in the wild is always inspiring.  We decided against tagging these transient killer whales, but did take some excellent photos (above and below by T. Pusser taken under NMFS permit #14534) to contribute to the existing photo-ID databases, which is one of a number of contributions to the basic understanding of marine mammals our project has been eager to make.  If you click on the link here <OrcaShortMovie>, you can see a short video clip of five of this group of eight animals as they surfaced passing quite close to our boat that was stationary as they approached us.  As you can see by the photo below, even the most dominant animals in the ocean aren’t immune from human impact; this male has what appears to be a propeller scar on it’s dorsal fin.


Today is a packing day for SOCAL-11, unloading the myriad instuments, boats, and tools used in this multi-disciplinary project.  I will provide a wrap up summary post in the next few days once we are completely dry.  One final note is that it looks like the link to the 3-part blow hole on Santa Barbara Island I posted while we were traveling the other day didn’t work, but I have fixed it and you should be able to access that now from the preceeding post.

Steaming, orcas, and Channel Islands Geology

We have been mainly in transit this morning back up to the northern Channel Islands so thought we would provide a quick from the field update and a little bit about the geology of the area where we are working.  We are steaming west now in a heavy fog but just bumped into a small pod of transient killer whales and are observing them.  There are some bottlenose and Risso’s dolphins as well as elephant seals in the area, so it might get interesting.  We just had the group of eight orcas swim right past us as we were stationary, which was impressive; photos will follow at some point.  We will likely be out of internet range tonight and tomorrow, so stay tuned for an update on Friday about our progress and how this current situation develops.

Throughout this project we have had the privilege of working in some remarkable and beautiful places.  The eight Channel Islands cover 160 miles off southern California and include a northern cluster (San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and Anacapa) and a southern group (Santa Barbara, San Nicholas, Santa Catalina, and San Clemente) that is more dispersed.  During the course of SOCAL-BRS we have worked around all eight of the islands and this year have anchored in the lee of five of them.  They are fairly rugged and quite dry with desert-like plants.  Like many places near people, some of them (such as Santa Barbara) have been heavily impacted by people, but for the most part they are amazingly undeveloped.  They are quite distinct for being as close to one another as they are, and they are all really remarkable in their natural history and in their geology.

The foundation of rocks making up the islands seems old at over 100 million years, but even that is relatively young in a geological perspective and most of the changes that have made them into their current form are more recent.  Like much of California, they have been formed and modified by the fact they are on an active margin between the oceanic Pacific plate and the continental North American.  A smaller plate (the Farallon) began being pushed under the North American plate about 30 million years ago and the modern marine basin formed in which the Channel Islands began forming from the compression of sedimentary rocks and uplift of the basement foundation.  These areas have been changed as well by historical rises and falls in global sea level.  During the last ice age the northern channel islands were actually one large island was called Santarosae.

Like many areas with recent and ongoing tectonic activity, the Channel Islands have an associated diversity of visible geology.  While our ability to explore the area has obviously been very limited with the round the clock pace of operations out here and covering the large areas of ocean we do, we have had a few chances to observe some of this geology.  If you click the link here <SantaBarbaraIslandDragonBlowhole> you can see a short movie of a tripartite blowhole on the south side of Santa Barbara Island that we caught blowing in the surf the other day.  Below is a photo taken inside the second largest sea cave in the world (almost a quarter mile of water extending into it) located on the north side of Santa Cruz Island.  This photo of the cave (where scenes from the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie was shot) was taken from the main research vessel used in our project.  These are just a few examples of how cool the Channel Islands are, beyond the rich marine life that has brought our studies to this special place.



SOCAL-BRS is a study of basic behavior and responses to controlled sound exposures in a variety of marine mammal species.

Southall Environmental Associates, Inc.

Reducing environmental impacts from essential human activities requires unique approaches to meet challenging conservation objectives in the 21st century. SEA, Inc. works globally with diverse scientific teams and cutting-edge technologies to provide real-world solutions. Learn more about SEA