As if the effects of overfishing, coral bleaching, rising sea temperatures and plastic pollution were not devastating enough for our ailing marine environment, our oceans face yet another worrying threat – that of deafening noise! In the last century, human activity has increased so dramatically across the world’s oceans that we have fundamentally altered the natural acoustics of these complex underwater environments. For millions of years, sound has been a critical component of ocean life, but we are rapidly altering the soundscape that marine species have evolved to rely on and constant man mad noises are a major concern when it comes to the health and well-being of marine animals and the ecosystems that sustain them.
The underwater cacophony is increasingly getting worse, due, in part, to the relentless quest for the fossil fuel reserves which lie beneath the ocean floor. This stark reality is now way too close to home. With the implementation of an initiative that falls under what is called Operation Phakisa, the South African government plans to start tapping into the vast oil and gas reserves which occur within the 11 224 sq km Pletmos Basin, located off the Southern African coastline roughly between Knysna in the west and Jeffrey’s Bay in the east.
This is not good news for the precious marine habitats situated off of our Southern African coastline.
Acting deputy director-general for mineral regulation Seipati Sylvia Dhlamini recently gave the green light to Sungu Sungu Oil to undertake 3D seismic surveys in the abovementioned area. This, despite the fervent opposition from many concerned citizens, environmentalists and marine experts and despite the enormous risks that both seismic testing and offshore drilling poses on our oceans. And seismic testing is just the initial step toward dangerous and dirty offshore drilling, which is associated with habitat destruction, oil spills and ocean acidification.
In order to locate the exact whereabouts of these oil and gas reserves, 3-D seismic testing will soon commence. This involves air guns shooting loud and continuous bursts of compressed air through the water and into the sea bed. These airguns are so loud that they have been known to disturb, injure or even kill marine life. These blasts are repeated hundreds and hundreds of times over, for days and weeks at a time. Negative impacts on marine life include temporary and permanent hearing loss, abandonment of habitat, disruption of mating and feeding, and even death. For whales and dolphins, which rely on their hearing to find food, communicate, reproduce, and maintain important social structures, being able to hear is a matter of survival. “Whales see the ocean through sound, says Cornell University marine bioacoustics expert Christopher Clark, “so their mind’s eye is their mind’s ear. You are dealing with animals that are highly acoustically oriented. Their consciousness and sense of self is based on sound, not sight.”
The acoustic footprint of these underwater world being compromised by the rising din of the oceans.
And all this destruction – for what? The South African government states that it will boost the economy and provide jobs, but at the end of the day, the environmental cost of offshore drilling will essentially negate most of this. It is usually big corporations and corrupt politicians that stand to benefit the most from oil revenue anyway. What governments around the world fail to understand is that our own survival depends entirely on a healthy marine environment. We need to move to clean, renewable energy, and soon.
Echoing the words of Sylvia Earle, we need to start looking after the our earth’s blue heart…because “No water, no life. No blue, no green.