I recently came back from a long weekend near Calais, in France.
We hiked in some luscious hills, a beautiful forest full of purple bells and of course, near the coast where the cliffs meet the sea (mirroring quite nicely the famous white cliffs of Dover).
Despite it being quite foggy, making us unable to actually see the English coast (shame), it was quite obvious that we were on the closest point to the UK, with the roads full of the right-hand drivers and the city full of 'english pubs'.
In fact, even in the 'shopping and entertainment' section of the Calais tourism brochure, a trip to 'just spend a few hours in the streets of London' is advertised. And there are multiple choices to cross the channel, with the entrance to the eurotunnel there as well as the many ferries. Many, many ferries. We checked the timetable, and there was at least one ferry per hour, and at peak times even more frequent.
My sustainability mind kicked in, and I was left to wonder: all of these ferries - how are they impacting the environment around?
My friend and travel companion, who happened to be a mechanical engineer, couldn't help but calculating not only the fuel consumed daily but also how often should the engines be maintained or even replaced. The figures he came up with were staggering, I cannot recall exactly, but it was shocking. In my case, as a marine biologist, I couldn't help but thinking of the wildlife. In primis about the pollution they create, all of the fumes and discharges from the engines, but secondly - about all of the noise that they must be making underwater...
Now, you might think that noise is nothing in comparison to pollution, but I would like to explain how much noise can be impacting the marine environment
One of the most famous examples of animals sounds in the blue world is the use of calls by whales to communicate between solitary individuals. Yes, because sound waves can travel much further underwater than they ever could through air, and solitary whales use this power to communicate with their long distance friends, hundreds of miles away (that’s why they don’t need whatsapp !).
Dolphins are also well known for their use of sound to locate their preys. How? By emitting high frequency clicks and measuring the return time to create a spatial map, similarly to how a sonar of a ship detects the depth of the seabed and hidden objects underwater. No need for google maps showing you the closest take away uh?!
But beyond the big mammals, also little critters of the sea make and harness sounds, from pistol and snapping shrimps, to intertidal crabs. Animals communicate, warn each other and use sounds to learn about their surrounding environments , for example learning to recognize sounds to find optimal foraging areas. Or juveniles and larvae using sound to locate the best place to settle and grow old!
So, all in all, sounds can be used to find the essentials: food, mates and a safe space.
It’s only understandable then, that any extra sounds might disrupt the balance and have big consequences for the environment.
So imagine a busy channel with plenty of ships and large noisy ferries all day long. Think about living in the center of a metropolis, with sirens and horns beeping at all times , and how that might feel disruptive to your ears. Now think about having to filter through it to find clues about your environment - would you manage to survive ?
Now - you might think that there is little to be directly done.
But it's not all doom and gloom and there are, indeed, some solutions that will not require going completely off grid, or massive sacrifices!
So, let’s have a look...
Of course, underwater noise is not just a question of ferries, but it’s something often overlooked. It is not obvious . If you are a diver you may be aware of the noise that even small, tiny, boats can make, but from the surface it’s well hidden.
I believe that what is underwater deserves our full attention, and I hope to have at least raised some curiosity on the matter.
If you are interested you can hear what is going on under the surface here:
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