A few weeks ago, I was swimming at our favorite local beach here in Woods Hole. My daughter was taking a swim lesson 50 meters away. It was a glorious summer day. Except that every time I put my head underwater, I heard a loud clicking like a little metronome that seemed to come from all directions at once. I heard it with my whole nervous system, not just with my ears. In fact, it felt more like it came from my inside my own skull. I even went so far as to check to see if I was wearing a watch. (I haven’t worn a watch in my whole adult life.) I looked for lost toys at the ocean floor just beneath me, and just in case is was all literally in my head, I approached other nearby swimmers to ask if they heard it too. Everyone heard it. Everyone was unsettled by it. Nobody knew what it was.
That evening, I mentioned it to my friend Taylor Heyl, marine biologist and research scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Without hesitation, she said it must have been the Atlantis – one of WHOI’s research vessels – doing some mapping close to the shore. Indeed, there had been a big ship a few miles out, on the horizon.
I imagined how disturbing that benign sound must have been for the ocean animals, whose annoyance can’t be explained away the way mine was. A month later, in preparation for working on the next song, I stumbled on an article about noise pollution in the ocean. It stopped me in my tracks. As I read, the reality of a whole other kind of ongoing crisis came into focus… one I was entirely unaware of.
Here are the basic elements:
• Sound travels four times faster underwater than it does in air. That’s why it’s hard to figure out where it’s coming from. It hits both ears at almost the same time. Our brains aren’t fast enough to detect the difference, which is how we know where sound is coming from on land.
• Sound also travels four times farther in water than it does in air. Air blasts detonated in the southern Indian Ocean have been detected in the northern and southern Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
• Most living creatures are largely made of water. As sound underwater hits a body, the vibrations continue right into your tissue. Now, to that, add the constant noise of the hundreds of thousands of ships that continually cross our oceans. (For a stunning video of shipping lanes as seen from outer space, look HERE.)
Now add the seismic air gun blasts used in underwater oil exploration. Each exploration generally has 30-40 air guns that go off simultaneously, about every 10 seconds over large swaths of the sea for weeks, sometimes months at a time. Sometimes 20-30 surveys are going on at the same time. Add to the initial sound of the blasts, the magnified reflections off of the underwater rock formations… well, you get the idea.
What we have essentially done is to constantly interrupt communication of every sort in every community of marine life. In the words of Cornell University marine bioacoustics expert Christopher Clark “What you are doing is you are tearing that social fabric over and over again.” There’s a great NPR piece about Clark and his work HERE.
In the face of this kind of constant disruption and sonic chaos, marine communities get fractured in the best cases, and die off in the worst When they can, they move to seek more stable environments. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? This is the refugee crisis we are not reporting on. The biggest difference between the wars that have created the land-based and the marine refugee crisis, is that the soldiers at sea don’t even know they’re at war. They don’t even see the effects of their actions. There is no chance for either glory or remorse.
(On the positive side of things, people are working hard to make ships quieter, and to change the ways that underwater ocean exploration is conducted.)
When Jeremy sent us this fabulous skeleton of a perfectly unhinged song, I was busy getting madder and madder at what I was learning. You know how you’re supposed to wait 24 hours before you confront someone you’re mad at? Or at least until the chemical rage has left your bloodstream and you can talk without sounding like a goddamned sailor? Well… I didn’t do that. September 1st was upon us. I had one day to write words and record the vocals. And I was mad. Suffice it to say, this song’s not going to fix anything… but I feel a little better. Jon and Matthias worked their respective magics on the song at Jon’s studio in Orleans, and there it is… “Refuge.”
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