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Excerpt from Endgame

260 Decibels (p. 143)

From chapter "Choices"

Right now beaked whales are being killed by scientists in the Gulf of California. The scientists, from the National Science Foundation and Columbia University, are on a ship (the Maurice Ewing) that has on board an impressive array of airguns that fire sonic blasts of up to 260 db. The scientists use these airguns at least ostensibly to map the ocean floor. They say they’re exploring how continents rift apart, but honesty (on my part, not theirs) requires mention that data generated this way is crucial to underwater oil exploitation.

A 260 db sound is very intense. For comparison, damage to human hearing begins at 85 db. A police siren at thirty meters is about 100 db. And decibels are logarithmic, meaning every 10 db increase translates to ten times more intensity, and sounds (because human perception is also logarithmic) twice as loud. In this case, that means the blasts from the research vessel are approximately ten quadrillion times more intense than a siren at thirty meters, and would sound to humans about 16,384 times as loud (we could easily round this off to 16,000, since in either case the sound would have killed you). The sound of a jet taking off at 600 meters is about 110 db. The Ewing’s blasts are a quadrillion times more intense, and sound 8,192 times louder. A loud indoor rock concert weighs in at 120 db (the threshold of human pain, by the way): whales and other creatures in the Gulf of California are subjected to sounds 100 trillion times more intense than that. The threshold at which humans die from sound alone is 160 db. People—including nonhuman people—die because sound is a pressure wave (which is why you can feel your body vibrate during loud, low sounds: one of the attractions of rock concerts for me was the feeling of the bass notes massaging and piercing my body). Too-intense waves rip ear, lung, and other vibrating tissues. They cause internal bleeding. Two hundred and sixty decibels: that’s 10,000 times more intense than the sound of a nuclear explosion at a range of five hundred meters.

This is the intensity with which whales and other creatures in the Gulf of California are assaulted.

Whales live by their ears. They communicate with them, singing complex songs we will probably never understand. Babies find their mothers by them. Adults navigate by them. They find food by them. Whales subjected to loud noises stop singing, sometimes for days: which means they do not eat, do not court, probably do not sleep. Whales subjected to loud enough noises lose their hearing. Eardrums rupture. Brains hemorrhage. They die.

Since the experiment began, dead beaked whales have been discovered stranded on beaches of the Gulf of California by senior marine biologists at the National Marine Fisheries Services, including several experts in beaked whales, the impacts of noise on marine mammals, and the stranding of marine mammals. These scientists, and others who care about whales, wrote letters to the expedition’s sponsors. Columbia University failed to meaningfully respond. The National Science Foundation’s response was to write a letter stating, “There is no evidence that there is any connection between the operations of the Ewing and the reported [sic] beached whales.”

* * *

In the particular case of whales being killed in the Gulf of California…the good folks at the Biodiversity Legal Foundation were able to get a temporary restraining order against the organizations involved, and halt the experiment.

It ends up, also, that the judge in the case…was going to ask representatives of the National Science Foundation to bring soundmakers into the courtroom and match the volume of the ship’s airguns, presumably to give him a tangible idea of what they’re talking about. Someone who helped bring the case to the judge’s attention told me, “One can only imagine how great it would have been if that had come to pass. I imagine the judge asking the NSF lawyer to test out the air guns in the courtroom. The NSF apologists would have been forced to explain that doing so would have blown out the windows in the federal building, not to mention what it would have done to everyone in the courtroom (all the better if NSF researchers had been there). I think that would have been a delectable example of accountability.”