Seeing God’s wisdom in a new discovery about whales

Who thinks of the ear as a point of life-or-death vulnerability?

A parent warning a teenager about overly loud music scolds “You’ll be deaf when you’re 40,” not “You could die if you aren’t careful.” Among the hundreds of mystery novels I’ve read, I can think of only one in which death comes by loud noise. (Does it require a spoiler alert if I say that it’s a Dorothy Sayers mystery?) The worst that most of us endure is the occasional sonic boom or the concussive blasts during Fourth of July festivities.

This is one difference between the realms of terra firma and terra aqua, between creatures that live in air and those that live in water. In the aquatic realm, sound travels faster, with significantly less diminishment and with deadly repercussions. Explosions and sustained loud noises wreak havoc at even great distances. Naval exercises and wartime engagements on the high seas routinely cause disablement and death among marine mammals. 

Court cases brought against the United States Navy to prevent sonar trials or explosives testing have made their way even to the U.S. Supreme Court, where judicial wisdom has ruled that national defense trumps both environmental protection and sentient marine life. Whales, dolphins and porpoises pay the price in mass groundings. Even diminished hearing capacity sounds a death knell for species whose survival depends on mating calls transmitted and heard across vast oceanic distances.

This is another instance of the toll exacted on the created order by human propensity for evil, as well as the corresponding attempt to protect against evil. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra, where he depicts the devil mindlessly destroying the birds of paradise.

A glimmer of hope for our aquatic friends recently emerged when it was reported that marine mammals seem to have the capacity to turn down their hearing if they anticipate loud sounds. It’s a capacity that we landlubbers seem not to have except by covering our ears. A whale suitably warned adjusts its aural sensitivity to keep the volume at manageable levels.

Speaking biologically, one can understand such a talent aids survival. Stuck in a pod of vocalizing cohorts, a whale dials down to prevent deafness. Speaking theologically, our affirmation that (with credit to composer Alan Hovhaness) “God created great whales . . .” includes the notion that in wisdom God created them all. What a wise thing for God to do, creating whales with volume controls!

It is, unfortunately, only a partial solution to the problem. Whales and dolphins need to be trained to know when sonar exercises are going active or when underwater detonations take place. They need to associate another, milder sound with the need to plug their ears. But it means that humans, acting with foresight and empathy, can take measures to prevent unnecessary death and damage.

There’s still that war thing, however. I just can’t see a navy agreeing to sound warnings before firing torpedoes or detonating depth charges. The devil always seems to have something still up his sleeve. I guess the dolphins and whales groan inwardly and wait, like us, with eager longing for the day when wars shall cease.

Dr. Rolf Bouma is the Pastor for Academic Ministries at the Campus Chapel and directs the Center for Faith & Scholarship, a Christian study center, at the University of Michigan. He also teaches environmental ethics and environmental values/public policy as part of the University of Michigan’s Program in the Environment. / Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.

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That is a very interesting ability - to ba able to “turn down” hearing.  Thanks for writing about this.  I hadn’t heard about it before.


Thanks for addressing this, which is an topic of great on-going interest to me.

However, I take issue with how you’ve characterized certain aspects of this problem.

While my areas of expertise are with the acoustics more than with the whales themselves, I interact closely enough with researchers in the area to say that the relationship between whale strandings and military noise is rather complex and we still don’t fully understand it. Certainly it is wrong to suggest that stranding result from a simple phenomena like noise-induced hearing loss; something more complex is at work.

Moreover, the primary sources of noise in the ocean (which has increased markedly over the years) is not military in origin. Shipping and other commercial pursuits contribute a significant percentage.

Finally, I think your characterization of the Supreme Court decision as ruling “that national defense trumps both environmental protection and sentient marine life” is simply false. The ruling written by Chief Justice Roberts specifically states that it should *not* be understood as a claim the military interests always trump environmental interests, specifically those of marine mammals.

Presently the Navy, just like all of us researchers, monitor hydrophones for whale sounds and employ visual monitors to determine when whales and other marine mammals are in the area. When they are, we do not transmit sound into the water (though some naval exercises are exempted from aspects of this vis-a-vis the Supreme Court ruling). This is short of the auditory warning you propose, but also less intrusive. As our technologies get better at passive detection and localization of whales we will become increasingly able to avoid even disrupting their behavior. This is no mean feat, but one that the Navy is the primary financial supporter of.

There are, of course, other alternatives. Navies now train virtually and every Navy ship implicated in the Supreme Court case now has the capability for virtual training that puts no sound into the water (a system which I helped design).

I see both of these efforts (passive monitoring and virtual training) as ways people can better balance the reality of our fallen world, in which wars will not cease by human effort, and our mandate to care for the created order.


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