The rising tide of underwater noise
© Belén García Ovide
Turning Down the Volume in Iceland’s Skjálfandi Bay
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Iceland’s recent tourism boom has resulted in massive growth in the whale-watching industry.

More than 100,000 tourists a year flock to Húsavik on the country’s north coast to get a close-up look at these magnificent mammals. This has also meant an increase in the number of ships in Skjálfandi Bay—and in more underwater noise.

Meet Belén García Ovide, a Spanish marine biologist who has worked as a whale-watching guide in Iceland and studied the impact of underwater noise on Húsavík’s whales.

She’s sounding alarm bells over the effect the thriving whale-watching industry is having on whales in Skjálfandi Bay. And she wants to see more done to ensure the industry doesn’t harm the mammals that sustain it.

© Belén García Ovide
© Belén García Ovide

1. More boats mean more noise

Húsavík’s booming whale-watching industry affecting whales

When Belén García Ovide moved to Húsavík on the north coast of Iceland in 2014, there were only two whale-watching companies operating in Skjálfandi Bay. Today, there are four, with 16 whale-watching boats combing the bay from 8 a.m. to 11 at night. The whale-watching season once ran from May to September. Now it’s year-round.

These whales are now exposed to human pressure from boat noise, but we can’t forget they are already under pressure because of climate change.

- Belén García Ovide, Marine Biologist

Studying whales in a noisy world


García Ovide and a group of other biologists tagged some of the humpback whales in the bay to see what effect the increased boat traffic was having on them. The researchers witnessed a reduction in the whales’ foraging activity when the whale-watching boats approached compared with when they were far away.
©Belén García Ovide

The researchers also found that the whales were diving deeper when they were exposed to higher noise intensity.
©Natalie Bowes / WWF-Canada

They worry that increased boat noise could be driving the whales out of their foraging areas and causing them to be stressed and expend extra energy during the critical feeding season.
©Gustave Bergnes

2. What makes a boat noisy?

Faster boats equal noisier boats

García Ovide used hydrophones to measure the noise levels generated by the different types of boats in the bay. She found many things contributed to noise levels, such as the type of propeller, the number of propeller blades, the length of the boat, the material the boat is made of and the number of boats in the area. But the biggest single factor is boat speed.

© Belén García Ovide

3. Stopping the non-stop noise for whales

Searching for ways to limit underwater noise

It isn’t just noise from whale-watching boats that concerns García Ovide. More cruise ships are coming into the bay, and they don’t follow a specific track. “They just come into the middle of the bay, disturbing the smaller boats and the whales,” she says. There also will soon be more cargo ships entering the bay to bring materials to Húsavík’s new solar panel plant.

García Ovide wants all cruise and cargo ships to be forced to take a specific track and only be allowed into the bay at specific times. She also wants to see more whale-watching companies take steps to design boats that are quieter, more efficient and eco-friendly.

We are interested in these big ships because there are more coming every year. Some of them are generating a lot of noise in the bay, and we can actually see the whales getting crazy when they approach.

- Belén García Ovide, Marine biologist

© Belén García Ovide
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