Did seismic tests kill pilot whales?

Charleston Post and Courier
February 17, 2017


On Nov. 13, the world’s largest seismic testing ship began surveying the waters off New Zealand for oil. Now over 600 pilot whales have washed onto an isolated stretch of beach. Most have died.


First, here is an explanation of seismic testing.

Seismic airgun testing is a dangerous process that blasts extremely loud sound waves miles below the seafloor in a hunt for oil deposits. One seismic vessel can tow up to 96 airguns that can cover an area 21 times larger than the National Mall in Washington D.C. These blasts are repeated every 10-12 seconds and are one of the loudest noises in the ocean that can be heard for thousands of miles underwater. Seismic testing of an area can go on for up to an entire year.

Defenders of this oil exploration tool claim that “seismic and other geophysical surveys have been safely conducted offshore … for more than 50 years,” and there “is still no scientific support for statements that sound from seismic surveys harms marine life population.”

Now the reality.

Scientists have found that seismic airgun blasting results in hearing impairment, chronic stress avoidance and displacement behavior in whales. These huge mammals primarily depend on their hearing for navigating, feeding and mating.

You only need to look at what has occurred in New Zealand to understand the consequences of seismic testing.

In late December, after about 1½ months of the airgun blasting, there were three incidents of Shepherd’s Beaked, Pigmy Blue and Sperm whales washing up on New Zealand beaches. Then last Thursday, the largest whale stranding in a century littered the beach at New Zealand’s Farewell Spit, within close proximity to the seismic airgun blasting.

According to news reports, more than 600 pilot whales were found dead or dying on this remote shoreline. Volunteers managed to save some. But the images are horrific.

Necropsies are underway, but the beachings may remain a mystery. Marine biologists can’t agree on the probable cause or causes, but they haven’t ruled out seismic blasting. Secret military sonars could also play a role.

Fortunately the Obama administration, in one of its final acts, denied offshore seismic testing permits for the Atlantic Coast. Businesses, residents, conservation groups and coastal municipalities almost unanimously had strongly advocated for this decision to protect the vibrant tourism, commercial fishing and recreation economies of the Atlantic seaboard.

It is clear that the destruction of marine life is a legitimate concern. The image of hundreds of whales or dolphins stranding on the Atlantic’s pristine beaches and shorelines would be a disaster for hotels, restaurants and every small business dependent on tourists who expect a fun and relaxing vacation.

With a new administration, we can expect the oil and seismic testing industry to be re-applying for permits for bringing their deadly exploration to the Atlantic. Congress itself might make an effort to clear the way for this industry in the name of “finding out what’s out there.”

But we know what’s out there … a healthy ocean that has supported our coastal economies throughout our nation’s history. Our economic future lies in protecting our ocean, marine life and beaches from those who seek to exploit all of it for their short term gain at our expense.

Frank Knapp is a co-founder of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast and president/CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.


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