Hakai Magazine

The waters surrounding Vancouver Island are home to endangered southern resident killer whales, but also a wide range of underwater noises. Photo by Nature Picture Library/Alamy Stock Photo

Listen to How Loud the Sea Is

Our interactive sound map explores the busy marine soundscape, from kayaks to cruise ships.

Authored by

by Amorina Kingdon

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Busy waters surround the southern tip of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island in what is called the Salish Sea. To the west, the Juan de Fuca Strait acts as an off-ramp for container ships, tankers, and freighters moving into the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, or Vancouver, British Columbia.

Eighty southern resident killer whales make their home in the Salish Sea, anchored here by their preferred food: chinook salmon, the largest Pacific salmon species. However, busy international shipping lanes dissect the whales’ feeding grounds, and with the recent approval of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion, tanker traffic is set to rise by three percent.

The southern residents are well known by people living near and visiting the Salish Sea. They rouse strong emotions and concern over potential impacts such as oil spills and ship strikes, but one consequence of the increase in marine traffic doesn’t get as much attention: sound. Killer whales use squeaks, clicks, and other vocalizations to broadcast their location, communicate socially, and hunt. Ship noise can drown out these sounds. Especially loud are the sounds of cavitation, which occurs when the bubbles formed by a vessel’s fast-moving propeller pop.

But ships aren’t the only noisemakers—the Salish Sea is full of all kinds of noises. In this interactive map, we’ve assembled some hydrophone recordings from these waters.

Of course whales don’t hear these sounds the same way we do, as their ears detect different frequencies than ours, but this soundscape will give you an idea of the variety of noises that permeate these waters as well as others around the world. Some sounds, such as those made by paddling kayakers, may be benign to a whale; others, including cavitation and military sonar, are known to interfere with their vocalizations and can even damage their eardrums.

Due to size limitations, the map is not visible on mobile devices, but here are the recordings.

Due to size limitations, the map is not visible on mobile devices, but here are the recordings.

Note that the sounds for this map were collected at five locations, as identified in the captions. While we’ve placed each sound point where it is likely to be heard, for ease of navigation the location doesn’t necessarily match up with the precise point at which the sound was recorded.

Click on the map to activate the sounds, then move your mouse over the dots to hear the soundscape. As you scroll over a sound, a description will appear beneath the map.

Recordings courtesy of the Salish Sea Hydrophone Network and Ocean Networks Canada.