How Do Our Boats Disrupt Marine Life?

By Stella Haffner   |   April 4, 2023
The Soundwatch crew

The first time I spoke to Clare Ogle we were sitting across from each other in high school AP Biology. Four and a half years later, Clare is a graduate of University of Washington in Seattle, where she recently completed her major in marine biology with a minor in Arctic studies. She now puts that degree to good use as a program assistant with the Soundwatch Boater Education Program, an organization dedicated to whale monitoring and boater education. Last month, Clare and I met up as old classmates with a shared interest in biology to discuss her work at Soundwatch. 

Q. How did you decide to study marine biology?

A. I have pretty much always wanted to study marine biology. I think second grade was when I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist, and I stuck with that!

Can you give us an overview of what Soundwatch does?

During the summer we go out on the water monitoring whales, which means taking data on their behavior, what they’re doing, how they’re traveling, what direction they’re going in. At the same time, we are also taking data on the boats near them. We’ll record the type of boat, how many boats there are, and what they’re doing. We also approach recreational boaters and talk to them about the appropriate regulations and guidelines for viewing the whales they’re boating around – just making sure everyone is doing their best to reduce the amount of disturbance going on around these whales. That’s really our main priority, reducing the amount of vessel disturbance that cetaceans in the Salish Sea are experiencing.

Since Soundwatch is covering both the boater education and research side of things, can you tell me more about the research you’re doing?

After studying marine biology, Clare Ogle joined the whale and ocean vessel noise-monitoring organization, Soundwatch

We are trying to understand the marine environment that whales are experiencing in terms of the amount of vessel disturbance. We take measurements of their behavior, noting things such as the group size, whether they’re feeding or socializing – things like that. And every time there’s an incident out on the water, that would be a vessel not complying with a regulation or guideline, we also record if the whales have any behavioral changes in response to the incident. In this way we’re trying to understand the way vessel disturbances are impacting whale behavior, and we have a couple different cetacean populations that we’re looking at, such as the Southern Resident killer whales, which are endangered and threatened in part by noise disturbance. We use this information, the data we collect, to learn how we can best reduce disturbance in the marine environment. 

What happens once you’ve collected all of this data? Where does it go?

We basically have a master sheet of all our data. This is a big excel spreadsheet that has all the whale behavior data, all the vessel data, all the incident data and so on. Throughout the season, this master sheet is being updated, and at the end of the season we produce a couple of different reports. Right now, we’re working on our annual report that we produce with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), working on analyzing that data and producing information that can help support policy decisions. All the reports become available for the public to read on our website. 

What made you want to be involved with an organization like Soundwatch?

I have always been interested in whale behavior. I think they’re such smart and complex creatures. In the last couple of years, I’ve become more interested in how anthropogenic activities can influence those behaviors and what effect that can have on population health. The summer before my senior year of college, I was up here taking a class and at the end of the course we had to do a field research project. My co-researchers and I ended up doing a study on how vessel disturbance influences harbor seal behavior, and that was just such an exciting project to me. I really loved doing it, so that definitely made me more interested in vessel disturbance specifically. Because of that, Soundwatch was kind of the perfect internship for me to do post-graduation. And I really love it. It’s the best job I’ve ever had, definitely.

What is something you learned at Soundwatch that you wish the public knew about marine mammal welfare?

I think it is not widely known what an impact vessel disturbance can have on whale behavior. I definitely was not that aware of it until I started taking classes in college and thinking more about it. It might not seem like boats create that much noise to us because we’re listening above water, but underwater they’re producing so much more noise and all of these species are really very sensitive to that noise. It’s really important for these marine mammal species to be able to communicate and, in the case of killer whales, echolocate underwater. Vessel disturbance can disrupt that. 

How would you describe the impact of this on marine mammals? What is the threat of noise pollution?

It depends on the species, but in general it can impact their ability to communicate and for killer whales specifically it has been known to impact their foraging behavior. The Southern Resident killer whales are an endangered population here in the Salish Sea. They’re facing a number of threats, but noise disturbance is one of those main threats. The fact that this noise pollution can impact their ability to forage successfully is especially concerning when they’re also facing reduced prey availability as well as a number of other threats. 

Is there anything else people need to know?

I would really love people to know about Soundwatch, but I think it’s just great for people to know and generally spread awareness about the appropriate regulations and guidelines that need to be followed when you’re out on the water. Here in the Salish Sea, both in U.S. and Canadian waters, it’s important to highlight the Be Whale Wise guidelines, which are additional measures boaters are encouraged to use in order to reduce their impact on marine wildlife when getting underway. When you’re going out boating, or doing any recreational activity on the water, you need to be doing your best to reduce the amount of disturbance you’re creating in that environment because it’s the whales’ home – we’re the ones who are going out there to have fun; we’re the ones who need to make sure we’re maintaining the best possible environment for the whales.  


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