Sonic Sea

2015 / Michelle Dougherty and Daniel Hinerfeld /

At a time when thousands of whales were being slaughtered each year, the release of the album Songs of the Humpback Whale in 1970 sparked a movement that eventually led to one of the great conservation achievements to date, the moratorium on commercial whaling. The record inspired a new generation of researchers, who discovered that blue whale songs can travel underwater for a thousand miles and humpback songs vary from ocean to ocean. Whales rely on sound to navigate, communicate, locate food, and even to find—and perhaps impress—potential mates.

The newly released documentary Sonic Sea is a fascinating and moving account of how the oceans of the world are being overwhelmed by intense, human-caused noises such as shipping traffic, naval sonar training exercises, and seismic testing to locate oil and gas reserves. Narrated by the actress Rachel McAdams, and including an interview with the musician Sting, the hour-long documentary paints a grim picture of how noise pollution threatens the very survival of whales and other marine creatures.

Notwithstanding the bleak picture the documentary portrays, Sonic Sea offers hope, and a blueprint for how concerted public action can make a difference. Beautifully filmed, Sonic Sea is also well based in science; leading experts on ocean noise and whale behavior passionately describe just how reliant whale culture is on sound. Co-produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Imaginary Forces, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the film is currently appearing at venues around the world. Information on showings can be found at Sonic Sea is also available on Netflix.