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Deaf students' research shows noise pollution could be harmful to marine mammals (Released: 12/12/95)

by Renu Sehgal, Office of University Communications.

STORRS, Conn. -- Noise pollution in the ocean may affect the hearing of whales and dolphins and could interfere with their ability to hunt for food and avoid predators, according to a study by American School for the Deaf students participating in the University of Connecticut's Aquanauts Program.

Commercial vessels are emitting noise in the sea at an increasing rate, the seven students said in the scientific paper they wrote about the results of thei r research in Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Maine.

''We assumed that whales' hearing is at least as sensitive as human hearing,'' the students wrote. ''In our research, we found that the noise in Stellwagen Bank could have a negative effect on human hearing over a period of eight hours. By continued research on relationships between hearing sensitivity of cetaceans and humans, future conclusions may lead to a new awareness of environmental issues.''

The noise emitted by commercial vessels could interfere with the mammals' own sonar system. Whales and mammals emit sound to determine the distance to their destination as well as to find food and avoid predators.

''If noise levels are high, they will block the sounds the whales send, therefore making it difficult to determine the distance to their destination or use it to rely on for their survival," the students wrote. "If whales need to transmit their signals at a louder level in order to overcome the noise interference, they will have to expend more energy.''

The students said more research is needed on the hearing sensitivity of marine mammals and on the amount of time they spend in specific areas of the Stellwagen Bank.

''With all this in mind, we can conclude that this field is open for new and further research. Perhaps our research will motivate other scientists to shift their attention and concern to this issue. After all, it's time for us to assume the responsibility for taking care of the mammals of the ocean,'' the students concluded.

The students conducted their research in late July, joining marine acoustics specialist Peter Scheifele on a two-day trip. They finished their paper in late November.

''The research is the critical first step toward understanding the impact of low frequency noise on cetaceans,'' said Scheifele, who is director of marine education programs at the National Undersea Research Center.

The students' research is also critical because it related the noise in the ocean to what humans would hear, he said.

''They are the first group to look at oceanics acoustics and relate it to human hearing perception,'' Scheifele said. ''That makes their project unique.''

The American School for the Deaf in West Hartford was one of seven schools taking part this year in The National Undersea Research Center's High School Aquanauts program, which selects students and teachers from around Connecticut to participate in marine education and research for one year. The Aquanauts Program, which has had 420 student and 88 teacher participants since it began on 1987, is funded through a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The project is part of a new curriculum established by the Aquanauts Program and the school to teach deaf students marine sciences. Scheifele, the students' scientist/mentor who is researching underwater acoustics, visited the school once a week for the past year to prepare them for the research project.

The National Undersea Research Center, based at the Marine Sciences & Technology Center, is one of six such centers in the world that provide opportunities for scientists to study the biological, chemical, geological and physical processes in the world's oceans and lakes. The center is committed to developing ocean technology and monitoring, protecting and enhancing our coastal habitats.

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