Orcas are under threat from man-made noise pollution. These scientists are fighting to protect them.

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Noise pollution from boats and oil drilling can interfere with orcas' ability to communicate, and drive them toward dangerously rocky shorelines.
Experts are studying how man-made noise pollution, like from boats and oil drilling, is threatening the lives of orcas.

One team of scientists is collecting hundreds of hours of orca recordings off the coast of Norway in an effort to make to region a marine protected area.

Man-made noises interfere with orcas' communication, which they use for hunting and mating.

And orcas trying to escape the underwater cacophonies may travel too far to the rocky shoreline, which can result in stranding and death.

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Orcas have a language of their own. They communicate through touch, movement, and most importantly, sound.

And it's marine scientist Ellyne Hamran's job to eavesdrop on them.

Hamran is an acoustic researcher studying the sounds marine mammals like whales and dolphins use to communicate. She's captured hundreds of hours of orca recordings.

This summer, she's listening to the orcas of Norway's Lofoten Islands, beloved by the creatures for its healthy populations of herring and other fish to feed on.

But an invisible problem is increasingly alarming experts: noise pollution from whale-watching cruises, oil exploration, and other human activity. Hamran has set out to study how it affects the whales — and use her findings to make Lofoten a marine protected area, permanently shielding it from both unwelcome noise and oil drilling.

"Whales are using sound as their primary sense, unlike humans that are using their vision," Hamran told Business Insider Today. "So it's very important for whales to be able to communicate to each other, to find mates, to search for prey, also to navigate the area."

Hamran works for Ocean Sounds, a nonprofit that advocates for marine ecosystem conservation and has been tracking orcas here in Lofoten since 2003.

Marine scientist Ellyne Hamran has collected hundreds of hours of whale sounds to study how noise pollution affects the animals. Maarten van Rouveroy for Business Insider Today

On a typical day, Ellyne, her husband Bjørn, their dog Bailey, and a team of researchers drive around the islands in an inflatable boat looking for action.

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When they spot whales, they slowly approach, then turn off the engine to minimize noise. They use an underwater microphone called a hydrophone to record vocalizations.

"During socializing, they're producing a variety of vocalizations. It can be whistles, calls, buzzes, clicks — same with when they're feeding. They're a little bit more quiet when they're traveling," she said.

They also photograph the whales to keep track of the family groups. Bjørn operates a drone that films whales from above. The scientists assign a number to each orca and add them to a catalog.

"We will be able to use this method to track them over time. It's a very noninvasive and inexpensive way of doing the research," Hamran said.

Over time, they match the orcas' sounds up with behaviors, gradually learning their complex language. Each pod speaks its own dialect, so tracking them is essential for understanding the communication.

The large population of whales also attracts thousands of people looking for boat tours every year. But these ships full of whale lovers can actually be quite disturbing to ocean life.

"We've had issues of boats…
Business Insider, insider@insider.com (Elizabeth McCauley)
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