How could anything good possibly come out of this world-wide epidemic? Obviously nothing could, at least not for mankind. But let’s not leave mother nature in the wings. She lives here too, and for her, there are some bright spots. If that makes you feel just a little better, read on.
Let’s start with the largest living creatures on earth, whales and other marine mammals. First, the virus has brought about quieter seas, thanks to a drop in shipping traffic. We know this because noises in the oceans can be measured. Scientists at Ocean Networks Canada near Vancouver B.C. actually “listen” to Pacific waters. By studying sound signals, they’ve discovered a drop in the low-frequency noise that emanates from ships, thanks to a current drop in sea-going cargo vessels.
In fact, noise pollution that negatively affects certain marine animals has dropped at sites as deep as 9,000 feet, and as far from shipping lanes as 60 kilometers. Much earlier, a landmark study done after the 9/11 disaster (which was also followed by a period of lower freighter traffic), provided an important clue: whales exhibit chronic stress from shipping noise, and also tend to stop “talking” to each other. The inability to share information can interfere with feeding patterns.
Even our regional killer whales can be affected. Each pod has developed an important communications system, a language specific to its group. Their sounds travel long distances and even employ echo location to find prey. When more than one pod is in the same area, an individual can easily identify its own group through sound. In addition, this far-reaching common language within the pod is helpful to an orca finding its way back after straying some distance to find food.
Besides orcas and whales, dolphins and porpoises also talk to each other. Senses we humans rely on, like sight and smell, aren’t terribly useful if you live beneath the sea. Sight isn’t very effective because the sea scatters light; smell isn’t very useful because molecules are less helpful in water than in air. Sound, however, travels four times faster in water than in air at sea level. That’s why scientists and environmentalists worry about the harm caused to marine mammals by large ocean-going ships.
Naturally, fewer cargo ships at sea these days is bad news for human commerce, but the pandemic has at least provided a host of marine mammals with a respite, albeit temporary.
In my next column I’ll list more ways in which a variety of nature’s creatures, with whom we share this planet, are benefiting from the far-reaching effects of the current pandemic.