Cardigan Bay Monitoring Project – The Blog

Dolphins and whales are living in noisy waters

Written by Anna Pääkkönen BSc Hons Zoology, Sea Watch Foundation 2015 Research Intern.

The increasing noise pollution in our oceans is a major concern for marine mammals, specifically dolphins and whales who use their hearing as their primary sense to navigate, communicate and find food.

Sources of human made, or ‘anthropogenic’, noise underwater are for example; shipping, seismic surveys used in oil exploration and military based training, including sonar and explosives. Military sonar has been observed to be the biggest threat to dolphins and whales as the sound can seriously injure the animals’ hearing.

The US navy recently announced that they will limit the use of military sonar in their training to protect whales and dolphins. As a result of the limitations, the navy will not be using military sonar at all in certain established whale and dolphin habitats and migration routes. This is a huge success for many conservation groups demanding the limitation of naval acoustic disturbances, and of course the dolphins and whales themselves.

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Dolphins and whales use echolocation to find food, each other and to navigate. Photo credit National Geographic Creative.

So how is noise pollution in the seas harmful for cetaceans?

Cetaceans – whales, dolphins and porpoises – rely on their hearing as their primary sense for survival. To understand this, you need to understand how the animals’ hearing and echolocation works.

If you have seen any film with a submarine in it, you probably know the basics of how sonar works. A sound wave, or in the case of cetaceans a click, is emitted into the surroundings from the melon at the front of the cetacean’s head. The waves returning to the submarine, or the cetacean’s lower jaw, are translated into information about its surroundings. This helps the whale or dolphin navigate, find food and other whales and dolphins. For this reason any damage to the animals’ hearing can have very serious consequences.


Dolphins and whales use echolocation to find their prey. Photo credit Listening For Orcas.

How does underwater pollution harm cetaceans?

Underwater noise pollution can be harmful in several ways.

Firstly, a noisy environment can drown out the animals’ own sounds, making it harder for them to communicate, navigate and detect prey. The louder background noise can mean that the animals have to ‘shout’ to be heard, and the animals use more energy as a result. When you use more energy, you need more food. When finding food in the noisy environment is already harder, this puts the animals’ health under risk and this can affect its ability to carry and care for its young. In addition, as most of us can understand, a noisy environment can be very stressful.

Secondly, a sudden, loud noise (naval sonar, for example) can cause permanent damage to the animals’ hearing and can even be fatal. Deep diving species may change their diving pattern as a panic response to the noise, and this can cause the condition we know as decompression disease or ‘the bends’; when scuba divers surface too quickly and gases (mainly nitrogen) form bubbles in the blood. Dead cetaceans with this condition have been found following high volume military exercises in the area.


Different types of vessels that use sonar which could disrupt the natural echolocation used by dolphins and whales. Photo credit Collective Evolution.

Sometimes the panic from a sudden loud noise can also result in the animals fleeing towards land and stranding themselves. Mass strandings have been mostly observed in highly social species of beaked whales. The seriousness of the threat posed by naval training became apparent in 2000, when dolphins and whales of several species stranded on the beaches of the Bahamas. Examples of recent mass strandings in the UK include the mass stranding of 39 long-finned pilot whales in 2011 in Scotland and a group of common dolphins stranding on the shores of Cornwall in 2008. In both of these cases a government report later revealed that the likely reason for the mass stranding was naval underwater detonations.


Conservation groups and local volunteers try to keep a stranded long-finned pilot whale alive in Kyle of Durness, Scotland in May 2011. Photo credit: Donald Mitchell/Highland Council/ The Guardian

Could wind farms pose a threat to marine life?

Wind is a great form of energy to utilise and use as a form of renewable energy. Unfortunately, the building of wind farms in the sea is actually a source of a lot of noise, and therefore a threat to marine animals. The piling of wind turbines generates a loud sound which travels long distances in the water. The noise could therefore potentially drive animals away and result in them avoiding the previously favoured habitat.  On the positive side, some studies suggest that once built, the wind farms develop a reef around them and this may actually attract more marine wildlife.

Piling the foundations of wind farms creates a lot of underwater noise, and disturbs cetaceans and other marine life. Photo credit Bine Information Service.

What about other marine species?

Noise pollution also affects other marine species. Seals are affected in similar ways as cetaceans, as they also use their hearing for daily tasks and they may even be able to use echolocation to some extent. In addition, many species of fish have been observed to be negatively affected, and this of course directly affects cetaceans and seals that use fish as their primary food source.

What is being done to restrict the amount of noise pollution in the seas?

In addition to the limitations put in place by the US navy, luckily here in the UK there are some regulations and limitations in place already. These include regularly assessing possible cetacean habitats, ways of minimising impact on marine wildlife in Royal Navy’s basic training and increasing the intensity of sonar gradually so that the animals can begin to move away from the unpleasant sound. Furthermore, assessments of the impacts of different sources of noise to marine life and the identification of important cetacean habitats, breeding grounds and migration routes are done regularly.

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Short-beaked common dolphins chasing a school of fish. Photo credit Dmitry Miroshnikov/solent / 

Dependence on their hearing and echolocation is what makes cetaceans so vulnerable to human made noise pollution in the sea. Just like other kinds of pollution, looking into ways of reducing it, as well as monitoring populations and assessing how they are affected by the noise, is vital to conservation of cetaceans and other wildlife in our seas.


Dolphins Use Extra Energy To Communicate In Noisy Waters

Canadian Journal of Zoology: The impacts of anthropogenic ocean noise on cetaceans and implications for management

What Caused the UK’s Largest Common Dolphin (Delphinus delphis) Mass Stranding Event?

Navy sonar and cetaceans: Just how much does the gun need to smoke before we act?

UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme CSIP – MB0111. Annual Report 2011, Kyle of Durness mass stranding

Gas-bubble lesions in stranded cetaceans

Assessing noise impact of offshore wind farm construction may help protect marine mammals

Offshore wind farms benefit sealife, says study

Evidence that seals may use echolocation

A noisy spring: the impact of globally rising underwater sound levels on fish



A Night With Sea Watch

A Night with Sea Watch Poster

We would like to invite you to


The Sea Watch Foundation are a national charity dedicated to the conservation and research of marine mammals in British and Irish waters. The Cardigan Bay Monitoring Project is based in New Quay, Wales. It is responsible for the conservation management of the bottlenose dolphin, harbour porpoise and Atlantic grey seal populations of Cardigan Bay. Thanks to the work completed by the Cardigan Bay Monitoring Project we can raise awareness and gain an understanding of the marine mammals that exist here and the threats that they face.

A Night With Sea Watch Event details

Sunday 4th October 2015 

18:00 – 20:00

New Quay Memorial Hall

(Towyn Road, Penwig Fields, New Quay, Ceredigion SA45 9QQ)

No need to book just arrive roughly 15 minutes early. 

Refreshments will be available.


What’s in a name?

Written by Lana Turnbull, BSc (Hons) Animal Biology, SWF Research Intern 2015

Within the science research community it has long been known that giving an animal a human quality (a.k.a anthropomorphism) is a big no-no as it makes for bad science. Anthropomorphism can come in many forms such as emotions, behaviours and in the case of this blog post, names.

Here at Sea Watch we have seen a ‘few’ bottlenose dolphins pass through Cardigan Bay over the past two decades, well over 200 to be more precise and every one of these has been assigned a number (i.e. 025-046W) so we can catalogue their future movements and behaviours. However in some cases, where we see individuals on a regular basis within the bay they have acquired themselves a local name, for example Alfredo, Top Notch and even Gandalf!

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 14.46.55So why do we name the dolphins when the science community highly condemns it? 

Answering this question involves going off topic slightly (in terms of marine mammals). Earlier this year the death of Cecil the Lion sent the world into uproar. The man responsible for the lion’s downfall, Walter Palmer, was recently quoted as saying ‘If I had known this lion had a name…I wouldn’t have taken it’. He suggested that not the conservation status of the animal would have stopped him, but something as simple as a name would have.  His statement has since raised several questions over the importance of a name in the use of conservation. It got me thinking – is the use of a name more than identifying an individual or can it be used as a different approach to conservation?

For research purposes and for keeping our dolphin catalogue up to date, here at SWF the dolphins will first and foremost always be given a number, but if they become regularly sighted on our surveys then they may adopt a name.

Like many other marine research organisations, one of SWF’s aims is to encourage the public to get involved with the marine environment and increase their awareness. However to do this is sometimes harder than it sounds, especially when you’re telling them that dolphin 025_046W was spotted just down the bay. On the other hand when you tell them that Gandalf was seen leaping out of the water in the south of the bay people seem immediately more interested.

With a name such as 025_046W, it’s just a series of characters put together, whereas with a name such as Bond, it creates a character and with a character comes a story. Research has shown that we, as humans, have long been captivated by those who have things in common with us, and this can easily lead to compassion and understanding. This can quickly result in people wanting to become more involved with the conservation of a species.

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A name can evoke empathy in a person to the point where they want to help and contribute towards the problem which ultimately results in increased efforts which leads to the protection and conservation of a species.

At the end of the day, with or without a name, a dolphin is a dolphin, and nothing will change that. However the addition of a name we can possibly change perceptions and increase public involvement with our research. So as Shakespeare put it so simply, what’s in a name? More than an identity, apparently.




Whilst on the topic of names, we are currently running a competition where you can have the chance to name the calf of one of our regulars, Berry. The name will be used in our catalogues and in social media to monitor the calf’s behaviour in the future. Entry is only £1 and you can enter as many times as you like – however be quick as the closing date is the end of September!

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Help us fight the tide against marine debris!

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“The UK has some of the most beautiful coastline you could hope to find. But it is being ruined by a rising tide of litter that is increasing year on year. We need your help to tackle this menace!”

Are you ready to take action? Join the Sea Watch Foundation team on September 19th to clean up Traeth Y Dolau, New Quay and make a difference in your area! Along with the beach clean the Sea Watch team will be running activities for all on the pier including a chance to learn about the whales, dolphins and porpoises of the UK and Cardigan Bay, educational games, face painting and much more!

Sea Watch is working in association with the Marine Conservation Society Great British Beach Clean and the Ocean Conservancy 30th International Coastal Cleanup Day! Be part of the largest, single-day volunteer effort to fight marine debris! Last year, 560,000 volunteers from 91 countries participated in the cleanup effort and picked up more than 16 million pound of rubbish!  You can make a difference. Take the pledge to help turn the tide on marine debris and fight for a healthy ocean. 

See you on the sand!


Competition Time! Help give Berry’s calf a name!

Competition Time!

Can you think of the perfect name for Berry’s Calf?

Just £1 to enter your chosen name into the draw! So why not give it a go! 

Here’s how to enter…

Visiting New Quay, West Wales?

Then come see the Sea Watch team on the New Quay Pier daily from 9am – 7pm. 

Not from New Quay? Thats Okay!

Take part online by clicking the ‘donate’ button below. A donation of £1 will be taken from your chosen payment method and please remember to add your dolphin name entry in the ‘Add special instructions to seller’ section. Good luck!


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The funds raised from this competition will go towards The Cardigan Bay Monitoring Project which is based in New Quay, Wales. It is responsible for the conservation management of the bottlenose dolphin, harbour porpoise and grey seal populations of Cardigan Bay. Click here to find out more information.


  • Entries are to be submitted to a member of the Sea Watch team before 13:00 on the 30/09/15
  • Each name entered will cost £1
  • Participants may have multiple entries at a cost of £1 per name submitted
  • Three names will be selected by Sea Watch’s Monitoring Officer, Sightings Officer and Education and Awareness Assistant on the 30/09/15 after 13:00
  • The three selected names will be displayed on Facebook and the overall winner will be chosen by a public vote.
  • The winner will be contacted upon selection and their name will be displayed along with the winning dolphin name on this blog

NEW QUAY National Whale and Dolphin Watch Events

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For more information on all these fantastic activities contact Meg from Sea Watch on or call on 01545561227 – See you at the sea side!