When a dead whale washed ashore on the Hebridean island of Iona in the summer of 2018, artist Mhairi Killin was as intrigued as many other islanders. “It’s a beautiful place and people walk there regularly – it wasn’t long before there was a bit of a rumor on the island that there was a whale,” she says. “That’s been the same since prehistory, when a whale on land would be a source of food, oil and bones for artifacts.”
Why the whale had died was a mystery, deepened that autumn when it was revealed to be one of more than 100 carcasses, mostly Cuvier’s beaked whales, found off the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Scientists began investigating whether military sonar might be responsible, giving Killin the subject of a new collaborative exhibition, which opens on the Isle of Mull this summer.
On Sonorous Seas uses whale bones, sound recordings, videos, poetry, and artifacts derived from stranded whales to examine the clash between our reverence for these enigmatic mammals and the way we increasingly fill the oceans with noise, and sonar. in particular.
Killin, who has lived on Iona for 25 years, believes our fascination with whales stems from their mystery, but also from a sense of kinship. “We are connected to these nonhuman beings,” he says, “but because they are rarely seen, there is a mystery associated with them and their underworld. When there is an opportunity to have a fragmentary connection with these creatures that were our ancestors, there is an element of wonder, mystery and awe.”
Beaked whales are some of the least known mammals on the planet, they breathe like us and yet they are able to withstand depths of 3 km, chasing squid in the dark ocean. In such blackness, the species relies entirely on sound to navigate, find food, and communicate. These whales are rarely seen alive, yet they make up a large body of marine life off the coast of Scotland, an area of global importance for cetaceans where 24 species exist, more than a quarter of all whale species. and dolphins that are found all over the world.
Killin’s exhibition, which includes collaborations with Glasgow musician Fergus Hall and Mull poet Miek Zwamborn, builds on a research trip he undertook with the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT) last year to discover the impact of sonar in cetaceans. For 10 days, he sailed with scientists, listening intently to a hydrophone towed behind the small boat that recorded the sounds of the sea.
“Globally, whale and dolphin populations are facing enormous pressures in the marine environment,” says Alison Lomax, executive director of HWDT. “The same types of problems – busy, noisy and polluted seas – are also a problem in Scottish waters. These animals are incredibly sensitive to noise, and the increase in noise in our seas is cause for concern.”
Twice a year since 2008, the HWDT conducts a study at the same time as Exercise Joint Warrior, Europe’s largest military exercise, taking place in the North Atlantic off Scotland. The charity is collecting long-term data on sounds and sightings to understand how military sonar from submarines in particular could harm cetacean lives.
We understand that the military have to carry out their exercises. So how can these values be overlapped in a way that isn’t harmful?
For one minute every 15 minutes for eight hours, Killin would listen to the hydrophone. “It was incredibly informative I would say transformer – deep listening exercise,” she says. “I heard a dolphin whistle and shrimp biting, little organisms that create a noise like fried bacon.” But she was also surprised by the amount of anthropogenic sound that she detected. “Heard boat noise, seal deterrent around fish farms and a lot of sonar. Sonar was very present, we could hear it without putting on headphones,” she says. “The sea is an industrialized soundscape.”
Killin saw killer whales and also encountered naval warships. During a military exercise, the GPS in the area would be temporarily blocked. “We were on a 60-foot sailboat driving a 30mph wind and our GPS was stuck and one of the military boats radioed us and told us to turn around and get out of the area.” Later, a military helicopter spotted them, but Killin did not consider this intimidation. “We were in her space, that was it,” she says.
Unfortunately, the military is also sometimes in the space and frequency of whales. Mid-frequency active sonar is exactly the frequency range deep beaked whales need to hear.
Andrew Brownlow, director of the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme, helped investigate the 2018 mass stranding. “The impact of noise on marine animals is not something that is easy to detect, either from examination of live animals or from examination of bodies.” he says. Post-mortem techniques can detect physical changes in whales’ ears and ear cells, while physiological changes, such as dissolved nitrogen bubbles in the blood, can reveal noise-induced damage. One way sonar could cause whale mortality is to startle them into swimming to the surface too quickly, causing potentially fatal decompression sickness, as experienced by human divers.
Brownlow points to the correlation between mass strandings of deep-diving mammals and naval activity: The Canary Islands were once a hotspot for strandings, but ceased in 2004 after a moratorium on nearby naval exercises.
In the 2018 Scottish and Irish stranding, the bodies of beaked whales were too decomposed to offer many clues as to cause of death, but scientists studied winds and currents to deduce that the animals came from an Atlantic area known as Porcupine Bank, filled with underwater water. valleys and particularly rich in marine life. This undulating underwater terrain is also a prime hiding place for submarines, and many nations, including Russia, use it for military exercises.
Last year, the Navy admitted it was operating in the area when the whales were stranded and said it recognized the risks active sonar posed to marine life, funded the research and took precautions to minimize the risks. Strategies to prevent noisy sonars from harming whales could be to start any sound quietly before increasing the volume so that the animals are warned. Brownlow, who praises the Defense Ministry for engaging with scientists, says such measures may be impractical “in theater of war”.
Killin wishes to draw our attention to the wonder of whales, but his exposition does not seek to draw a binary conclusion: “the military is bad, the whales are good.” “We understand that the army has to carry out its exercises.” she says. “So how can these two sets of values overlap in a way that is not harmful? That’s what the job is about. I am trying to bring people to the complexity of this topic. This is what artists can do: help us see in a different way and maybe get a different perception of things.”
• On Sonorous Seas is at An Tobar, Tobermory, Isle of Mull, until August 27.