- Some sailors off the Iberian coast are turning to heavy metal to deter orcas from ramming into their boats.
- A marine mammal researcher told Insider that the strategy could backfire.
- The music will also add to human-made ocean noise, which is already a major issue for marine animals.
Sailors using heavy metal music to deter orcas from ramming into their boats could find that the strategy backfires.
After a series of incidents this year where a population of orca whales near the Iberian Peninsula began targeting and sinking sailboats, sailors in the region are looking for ways to deter the massive marine mammals.
A German sailor told The New York Times that his crew turned to a heavy metal playlist, blasted through underwater speakers, to scare off orcas — although, in his experience, the playlist proved to be a complete failure.
Andrew Trites, director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia, told Business Insider that using brash and blaring tunes to avoid orcas could help the whale find the boats.
“Initially, the playing of loud sounds underwater might mask the signature sounds of sailboats — but ultimately the whales would catch on and use it to more easily locate vessels playing it,” Trites said.
Trites also explained that orcas can hear at higher frequencies than humans, meaning that trying to cover up the sounds of sailboats that the orcas have come to recognize is a futile exercise.
Ultimately, the practice is not encouraged.
The only way heavy metal, or any music, could be effective at discouraging orcas from approaching boats is if it were played so loud that it hurts the animal and causes hearing loss, Trites said. (Needless to say, humans should not do this.)
Additionally, Trites told Business Insider that if sailors adopted this method, the most harmful result would be an addition to noise pollution in the ocean.
“The biggest problem with blasting music underwater of any kind is that it is ultimately just adding more noise pollution to the ocean which can have detrimental effects on other marine life,” Trites said.
Noise pollution is already a major issue for marine animals that rely on sound to attract mates, communicate with friends and family, track food sources, avoid predators, and navigate the ocean, according to NOAA. Sound travels more quickly and much further in water than it does through air, making it a useful tool for underwater species, scientists have noted.
Human-caused noise pollution comes from a variety of sources, including ships, energy production via wind turbines, underwater mining, and even low-flying planes. Anthropogenic climate change is also affecting underwater soundscapes, research shows.
As of now, scientists are still unsure how to stop the Iberian orca population from ramming into boats, but experts say there are a variety of methods to keep sailors safe during these encounters.
These methods include: avoiding orcas or keeping a distance when spotted, de-powering the boat and dropping sails, maintaining a low profile as they approach the boat, keeping a firm grip on the boat in case they do ram into the vessel, and waiting until the orcas leave the area until sailing again.
“At this point, the jury is still out assessing exactly what is going on, and what can be done (if anything) to stop this adherent targeting of sailboats by this small group of killer whales,” Trites told Insider. “It is not a passing fad — and is going to take a coordinated effort by orca specialists and mariners to experimentally try different deterrence methods to figure out what is going to ultimately work.”