Photo Source: National Geographic

Photo Source: National Geographic

This week’s episode of Overheard at National Geographic is on top of current events, exploring beluga whale behavior and how the global pandemic is changing their own conversation. Research scientist Valeria Vergara is the special guest this week with a conversation about how these incredible giants of the oceans communicate in “Canary of the Sea,” now streaming on your favorite podcast app.

As Valeria puts it, imagine you’re sitting with a friend in a very noisy coffee shop. The conversation that you’re able to have with your friend is condensed and limited because it’s very noisy. If you were at home on the couch with your friend, you’d be able to have a much deeper and more meaningful conversation.

In the case of beluga whales, which have at least twenty-eight unique vocalizations recorded by scientists, their oceans have been like that noisy coffee shop. Cargo ships, cruise line vessels, and private charters have been causing so much noise for these creatures that rely on their hearing more than their sight that it’s been like they’re lost in an underwater fog. With less man-made noise in the oceans, the beluga whales can now sit down on the couch and have that lengthier, more meaningful conversation again.

Another researcher joins the conversation, marine ecologist Michelle Fournet, studies the impacts of noise on whales at Cornell’s Center for Conservation Bioacoustics. Her research has found evidence that the loud noises humans create in the oceans can sometimes cause whales to go deaf, either temporarily like when your ears ring for an hour after leaving a rock concert and in some cases, permanently deaf.

Overheard at National Geographic co-host Craig Welch joins Amy Briggs in this episode as a guest to share more information about noise in the ocean, which also comes from natural sources like wind and waves. But the real heart of the situation is more shipping vessels than ever before, which are also traveling through shortcuts in the arctic circle where melting glaciers have opened up new shipping routes.

Valeria Vergara is taking advantage of this opportunity to do more research during this worldwide slowdown across the ocean to learn more about how beluga whales communicate. She doesn’t have time to wait for funding and she’s expecting to see increased vocalizations among beluga whales now that they have that metaphorical quiet couch to talk with their friends and family on.

You can listen to the full story and read a transcript on the official website for the Overheard at National Geographic podcast.