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Whale hearing in the deep sea [abstract]

Sam H. Ridgway, Donald A. Carder, Robert R. Smith, Tricia Kamolnick, Carolyn E. Schlundt and Wesley R. Elsberry (1998). Whale hearing in the deep sea [abstract]. Bioacoustics, Volume 9 (2): 152



In examining the potential impact of human-made sound on sea mammals, it was considered that whale hearing sensitivity might diminish with increasing ambient pressure. To test the effect of depth, two white whales made 885 dives to a platform at 5, 100, 200 or 300 m in the Pacific Ocean. Each stationing on the platform up to 12 minutes at a time, whales whistled when they heard a 500 ms tone from a hydrophone. With increasing depth, air density increase in the middle ear, sinuses, and nasal cavity changed each whale's whistle response, but did not attenuate hearing as it does in the aerial ear (of humans and other land mammals tested in pressure chambers) due to middle ear impedance changes. The findings support theories that sound is conducted through whale head tissues to the ear without the usual ear drum/ossicular chain amplification of the aerial middle ear. These first ever hearing tests in the open ocean demonstrate that whales hear as well at depth as near the surface; therefore, zones of influence for human made sounds are just as great throughout the depths to which whales dive, or at least to 300 m.