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Sonic Sea

Discovery Impact Special Premieres May 19th

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Discovery Impact Special Premieres May 19th

Narrated by Oscar®-Nominated Actress Rachel McAdams

And Featuring An Interview with Grammy® Award-Winning Artist Sting

Produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Imaginary Forces in association with the International Fund for Animal Welfare

Everywhere on Earth we can hear the songs of life. From small insects to the largest animals on the planet, our world is made up of the sounds of these creatures living and communicating with one another.   This is even more apparent deep down in the darkness of the sea, where whales and other marine life depend on sound to mate, find food, migrate, raise their young and defend against predators. Yet, their symphony of life is being disrupted by the industrialized noise that has become commonplace in our oceans today—with tragic and deadly costs.

Created in partnership with Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Imaginary Forces and International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), SONIC SEA travels beneath the ocean’s surface to uncover the damaging consequences of increased ocean noise pollution and what can be done to stop it. Narrated by Academy® Award-nominated actress Rachel McAdams and featuring interviews with marine ecologists, ocean life experts, and wildlife activists, including Grammy Award-winning musician, human rights and environmental activist Sting, SONIC SEA highlights how noise from a range of man-made sources has affected whales in recent years, including the mass stranding of whales around the planet. The film uncovers how better ship design, speed limits for large ships, quieter methods for underwater resource exploration, and exclusion zones for sonar training can work to reduce the noise in our oceans and stop the deaths of our ocean’s beloved creatures, as long as society has “the political will to solve it.” 

Premiering as part of DISCOVERY IMPACT, a series of groundbreaking documentaries focusing on humankind’s impact on the environment and what individuals and society as a whole can do to solve some of the largest problems facing the planet, SONIC SEA premieres Thursday, May 19 at 9 p.m. ET/PT, exclusively on Discovery Channel. Upcoming Discovery Impact Documentaries include TOUCAN NATION (July 30) and KILLING THE COLORADO (August 6).

Over the last century, extremely loud noise from commercial ships, oil and gas exploration, naval sonar exercises and other sources has transformed the ocean’s delicate acoustic habitat, challenging the ability of whales and other marine life to prosper and ultimately to survive.

“March 15, 2000: The day of infamy as far as I’m concerned,” explains Kenneth C. Balcomb, a whale researcher and a former U.S Navy officer who was living in Bahamas. 

On this day, Balcomb and his team discovered whales swimming dangerously close to the shore. “They're supposed to be in deep water. So I pushed it back out to sea,” explained Balcomb.

As the day progressed more and more were discovered off the coast and ultimately various groups of whales were found on the shore. SONIC SEA shines a light on the findings of those incidents which led to a new understanding of the detrimental impact of ocean noise on marine life

“There's different ways that sounds can affect animals,” explains IFAW Animal Rescue Program Director Katie Moore. “There’s that underlying ambient noise level that’s rising, and rising, and rising that interferes with communication and their movement patterns. And then there’s the more acute kind of traumatic impact of sound, that’s causing physical damage or a really strong behavioral response. It’s fight or flight.”

Because of the events in the Bahamas and others around the globe, researchers worked to study the direct affect the noise has on wildlife living in the ocean and have come to staggering conclusions. One study conducted off of the coast of Boston revealed that North Right Whales lost up to 80 percent of their ability to hear the songs of their friends and mates. While their cousins, the Southern Right Whales, who live in the Southern Hemisphere where there is a fraction of the shipping compared to the north, are thriving and multiplying.

This noise is “ripping the communication system apart,” making it almost impossible to mate, find food and ultimately survive. And now, the species as a whole is in a dire situation.

“There may be 450 of them left in the entire ocean,” explains Christopher W. Clark, Ph.D, Senior Scientist at the Bioacoustics Research Program, Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “That species is fighting for its life right now.”

SONIC SEA also explores how the use of sonar by the U.S Navy and other navies around the world is contributing to whale strandings. While sonar helps to protect our ships and those naval officers aboard the ships by detecting activity from enemy forces in the water, it also can have a debilitating effect on an ocean’s whale population. The deafening sound it releases forces many whales to go silent, stop communicating with their fellow whales, and often abandon the ocean they were calling home. Although the two sides might seem at opposing ends of the spectrum, many working in the industry don’t believe that they are mutually exclusive.

In SONIC SEA, Honorable Steven Honigman, ret. U.S Navy, comments that, “I don’t believe that national security and environmental protection are inconsistent at all. I think there has to be an accommodation between those two principles, where the Navy can operate in a way that has the minimal impact upon the environment and still perform its training, and if necessary, its mission.”

New solutions, including quieter shipping and seismic testing technologies, exist to balance industry needs with the protection of marine mammals.


“It won’t cure the problem, there will still be impacts, but it would at least reduce the fever,” said Michael Jasny, director of NRDC’s Marine Mammal Protection Project. “The one good thing about ocean noise is that when you stop making noise, it goes away.”

SONIC SEA won the Jury Award and the John de Graff Environmental Filmmaking award when it premiered at the Wild & Scenic Film Festival in January.

SONIC SEA is produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Imaginary Forces in association with the International Fund for Animal Welfare  and Diamond Docs. Directed and produced by Michelle Dougherty and Daniel Hinerfeld; written by Mark Monroe’ editor, Christopher Johnson; scored by, Heitor Pereira;  director of photography, Stacy Toyama;  executive producers, Chip Houghton, Peter Frankfurt and Joel Reynolds; co-producers Lisa Whiteman and Franceska Bucci, associate producers; Shawna Moos, Patrick R. Ramage, Dunja Vitolic, Kashina Kessler; consulting producers, Michael Jasny, Tristan Bayer, and Bronwyn Barkan. For Discovery Channel: supervising producer, Jon Bardin; executive producer, John Hoffman.

Google Oceans and SpaceQuest, Ltd provided data on global ship traffic used in several of the film’s animations.

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About the Natural Resources Defense Council

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 2 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.