Culture At Large

Seeing God’s wisdom in a new discovery about whales

Rolf Bouma

Who thinks of the ear as a point of life-or-death vulnerability?

A parent warning a teenager about overly loud music scolds “You’ll be deaf when you’re 40,” not “You could die if you aren’t careful.” Among the hundreds of mystery novels I’ve read, I can think of only one in which death comes by loud noise. (Does it require a spoiler alert if I say that it’s a Dorothy Sayers mystery?) The worst that most of us endure is the occasional sonic boom or the concussive blasts during Fourth of July festivities.

This is one difference between the realms of terra firma and terra aqua, between creatures that live in air and those that live in water. In the aquatic realm, sound travels faster, with significantly less diminishment and with deadly repercussions. Explosions and sustained loud noises wreak havoc at even great distances. Naval exercises and wartime engagements on the high seas routinely cause disablement and death among marine mammals. 

Court cases brought against the United States Navy to prevent sonar trials or explosives testing have made their way even to the U.S. Supreme Court, where judicial wisdom has ruled that national defense trumps both environmental protection and sentient marine life. Whales, dolphins and porpoises pay the price in mass groundings. Even diminished hearing capacity sounds a death knell for species whose survival depends on mating calls transmitted and heard across vast oceanic distances.

What a wise thing for God to do, creating whales with volume controls!

This is another instance of the toll exacted on the created order by human propensity for evil, as well as the corresponding attempt to protect against evil. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra, where he depicts the devil mindlessly destroying the birds of paradise.

A glimmer of hope for our aquatic friends recently emerged when it was reported that marine mammals seem to have the capacity to turn down their hearing if they anticipate loud sounds. It’s a capacity that we landlubbers seem not to have except by covering our ears. A whale suitably warned adjusts its aural sensitivity to keep the volume at manageable levels.

Speaking biologically, one can understand such a talent aids survival. Stuck in a pod of vocalizing cohorts, a whale dials down to prevent deafness. Speaking theologically, our affirmation that (with credit to composer Alan Hovhaness) “God created great whales . . .” includes the notion that in wisdom God created them all. What a wise thing for God to do, creating whales with volume controls!

It is, unfortunately, only a partial solution to the problem. Whales and dolphins need to be trained to know when sonar exercises are going active or when underwater detonations take place. They need to associate another, milder sound with the need to plug their ears. But it means that humans, acting with foresight and empathy, can take measures to prevent unnecessary death and damage.

There’s still that war thing, however. I just can’t see a navy agreeing to sound warnings before firing torpedoes or detonating depth charges. The devil always seems to have something still up his sleeve. I guess the dolphins and whales groan inwardly and wait, like us, with eager longing for the day when wars shall cease.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science, Environment