Are Whales the Source of the Mysterious Noise In Canada’s Arctic?

A military investigation found nothing but some whales and walruses.

Nov 3 2016, 6:17pm

Image: Flickr/Kent Wang

The mystery of a "pinging" sound emanating from the Arctic seafloor in Canada, which local hunters say has been driving away wildlife, just grew deeper.

The Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) dispatched a military plane to investigate the noise after the territory of Nunavut asked for assistance in determining the its origin. When the crew returned, they reported that they found nothing except for some whales and walruses.

"The air crew performed various multi-sensor searches in the area, including an acoustic search for 1.5 hours, without detecting any acoustic anomalies," DND spokesperson Ashley Lemire wrote me in an email. "The crew did not detect any surface or subsurface contacts. The crew did observe two pods of whales and six walruses in the area of interest."

Locals had theorized the noise might be due to local mining activities, or even environmentalists, although both denied it. So could whales really be to blame?

Read More: The Canadian Military Is Investigating a Mysterious Noise In the Arctic

It wouldn't be the first time that whale sounds were confused for something more sinister. In 2014, amateur zoologists recorded what they believed to be Vermont's own version of the Loch Ness Monster: a creature named Champ, named for Lake Champlain. Professionals, however, thought it might be whales echolocating. (Beluga whales can live in both cold ocean water like Canada's Arctic, and in warmer freshwater.)

According to University of Manitoba professor Steve Ferguson, who studies the evolutionary ecology of large Arctic mammals like whales, it's possible but highly unlikely that whales are the cause of the mysterious pinging.

"Beluga and Narwhal whales use echolocation commonly," Ferguson said. This echolocation "might scare away fish that whales might eat, but it's unlikely it would scare away wildlife."

Moreover, Ferguson said, if you're close enough to hear a whale's pinging echolocation, instead of their booming calls, then you're likely swimming right beside it. "If you heard the echolocation, you'd probably be able to attribute it to the whale," he said.

Bowhead whales emit a large, low-frequency sound to communicate with each other over long distances, Ferguson said, which could conceivably be perceived as a sort of "hum," another word used by Nunavut hunters to describe this mysterious sound. But there's no way it could be heard as a ping, Ferguson contended.

According to the DND, the species of whale spotted by the plane wasn't reported.

"I think the assumption is that the pinging is a more human sound," Ferguson added, adding yet another layer of intrigue to the case of the unknown Arctic ping.

Someone really needs to call up Mulder and Scully.