The Effect of a Low-Frequency Sound Source (Acoustic Thermometry of the Ocean Climate) on the Diving Behavior of Juvenile Northern Elephant Seals, Mirounga angustirostris

Changes in the diving behavior of individual free-ranging juvenile northern elephant seals, Mirounga angustirostris, exposed to the acoustic thermometry of the ocean climate (ATOC) sound source were examined using data loggers. Data loggers were attached to the animals and measured swim speed, maximum depth of dive, dive duration, surface interval, descent and ascent rate, and descent and ascent angle along with sound pressure level (SPL). The ATOC sound source was at a depth of 939 m and transmitted at 195 dB re: 1µPa at 1 m centered at 75 Hz with a 37.5-Hz bandwidth. Sound pressure levels (SPL) measured at the seal during transmissions averaged 128 dB and ranged from 118 to 137 dB re: 1 µPa for the 60–90 Hz band, in comparison to ambient levels of 87–107 dB within this band. In no case did an animal end its dive or show any other obvious change in behavior upon exposure to the ATOC sound. Subtle changes in diving behavior were detected, however. During exposure, deviations in descent rate were greater than 1 s.d. of the control mean in 9 of 14 seals. Dive depth increased and descent velocity increased in three animals, ascent velocity decreased in two animals, ascent rate increased in one animal and decreased in another, and dive duration decreased in only one animal. There was a highly significant positive correlation between SPL and descent rate. The biological significance of these subtle changes is likely to be minimal. This is the first study to quantify behavioral responses of an animal underwater with simultaneous measurements of SPL of anthropogenic sounds recorded at the animal.