Pile driving, which creates high amplitude sounds with potentially negative impacts on the marine environment, is used to attach wind turbines to the sea bed. To quantify the distance at which pile driving sounds can be detected by harbor seals, unmasked hearing thresholds were obtained for series of five pile driving sounds recorded at 100 and 800 m from a pile driving location. The played back spectra resembled the spectra of sounds recorded under certain conditions 10-50 km from an offshore pile driving site. The lower the received level, the later within the series of sounds the harbor seals responded. The mean 50% detection threshold sound exposure levels for any sound in the series were: 40 (seal 01, 100 m), 39 (seal 01, 800 m), 43 (seal 02, 100 m), and 43 (seal 02, 800 m) dB re 1 μPa2s (add 9 dB for sound pressure level, dB re 1 μPa). The mean 50% detection thresholds based on detection of only the first sound of the series were ca. 5 dB higher. Detection at sea depends on the actual propagation conditions and on the degree of masking of the sounds by ambient noise, but the present study suggests that pile driving sounds are audible to harbor seals up to hundreds of kilometers from pile driving sites.
This report was presented at a symposium at Naturalis in Leiden on September 8, 2015. A complete report containing brief abstracts of all studies presented at the symposium can be found here.