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Wild coast

The coast is a dynamic landscape, full of wildlife and ancient natural processes. Explore how the boisterous cries of gulls and the mystical sounds that exist along the wilder stretches of shoreline play a crucial role in creating the ocean soundscape.

Birds of the coast

Along with the ever-present sound of the sea, it is the voices of birds that really help give a place that special coastal feel. Any examination of coastal wildlife should begin with a look at seabirds, for none are better suited to a marine existence than this motley crew. Every year during the breeding season, the scarred cliffs of Britain become a hive of activity as seabirds return from their winter wanderings. Like a field during a festival, the best spots are soon snatched as individuals start to settle in. Kittiwakes, Razorbills, Guillemots, Puffins and Fulmars are just some of the species that come together to form mixed breeding colonies. During peak season, hundreds of thousands of birds can be found gathered together on cliff faces, a scene that is both visually and aurally spectacular. A seabird breeding colony in full flow is an awe-inspiring assault on the senses. Set against a backdrop of crashing waves, the distinctive voices of such a large number of birds come together to create a soundscape that is full of energy and activity.

In addition to the songs and calls of seabirds, the changing seasons bring migratory birds to British shores. In these fleeting moments, one might be lucky enough to hear the raucous honk of geese arriving for the winter, or the sweet chirps of warblers and swallows as they arrive in the summer. Their transient presence shows how the coast is constantly in flux and brimming with life that comes and goes in accordance with an ancient rhythm.

The language of dolphins

Other creatures of the deep have voices as well. Bottlenose Dolphins, in their pods of up to 20, are often found hunting and frolicking around the coasts of Scotland and Wales. These extremely intelligent creatures do not possess vocal chords, but make sounds by expelling air from sacs near their blowhole. Dolphins ‘speak’ to one another to keep tabs on the group and to share news about nearby food or impending danger. The vocalisations of each dolphin are unique, and manifest in a series of pulses and whistles; scientists believe that dolphins speak an as-yet un-decoded language.

How do human-made sounds impact the environment?

The magnificence and energy of the coastal landscape can mask its fragile nature. What may appear as a minor change, such as a small increase in water temperature or a rise in sea level, or the introduction of new species, can have a potentially dire outcome on the health of a population or ecosystem.

This delicate balance is something that humans are still learning to grasp, as we share land, air and sea with other animals. Anthropogenic noise – sound caused by human activity – has been shown to affect wildlife in different ways. Underwater listening is very different to listening above the waves: when under water, sound travels faster and disintegrates more slowly. The result of this is that noises that might only be heard a few kilometres from a source above water can travel for hundreds or even thousands of kilometres under water.[1] While naval sonars are known to cause whale strandings, and boating noises can increase aggression in some fish species, even our best intentions can impact the marine environment’s equilibrium. Offshore windfarms, for instance, although vital in providing renewable energy, can be rather disruptive. Researchers have observed abnormal breeding patterns in crustaceans and a decrease in porpoises and dolphins around wind turbines, in areas of intense sound disruption, reminding us that humans aren’t the only ones with ears.

From naval sonars causing mass whale strandings, or boating noises increasing aggression in some species of fish, even our best intentions can have consequences on the marine environment’s equilibrium. Offshore windfarms, for instance, although vital in the effort to minimise carbon emissions, is the marine equivalent of the unbearably noisy neighbour. Researchers have observed abnormal breeding patterns in crustaceans, and a decrease in porpoises and dolphins around wind turbines, in areas of intense sound disruption, reminding us that humans aren’t the only ones with ears.

How has the coast inspired art?

The expanse of the sea and coast has provided stimulus for a multitude of artists, writers, poets and musicians for millennia. From medieval art, to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the raw imagery of Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Turner’s beautiful seascapes, and Debussy’s La Mer, the sea and the coast have inspired genius.

Footnotes

[1] Tougaard, J., & Mikaelsen, M A., Effects of larger turbines for the offshore wind farm at Krieger’s Flak, Sweden: Assesment of impact on marine mammals (Aarhus University, DCE – Danish Centre for Environment and Energy, 2018), p. 18 <https://dce2.au.dk/pub/SR286.pdf>

 

Banner image © Jonny Hannah

  • Cheryl Tipp
  • Cheryl Tipp is the British Library’s Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds. With a background in zoology and library services, Cheryl has spent the past 15 years looking after the Library’s world- renowned collection of over 250,000 species and habitat recordings. She has worked extensively on projects that encourage the creative reuse of archival content, from student videogames to short films from emerging filmmakers. She is currently Secretary of the International Bioacoustics Council which seeks to promote discussion and the exchange of ideas between scientists, engineers, sound archivists and field recordists working with natural history sound recordings.

  • British Library Learning
  • The British Library’s Digital Learning team welcomes over 10 million learners to their website every year. They provide free learning resources that allow audiences to access thousands of digitised treasures from the British Library’s collection, and explore a wealth of subjects from children’s literature and coastal sounds to medieval history and sacred texts.