"Clearly it's not a good thing if we hit a whale," Kindberg says. Undersea noise pollution "is certainly an issue that we've been made aware of. But there doesn't seem to be any real clarity as to what the impacts are," she notes. Maersk would support certain speed reductions to protect the whales, Kindberg says, but "if you slow down in one place, you need to speed up someplace else, and that can take more fuel."
Regulations in certain waters off the eastern seaboard already require ships to move at slower speeds to minimize harm, and Kindberg says Maersk has voluntarily opted to operate at slower speeds to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (it saves on fuel costs too). But when going along at 10 knots (around 11 m.p.h.), the speed environmental organizations say is safest for marine mammals, it's harder to maneuver the ship, Kindberg says. Sailing around the marine sanctuaries is not an option in California, she adds, since ships have to pass through them to get to the ports.
Other efforts to solve the shipping-noise problem focus on ship design. "We're building larger and larger ships, and they're getting noisier and noisier," says marine ecologist Leila Hatch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who studies the effects of underwater sound on marine mammals.
The International Maritime Organization accepted a plan in 2008 to form a working group and to pin down guidelines for making commercial ships quieter, according to Hatch. Although the guidelines aren't enforceable and are unlikely to be implemented any time soon, she sees it as an opportunity for a win-win scenario. If new ships featured a design with more efficient propulsion, they could be quieter, cheaper to operate, and more energy-efficient — which would also improve the air-quality problems associated with giant commercial ships.
The California Air Resources Board, meanwhile, initiated an effort last year for a program to get commercial vessels to slow down near the coastline, a bid to reduce emissions of smog-causing chemicals and the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Not much is happening on that front to date, but such a program could have the positive side effect of quieting underwater noise.
Hatch has been trying to quantify the decline in hearing ranges for marine mammals as the seas grow increasingly crowded with larger, noisier ships. "Much of the space they used to have is taken up by shipping noise. What is that likely to mean in terms of their ability to communicate effectively and find food?" she asks.
To find answers, she's engaged in a research project at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Massachusetts that blends GPS ship-tracking data with profiles from sound-monitoring devices planted on the sea floor. Results suggest that whales' communication ranges have diminished by 80 percent in some places.
There are few easy answers, however, since scientists are still trying to piece it all together. One certainty is that "we're changing the environment they're trying to live in," notes McKenna, who says she now finds herself wondering if she'll end up purchasing something that's packed onto a massive containership when she spies one out on the horizon. "To what degree is it impacting them?"
She can't say exactly, and that's part of the problem, because the global shipping industry wants to see some concrete facts before the battleship can be turned. In the meantime, Kindberg says the captains helming Maersk line are just trying to avoid hitting the whales.