Sonic Sea: Award-Winning Documentary Exposes Impact of Industrial Ocean Noise on Whales

Film, narrated by Rachel McAdams and featuring an interview with Sting, will premier globally on Discovery in May and Tour the U.S. and Europe

LOS ANGELES –  An award-winning documentary film about the devastating impact of human-produced ocean noise on whales and other marine life will premiere globally on Discovery Channel this spring and tour both the United States and Europe throughout 2016. SONIC SEA is narrated by the Oscar-nominated actress Rachel McAdams. It features interviews with Grammy Award-winning musician, human rights and environmental activist, Sting, as well as the renowned oceanographic explorers and educators, Sylvia Earle and Jean-Michel Cousteau.

The film tells the story of Kenneth C. Balcomb III, a whale researcher and former U.S. Navy officer who solved a tragic mystery involving a mass stranding of whales in the Bahamas, and changed the way we understand our impact on the ocean.

“Something was causing all these whales to want to abandon the deep water and get the hell out of there,” Balcomb says in the film. “Animals that I had grown to know over a 10-year period were now dead. They were trying to get away. I was driven to find out why.”

The ocean is a world of sound not sight. In the darkness of the sea, whales and other marine life depend on sound to mate, find food, migrate, raise their young and defend against predators. Over the last century, however, extremely loud noise from commercial ships, oil and gas exploration, naval sonar exercises, and other sources has transformed the ocean’s delicate acoustic habitat, challenging the ability of whales and other marine life to prosper … and ultimately to survive.

“We’re drowning the ocean in sound,” NRDC President Rhea Suh said. “Science has made clear that noise produced by human activity is having serious – sometimes deadly – effects on whales, dolphins and other marine mammals. Life and death literally hang in the balance for many of these animals. It’s critical that we take action to protect them.”

North Atlantic right whales off Boston Harbor have lost up to 80 percent of their communication range due to noise from large commercial ships.

“These highly sophisticated mammals now face extinction, in part because they can no longer hear one another above our din,” Michael Jasny, director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and a leading expert on how ocean noise pollution affects whales. “But the one good thing about ocean noise is that when you stop making noise, it goes away.”

SONIC SEA was created to introduce this global problem to millions of people and to build momentum for change. It offers solutions and hope for a quieter ocean, and underscores that the ocean’s destiny is inextricably bound with our own.

“Countless species depend on a healthy ocean, including our own,” said Patrick Ramage, whale program director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “Sonic Sea highlights solutions to stem the rising tide of ocean noise pollution. But what are we each prepared to do to save our ocean planet? Do we have the political will?”

Ocean noise can be reduced dramatically with better ship design, new technologies for oil and gas exploration, and with sensible policies such as speed limits for large ships and exclusion zones for peacetime training with naval sonar.

NRDC has won a series of legal victories against the U.S. Navy over its use of high intensity sonar in training, sued the oil industry over its use of airguns to prospect for oil and gas, and helped persuade the United Nations International Maritime Organization to adopt a set of guidelines for reducing low-frequency ocean noise from commercial ships.

About the film

SONIC SEA won the Jury Award and the John de Graff Environmental Filmmaking award when it premiered at the Wild & Scenic Film Festival in January. The film will screen at numerous festivals in 2016 and across the U.S. in a tour produced by Film Sprout. In addition, a 22-minute cut of SONIC SEA is incorporated into the International Ocean Film Tour, “the ultimate film event for all ocean lovers,” that will screen in scores of cities across Western Europe and North America this spring and summer.

The directors of SONIC SEA, Michelle Dougherty of Imaginary Forces and Daniel Hinerfeld of NRDC, said that making a film about a subject that is invisible was a fascinating creative challenge. “We needed to develop a visual vocabulary for the acoustic world,” said Ms. Dougherty. “Gradually, a series of animations emerged that represented the complex web of sound in the ocean.”

“Because SONIC SEA is a film about sound, the directors worked painstakingly with designers at Wildfire Sonic Magic to create an immersive sound scape that plunges the audience through the waves and deep into an ocean flowing with sound,” Hinerfeld said.

SONIC SEA was produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Imaginary Forces in association with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and Diamond Docs. It was directed and produced by Michelle Dougherty and Daniel Hinerfeld, written by Mark Monroe (The Cove, Racing Extinction), edited by Christopher Johnson and scored by the Grammy-winner, Heitor Pereira (Minions, It’s Complicated). The director of photography was Stacy Toyama. The executive producers were Chip Houghton, Peter Frankfurt and Joel Reynolds, co-producers Lisa Whiteman and Franceska Bucci, associate producers, Shawna Moos, Patrick R. Ramage, Dunja Vitolic, Kashina Kessler, consulting producers, Michael Jasny, Tristan Bayer, and Bronwyn Barkan. Google Oceans and SpaceQuest, Ltd provided data on global ship traffic used in several of the film’s animations.

To find our host a screening of SONIC SEA, visit

Related Press Releases