Oil has become synonymous with danger to marine life, destroying the insulating effects of fur and the water repellency of feathers. Animals attempting to self-clean can accidentally ingest oil, poisoning them, and exposure to fish can result in stunted growth, enlarged livers and impaired reproduction, amongst other issues.
By contrast, wind energy presents less of a threat to marine life – though more research into this area is required. Lack of substantial knowledge can lead to inaccurate reports, such as in 2017 when various news outlets claimed wind turbines had caused a family of minke whales to strand in Suffolk.
When Carbon Brief investigated the stranding, they found a number of inaccuracies. The “family” turned out to be unrelated – only one was a minke. The causes of death were as varied, with CSIP reporting a gash in the side of one fin whale “consistent with a ship strike.”
Whatever the reasons for the other two strandings, turbines were less likely to blame than other causes attributed to marine deaths, most of which are also human-related. According to charity WDC, the oceans cover 70% of Earth’s surface – yet a mere 5% is protected from human activities.
In addition to fishing related threats including accidental entanglement, collision and commercial whaling (where it’s still practiced despite the intervention of the International Whaling Comission), rising sea temperatures have been linked to a rise in infectious disease and the depletion of krill, while increasingly acidic oceans decimate coral reefs.
Our oceans are not only dangerous – they’re noisy, too. Sonar and undewater noise can prevent whales, dolphins and other cetaceans from communicating and finding food.
One of the primary concerns regarding OWFs is the distress caused to marine life by noise during their construction, rather than in operation. Sam East of Subacoustech says that the noise produced by wind farms in action “often… drops below background noise within a few hundred metres.”
Other considerations regarding wildlife safety concern seabirds and bats, who are known to fly into turbine propellers, although interestingly, studies have also shown the structure of OWFs can mimic that of reefs, leading to the creation of wildlife “hotspots”.
In their 2019 study, Best and Halpin explored the possibilities of a harmonic coexistence between offshore wind farms, cetaceans and seabirds. Their solution was to develop a framework balancing potential for profit with potential risk to marine life, resulting in -if not a win-win situation, then a considerably mitiagated one.
For all their majesty and mysticsm, whales have a considerably less glamorous -yet important part to play in improving the environment – keeping a delicate ecosystem in check while removing an estimated 400,000 tonnes of CO2 a year removed from the air by the phytoplankton produced in sperm whale faeces. It’s only fair humans play their part too – with the minimum of risk -and utmost respect- to marine life.