Making noise: SailGP delves into sound pollution’s effect on marine wildlife

November 16 2023

SailGP has already made waves with its commitment to sustainability within sport, but a collaboration with PhD student Cathy Hobbs is taking its efforts to new heights – or depths – through a research project on noise pollution’s effect on marine life.

Making noise: SailGP delves into sound pollution’s effect on marine wildlife

SailGP headed to Cádiz in Andalucía, Spain, for the fifth round of Season 4 last month, which saw the USA take a surprise win – the team’s first since Saint-Tropez in Season 3. 

And while the SailGP team is particularly switched on when it comes to sustainability and doing all it can to mitigate its footprint during race weekends above the water, a new research study is now being conducted on its effect below the surface. 

Teaming up with the University of Bristol and the University of Cádiz, as well as Exeter University and University of Bristol PhD student Cathy Hobbs, SailGP is aiding research into the underwater noise pollution created during a race weekend. 

The research concentrated on the noise pollution created by the different propulsion systems of spectator and chase boats. The information garnered will then be used by SailGP to adapt its on-water activities for future events, while also developing innovative solutions to help combat or reduce noise pollution. 

In 2018, Swiss conservation organisation OceanCare commissioned a meta-study to collate scientific evidence on the impact of noise on marine animals. The research found that underwater noise led to reduced communication in whales and dolphins, which can have a negative impact on reproduction. The migration of whales can also be delayed by noise so significantly that the animals die after becoming entrapped in ice.

“Stressors such as human-made noise have been shown to affect survival (at high exposure levels), physiology – such as stress levels – and behaviour (at lower exposure levels) of aquatic organisms from whales to fish to plankton,” Hobbs explains to Global Sustainable Sport.

“This project aims to use noise emission findings from the Cádiz SailGP event and biodiversity surveys to estimate the potential impacts on fish communities present in and around the event location.”

Eight underwater sound recorders were strategically placed across the event location during the Spain Sail Grand Prix, with the equipment positioned as close to the racing action and on-water spectator zones as possible.

The recorders were lowered on to the seabed, and monitored the locations over a two-week period, including eight days before and after the race weekend. The research will be reviewed to conclude the impact of the event on the wider marine environment.

“When looking at a sailing event such as SailGP, we are not looking solely at the impact of the sailing boats themselves,” says Hobbs.

“The safety and media crew as well as the on-water spectators commonly use motorised vessels and it is thanks to scientific findings that we have a growing understanding of just how much humans influence aquatic environments.”

SailGP’s commitment to sustainability

Earlier this year, SailGP released its latest Purpose & Impact Report, detailing its ongoing commitment to environmental and social sustainability.

The latest report focused on Season 3, which took place between June 2022 and March 2023. As part of its sustainability initiatives, the sport became the first to disclose its carbon strategy with the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), an international non-profit organisation that works with businesses and cities to manage their environmental impact.

SailGP’s goal is to be 100% powered by clean energy on-shore and on-water by 2025, as well as achieving a 55% reduction in its carbon footprint by 2025 from its 2019 baseline. After reaching this target, the sport is hoping to achieve net zero by 2040.

With a focus on social sustainability, the series also provides a Women’s Pathway, with the goal of having more female athletes racing on the F50 catamarans. In Season 3, 26 female athletes raced on F50s with more than 65 hours spent on female training in non-strategist positions.

Global Sustainable Sport spoke to SailGP’s Sustainability and Impact Project Manager Rosie Gosling in August, around the sport’s achievements and future targets.

You can read the full feature here.

While it is early on in the research process and Hobbs is still awaiting the full retrieval of equipment, the PhD student was surprised by the noise pollution experienced above water during the event.

“Freediving with only a couple of motorboats in the vicinity can feel analogous to a noisy bar. I’m yet to be underwater when upwards of one hundred boats descend on a race zone… let’s just say I’m grateful to have a land-based escape,” says Hobbs.

“As my focus had been on the noise emissions from motorised vessels in Cádiz, I was surprised to find that even from above water you could hear the high-pitched whirring of the foiling catamarans.”

Hobbs adds: “In other systems I’ve been studying, we know motorboats are present in the soundscape for a high proportion of the day. We are yet to fully understand the impact this has on aquatic species in the area, but this type of research brings us closer to answering these questions.”

Collaborating with SailGP provided Hobbs with the perfect platform to explore noise pollution’s effect on marine life. New technologies are also being developed to limit noise pollution, which further cements SailGP and watersports as a platform to shine a spotlight on possible solutions, according to Hobbs.

“New noise-quieting technologies – for example, electric engines – are being developed for a number of activities which aim to substantially reduce noise inputs into aquatic environments,” explains Hobbs.

“As with any form of pollution, reducing input at the source is likely to be the most effective way of reducing detrimental impacts. With development of improved noise-mitigating technologies, watersports offer a global platform to highlight possible solutions and pave a cleaner way for other sports.”

SailGP will next head to Dubai from December 9-10, before travelling to Abu Dhabi in January, Sydney in February and Auckland in March. The season will then continue with events 10, 11 and 12 taking place in Bermuda, Halifax and New York, respectively. Season 4 will conclude with round 13 in San Francisco on July 13-14.

Cathy Hobbs is supported by Global Sustainable Sport’s Academic Programme to support academic research into sport and sustainability, established by Global Sustainable Sports Founder and CEO Mike Laflin and his wife, Theresa.

Images: Bob Martin/Jed Leicester/Ricardo Pinto/Felix Diemer for SailgGP

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