From SportDiver‘s “Ask a Marine Biologist” column comes a question about a band that might have lost some human relevance, but is still aiming for the potentially lucrative cartilaginous fish lister-market:
So, will cranking it up to 11 and blasting “Detroit Rock City” underwater ultimately cause harm to animals? Probably not. While noise pollution is a problem increasingly plaguing the marine environment and causing all sorts of harm, this is a temporary and relatively quiet event that shouldn’t be too much trouble. I was pleased to find that Airbnb’s animal experiences are backed by some pretty solid animal welfare guidelines, which means that stunts like this “underwater concert,” while profoundly stupid, shouldn’t cause harm. It’s also worth noting here that this concert will raise money for a local ocean conservation charity, the Australian Marine Conservation Society, a group that focuses on issues like Great Barrier Reef conservation, sustainable fisheries, marine protected areas, ocean plastic pollution, and yes, shark conservation.
As for why they’re doing this, it turns out that real scientific research has shown that some species of sharks are attracted to low-frequency pulsed sounds. Some shark cage diving operators swear that particular styles of music work better for attracting sharks than others, which has been repeated often on Shark Week shows and is likely the origin of this idea. To my knowledge, this claim has not been experimentally tested. However, it is entirely possible that this “underwater concert” will actually attract sharks and other wildlife to the boat, which may very well be due to an “it sounds like food is over here” rather than a “what the heck is that” reaction. (Which doesn’t mean that this whole thing isn’t a stupid idea. Yes, sharks are attracted to certain sounds, but that doesn’t mean a song that contains some of those sounds is any better than just playing low-frequency pulsed sounds. And even if sharks are indeed more responsive to certain sounds found in certain genres of music, a recording of the song would work just as well as a live performance for these purposes.)
Will sharks actually be able to hear the music from the concert? Kinda-sorta-not-really. They’ll definitely be able to hear noise, especially the lower-frequency bass components, says Dr. Stephen Kajiura, a shark sensory biology expert at Florida Atlantic University who was kind enough to answer my ridiculous questions about this, but they probably won’t be able to hear vocals or guitar. He also notes that any shark passing close enough to the concert will feel physical vibrations from the speakers as sound travels through water, using a sensory organ called a “lateral line.”
Not a scientific observation, but as a kid, my family’s next-door neighbor was a Marine helicopter pilot, and he said sharks were attracted to the pulse of rotors over the waves because of a Pavlovian response to helicopter rescues when ships went down during wartime. Thup-thup-thup was a dinner bell. At least this is a thing that pilots were saying back in the 70s or 80s.