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Underwater noise from oil exploration drilling can interfere with the way whales communicate and affect other marine mammals. Surrounding seabed installations with a bubble curtain to deaden the sound would be one way of preventing this.

In Arctic waters, for example, the Bowhead whale communicates at the same low-frequency range as the noise generated by potential drilling operations.

Moreover, indigenous people hunt the Bowhead whale for food when it migrates twice a year through the region. There are concerns that noise from oil exploration activities could lead to whales following different routes, taking them out of reach of local communities.

To avoid this, Shell is experimenting with the use of bubble curtains for operations off the coast of Alaska in the coming years. The bubbles, around the size of a tennis ball, form an effective sound barrier.

In one approach Shell is testing, the bubbles consist of plastic spheres contained in fabric which is anchored or hung in a frame around the drilling installation.

Shell is working on the project with researchers at the University of Texas in the USA.

“Bubbles could solve a very complex problem, very simply,” says John Ward, Shell Principal Concept Engineer.

Shell hopes to start exploratory drilling in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska in 2012, outside the periods when whales are migrating.

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