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Pemberton science writer Nicola Jones hits the TED Talk stage

Jones travelled to Scotland to present about the impacts of ocean noise

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Pemberton's Nicola Jones is used to picking the brains of noted scientists in her work as a freelance journalist, but last month, it was Jones who addressed a room full of leading thinkers as part of a TEDSummit in Edinburgh, Scotland.

"Most TED talkers are either talking about their own personal research or if they are journalists, then perhaps they have written a book on the subject ... I was in a more unusual position just representing a group of scientists who I consulted with about the talk before it went forward," Jones explains. "So I don't hope for knock-on effects for me, I hope for knock-on effects for their work."

The ever-humble Jones—who has written several cover-feature stories for Pique over the years—was invited to give a talk at the renowned conference after a piece she wrote this April on the impacts of ocean noise on marine life in the science journal, Nature.

Jones was inspired to write about the subject after learning of a study, led by researcher Rob Williams, that took advantage of a Hindu religious holiday called Nyepi, a day of silence that is primarily celebrated on the Indonesian island of Bali.

"[Williams] put hydrophones in the water to see how this day of silence affected the noise levels in the ocean—and by day of silence, I mean no planes can take off, no boats go out fishing, everyone has to be really calm and not talk to each other. I just thought it was such a beautiful study to have done," she says.

Jones was drawn in by the apparent poeticism of the study, with Williams, an accomplished scientist who described himself as an "acoustic prospector," on the lookout for "places of quiet in a sullied ocean," as Jones puts it. But she soon learned that there were significant, real-world impacts from ocean noise that deserved attention.

"Intuitively, I kept thinking, 'Well, noise, I can see, poetically, that this is really interesting, but surely, isn't it just an irritant?' If I'm in a noisy nightclub or they're doing construction right across from my house, it annoys me, but it's not going to kill me," Jones says. "Then the researchers I spoke to pointed out, 'Well, no, marine life rely on sound the way we rely on sight.' So it's like going blind, it's not just an irritation."

As it turns out, perhaps the most widely studied species population when it comes to ocean noise was one that could be found not far from Jones' backyard: the southern resident killer whale. Research has shown that the local population of killer whales spend 18 to 25 per cent less time feeding in the presence of loud boat noise. For a dwindling subgroup—there are only 76 remaining southern resident killer whales, Jones says—that already struggles to find enough food, ocean noise is only compounding the problem.

Jones acknowledges that ocean noise pales in scope to more pressing issues in our oceans like acidification and plastic pollution, but, given the interconnectedness of our ecosystems, she believes it's important to shine a light on it.

"People have many different impacts on environmental systems, like the ocean, and these impacts don't act in isolation. They act together and they multiply their effects, so it's really important that you pay attention to all of them," she says.

Admittedly not a performer, Jones says she rode "a roller coaster of anxiety" preparing her roughly 2,000-word talk in front of some of the world's most innovative minds. A prolific science writer with degrees in chemistry and oceanography, you imagine Jones had the content of her speech dialled. But it was another arena where her friends lent a much-needed hand before the big day.

"[My friend] said, 'Nicola, you're going to do great but you need an intervention in terms of what you're wearing,'" Jones relays. Being the generous souls they are, Jones' friends pooled together some money to pay for a stylist.

"I absolutely [took it as an insult] but an acknowledged one. I appreciate my own shortcomings. I was very appreciative," says Jones through fits of laughter, before shouting out her stylist: "Jessie McNaught. She's awesome."

Jones' TED Talk should be posted in the coming days at ted.com. Read Jones' article in Nature at www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01098-6.

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