The U.S. Navy is asking to be exempted from a federal law that forbids the
harassment or killing of whales as it begins exercises with a powerful new
sonar designed to hunt for super-quiet submarines.
The controversial sonar system, designed to blast swaths of ocean with
low-frequency sound waves, will be the subject of protests today in Los
Angeles and then a public hearing.
The hearing will be the first of three to be held across the nation by the
National Marine Fisheries Service since government scientists confirmed that a
different Navy sonar was probably responsible for the mass stranding of beaked
whales in the Bahamas in March 2000.
Actor Pierce Brosnan, left, joins Joel Reynolds, center, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, as they watch a video presentation at a news conference where plans were announced to fight a new U.S. Navy sonar system they and others claim will harm marine life, Thursday, April 26, 2001, in Santa Monica, Calif. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Necropsies showed that six whales died from hemorrhaging around the brain
and ear bones--presumably from intense internal vibrations caused by bursts of
mid-frequency sound waves.
Environmentalists have pounced on that case as proof that high-power sonar
systems can disorient and kill whales and other sea mammals.
"It is undeniable evidence of just how dangerous and unpredictable intense
sound can be in the ocean," said Joel Reynolds, senior attorney for the
Natural Resources Defense Council. "We simply cannot afford to play Russian
roulette with our oceans."
He and others fear that whale strandings will become more common if the
Navy conducts peacetime exercises across 80% of the world's oceans with its
new high-intensity, low-frequency sonar.
But Navy scientists say such fears are unfounded. The deaths in the Bahamas
were linked to a mid-frequency sonar that has been around since World War II.
It would be wrong, the Navy and fisheries service say, to assume that a
low-frequency sonar system could result in the same tragedy--if operated with
"Damage attributable to one sonar doesn't mean that all sonars are
harmful," said Roger Gentry, coordinator of acoustic teams for the fisheries
service. "Because of technical differences and anatomical differences in
animals, you must parse out the effects."
The Navy is trying to persuade the fisheries service that the low-frequency
active sonar can be operated safely, without posing significant danger to
whales or other sea creatures.
Joe Johnson, a Navy sonar engineer in charge of environmental studies on
low-frequency sonar, said the Navy is seeking an exemption from the Marine
Mammal Protection Act because of its concern about violating the law's ban on
harassing whales--not the ban on whale deaths.
"There is no doubt that there will be some harassment of marine mammals,"
Johnson said. "We have a very loud sonar system."
To avoid more significant harm, Navy officials promise to use shipboard
observers and fish-finding sonar to make sure no marine mammals or sea turtles
are within a kilometer of a sonar broadcast. Should a whale come too close,
the sonar would be shut off, they say.
Four boats with the Navy's Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System would
operate low-frequency sonar at least 12 miles offshore. That way, for
instance, they would remain out of the way of the annual migration of gray
whales along the California coast, the Navy said. Some Areas Would Be Off
The sonar vessels would remain even farther off the Eastern Seaboard to
stay clear of the range of the Atlantic's endangered northern right whale. The
Navy says it will not deploy the sonar in waters near Antarctica where whales
from across the Southern Hemisphere converge and in whale habitat around the
Hawaiian Islands and off the west coast of Costa Rica.
The Navy has spent $350 million and a decade of research to develop the
low-frequency active sonar to detect newer, quieter submarines. Planners fear
that such a vessel from hostile nations such as China, North Korea or Iraq
could launch a terrorist attack on a U.S. ship without having been detected by
"passive" listening systems.
Active sonar could be compared to a floodlight, sending a sound-wave burst
to "light up" enemy submarines with an echo. Low-frequency sound has long
wavelengths, which make it capable of traveling great distances through water
Each ship dangles 18 underwater loudspeakers on a cable hundreds of feet
below the surface. They will generate sound up to 215 decibels--about the
volume experienced by a person standing next to a fighter jet during takeoff.
The sound should dissipate to below 180 decibels within a kilometer--which
the Navy calculates should be safe for whales. But the calculation of what
decibel level causes physiological damage has created a loud, and divisive,
debate among marine researchers.
"Friends have stopped talking to us," said Kenneth Balcomb, director of the
Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Wash. "We're getting a bit of
Balcomb was outside his home on Abaco Island, Bahamas, on March 15, 2000,
when a 16-foot Cuvier's beaked whale became stranded in shallow water. With
some help, he managed to push the 2-ton animal back into deeper water.
Soon he found a total of 16 whales--two minke whales and the rest beaked
whales--stranded over a 200-mile area. All this occurred immediately after a
day of Navy sonar exercises in the area.
Although a similar mass stranding had occurred in Greece, this time a
marine mammal researcher had fresh samples. Balcomb collected the whale heads
and sent them to the Harvard Medical School for CT scans.
The research concluded that the loud sounds caused a "resonance phenomenon"
in the air cavities of the whales' heads. The sound vibrations were literally
"tearing apart delicate tissues around the brain and ears," he said, leading
to hemorrhage and death.
Even more disturbing to him, he said, is that since that day he has not
seen any of the 35 photo-identified Cuvier's beaked whales he has studied for
"These guys were here all months of the year for 10 years," Balcomb said.
"They're gone. The Navy killed them."
Emotions always run high on the subject of whales, perhaps the most beloved
ocean creatures. Today, scientists and celebrities will rally to save the
Actor Pierce Brosnan will join activists and a video presentation of
Jean-Michel Cousteau to kick off a day of events that will culminate in the
public hearing at the Renaissance Hotel near Los Angeles International Airport
at 6 p.m.
The Navy says a $350-million sonar system will allow it to detect the
undersea presence of a growing number of submarines deployed by potentially
hostile nations. But environmentalists say the system will harm whales and
other sea life. How the system works:
1. Ship extends cable with speakers attached into ocean.
2. Speakers send out sounds at up to 215 dB.*
3. Sound waves bounce off submarine; reflected sound is picked up by
microphones designed for water.
*Decibel levels in air are not equal to decibel levels underwater. Sound
with an intensity of 215 dB in water equals an intensity of 155 dB in air.
160 dB is equal to standing next to a fighter jet at takeoff.
Sources: U.S. Navy, Silent Oceans Project, Natural Resources Defense
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times