by Joshua Horwitz
Simon & Schuster (1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020), 2014. 448 pages, hardcover. $28.00. Kindle $12.74.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Ken Balcomb, the former U.S. Navy pilot who in 1976 founded the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Washington, was back in the news on October 21, 2014, along with his half brother Howard Garrett, cofounder of the Orcas Network. Though perhaps not quite celebrities, here in the Puget Sound area both are at least as well-known and better respected than most of the regulars for the Seattle Mariners. Certainly they have better batting averages when they step up to the plate for whales.
Together Balcomb and Garrett announced the probable death of the third known calf of a 23-year-old Puget Sound resident orca known as L86. The Puget Sound resident orca population dropped to 78 with her death. This is somewhat above the known low of 71, but far fewer than frequented the region circa 50 years ago, before mass captures for marine mammal parks cut orca numbers in half in less than five years.
Lolita was the sole survivor
Dozens of resident orcas were herded into sea pens at Penn Cove, about ten miles north of the ANIMALS 24-7 office. Some escaped and some were released, but many died there. Among the 36 who were landed and sold, the sole survivor is Lolita, star performer at the Miami Seaquarium since soon after her capture in 1970. Garrett, who used to live just up the block from here and across the street, has devoted more than 20 years of his life to campaigning for her release.
Garrett recalled to the San Juan Islander on October 21, 2014 that the remains of L86’s second calf, a three-year-old female identified as L112, washed up in February 2012 with “indications of death by severe acoustic trauma.”
This is today widely recognized as a common threat to marine life, especially whales and dolphins, whose keen sense of hearing is essential to their ability to navigate and communicate underwater, and whose inner ears also help them to adjust to the differences in water pressure they experience in breaching and diving.
U.S. government policy has rarely responded positively
But U.S. government policy has rarely responded positively to exposure of the problem, and to litigation meant to mitigate or prevent harm to marine life in connection with sonic experiments and military training.
The Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, New Jersey, has unsuccessfully led opposition all year to seismic research done just off the coast by the U.S. Geological Survey, and earlier, by a team from Rutgers University.
In July 2014 the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management acknowledged that thousands of sea creatures will suffer and die from the use of sonic cannon in oil exploration along the outer continental shelf from Delaware to Florida. The bureau authorized the work anyway, after the American Petroleum Institute testified that 4.7 billion barrels of oil might prove to be “technically recoverable” as result of the research, employing 280,000 people and generating $23.5 billion per year in economic activity.
EarthJustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council meanwhile continue to pursue long-running litigation against a U.S. Navy plan to intensify sonar training using explosives during the next five years off Southern California and Hawaii. The Navy estimates that the underwater explosions will kill more than 150 whales and dolphins.
Frustrating as efforts to reduce the impacts of underwater detonations on marine mammals are today, that these impacts are even discussed and have become subjects of protest and litigation represents substantial progress. Just 20 years ago acoustic trauma to marine mammals was believed to rare, associated mostly with the shock waves from explosions and underwater volcanic eruptions occurring very close to the victims. The importance of sonic frequency was barely recognized at all. And one of the most insidious threats to marine mammals, the increasing use of low-frequency active sonar, was not yet known.
Low-frequency active sonar
Because low-frequency sound travels in seawater more effectively and for greater distances than the high-frequency sound used by traditional sonar, the U.S. Navy about 20 years ago began experimenting with low-frequency active sonar to detect and track new ultra-quiet submarines at a longer range––hoping to find enemy submarines before they can get close enough to the U.S. to launch nuclear weapons.
This is believed to be a defense priority, since nations including Iran and North Korea have been simultaneously developing nuclear weapons and submarine fleets.
Details of the U.S. Navy low-frequency sonar studies leaked out to the marine mammal protection community in bits and pieces.
Between August 1988 and July 1994, the U.S. Navy conducted 22 low-frequency sonar field exercises, Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Joel Reynolds disclosed in September 1996 via MARMAM, an electronic bulletin for marine mammalogists. The Navy said the experiments were conducted without known adverse impact on marine mammals. Reynolds was skeptical.
“Other exercises have been conducted since then,” Reynolds wrote, citing times and places. “The Navy has concluded that no ‘takes by harassment or otherwise would occur from operation of LFA. Therefore no permits have been obtained either under the Marine Mammal Protection Act or the Endangered Species Act.’ Any comments?”
Freedom of Information Act
Previously unexplained observations of apparent relevance to the various low-frequency active sonar tests soon surfaced from around the world. Freedom of Information Act requests confirmed by mid-1997 that government agencies had already received warnings from their own senior scientists that low-frequency active sonar might be a disaster for whales, though no one could quite explain why the whales were harmed.
Responding to the accumulating evidence, the National Marine Fisheries Service began requiring the U.S. Navy to seek incidental take permits for further tests.
Lawsuits and demonstrations greeted the Navy when tests were held off Hawaii in early 1998, but the low-frequency sonar really emerged as a public issue only after whale acoustics expert Darlene Ketten, hired by the National Marine Fisheries Service, reported in June 2000 that Navy anti-submarine sonar tests off the northern Bahamas on March 15, 2000 may have caused 16 whales of four different species to beach themselves on the islands of Abaco, Grand Bahamas, and North Eleuthera during the next 48 hours.
Seven beaked whales died
Seven of the whales died, including four Cuvier beaked whales and a Blainville’s dense beaked whale, all of whom are considered extremely rare.
“I’m not ready to say the Navy did it,” Ketten said, but added that “The coincidence of the timing and the pattern of the stranding with the presence of Navy sonars raises a red flag.”
After the strandings, the U.S. Navy temporarily suspended sonar tests which had been scheduled for May 2000 off the New Jersey coast.
Most of the remains of whales allegedly killed by the Bahamian testing decomposed too soon for dissection to provide definitive answers, but the Center for Whale Research has a branch headquarters in the Bahamas, and Ken Balcomb was present when several stranded beaked whales came up nearby.
Balcomb necropsied four of the whales. He saw fresh blood in their eyes, inner ears, lungs, and brain tissue.
Having already criticized the use of low-frequency active sonar in comments sent to the National Marine Fisheries Service in November 1999, Balcomb took almost a year to study the Bahamian strandings before formally commenting again. Finally, in February 2001, Balcomb wrote in an open letter to U.S. Navy low-frequency active sonar environmental impact surveillance manager Joseph S. Johnson that “The Bahamian strandings unequivocally demonstrated the lethality of high-powered sonars, and provided the opportunity to understand how sonar has been inadvertently killing whales in vast expanses of ocean around the world.
“The killing is largely due to resonance phenomena in the whales’ cranial airspaces that are tearing apart delicate tissues around the brains and ears,” Balcomb argued. “This is an entirely separate issue from [the alleged] auditory thresholds and traumas that the Navy has [previously] fixated upon. In my earlier comments,” Balcomb said, “I questioned whether there might be a problem with injurious resonance, but now I have seen the problem and can attest to the fact that there is massive injury to whales caused by sonar.”
Balcomb argued that the threat to whales from low-frequency sonar results from the regular, repetitive emission of sounds at a particular frequency and volume which rarely occurs in nature, and to which whales seem to be extremely sensitive––perhaps in part because some species use modulated low-frequency sound for communication.
The problem might be compared to what happens when an opera singer uses her voice to shatter a crystal glass, although it occurs in the opposite sound range.
“Many whales died due to this sonar resonance, both in the Bahamas and in earlier low-frequency active sonar testing off Greece,” Balcomb said. “Unfortunately, the Greek incident passed into relative obscurity, because investigators missed the crucial point of matching resonance in critical airspaces, and because suitable specimens were not collected for discovering the problem.”
Joshua Horwitz in War of the Whales entertainingly details the struggles of Reynolds, Balcomb, and many others to bring these threats to marine mammals to light. War of the Whales is as gripping as any spy novel, but from the perspective of having reported at the time about the central events and conflicts that Horwitz covers, being acquainted with most of Horwitz’s cast of characters, and even having been on the original cc. list for some of the e-mails he quotes, I can attest first hand to the accuracy and insightfulness of his writing.