Evidence is mounting that Navy sonar tests seriously harm whales and porpoises. From his tropical hideaway, a veteran marine biologist works to stop the killing. Marc Kaufman reports from the frontlines.
Ken Balcomb stood almost knee deep in the gentle Atlantic surf, standing at a makeshift wooden table on the verge of tipping. On top was the massive head of a Cuvier’s beaked whale, or rather half of the head with its inner bones, muscles, veins and fats exposed to Balcomb’s knife.
A biologist and whale researcher for almost 40 years, Balcomb was performing a necropsy on the defrosting head of an 8,000 pound animal that had beached a year before on the other side of this Bahamian island of Abaco. He worked methodically, cutting away and preserving pieces of the animal as he made his way deep into the skull where the whale’s bulla—or boney inner ear—is located. That was his scientific destination because the ears and hearing of whales has been at the center of his life for several years now. He was looking for hemorrhages, and especially blood around the ear or in other places where it shouldn’t be found.
“We don’t know why this whale died, but it appears to be natural causes,” Balcomb explained, several hours into the dissection. “That’s very useful because it can be a control animal. We’ll know what the inside of a beaked whale head is supposed to look like, so we’ll know better how to understand the damage inside the other ones.”
Gulls circled and the dogs played along the sunny beach as he went about his work—an unlikely setting for such a skilled and exacting endeavor. But it actually was entirely appropriate, since the chain of events that led to this dissection began only a stone’s throw away. Just up by the beach, where a volleyball net now stands, on another spring morning four years earlier, a different Cuvier’s beaked whale was found alive but disoriented and stranded on the beach, suffering from a condition akin to vertigo. It took five tries before Balcomb and his colleagues managed to push the 17-foot whale—with the smooth, cool skin of a seemingly healthy animal—back into deeper water that day.
But by that time, two beaked whales had washed up along the same beach, and Balcomb and his wife—whale researcher Diane Claridge—realized they were in the midst of a mass whale stranding. It’s not uncommon for a single whale to come ashore, but group strandings are rare. It’s even more uncommon for different kinds of whales to be stranded at the same time. In all, 17 whales from four species ultimately beached around nearby islands that day, and six immediately died. The others were pushed back out to sea, but haven’t been seen since.
Balcomb was distraught about what he was seeing that day, March 15, 2000. He and his wife had spent more than nine years studying the beaked whales off Abaco, and had come to know three dozen of the more reculsive Cuvier’s that often frequented the nearby channel. Balcomb and his wife are among the world’s few experts on beaked whale habits, and are so enamored of the animals they pioneered a marine mammal survey program to bring young people down to the island for study and research.
But as a scientist, Balcomb knew he had been given a remarkable opportunity to preserve some of the dead whales so their condition and injuries could be studied. He and his wife later cut off the heads of four dead animals and stored them in the freezer of a nearby restaurant. That same day, Balcomb called a former graduate school classmate now at the U.S. Office of Naval Research in Washington, and asked that the daily log of all underwater sonar used in the area be saved.
Balcomb made the call because, as both a whale expert and a former Navy man, he had a strong hunch—that the beached whales had been affected by deafening blasts from the Navy’s active sonar systems. Military fleets around the world use increasingly loud and far-traveling sonar to detect the movement of other nation’s submarines. A few years earlier researchers had tentatively linked another mass whale stranding off the coast of Greece to a NATO naval exercise that featuring extensive sonar use. Most of the dead animals in that case were beaked whales as well, and so Balcomb was familiar with the research. He also knew that beaked and other whales have highly evolved systems for hearing, including masses of ‘acoustic fat’ around their jaws that channel sound into the inner ear. Imagining what a wall of sound louder than a jet engine could do to that highly-evolved system made him cringe.
Navy maneuvers had been scheduled off the eastern side of the Abaco for mid March, but none were publicly disclosed for the western channel where the whales were regularly seen before their strandings. So Balcomb asked a friend to take him up in an airplane to look for military boats in the channel where the beaked whales fed, and to look for other beached animals. He found both. The scientist and marine mammal advocate in Balcomb quickly came together as he posted his unsettling news on the Internet, making the Bahamas a cause celebre in some environmentalist circles.
Balcomb’s quick work preserving the dead whale’s heads led the federal government to dispatch a specialist in marine mammal sensory systems to the Bahamas five days later to determine if the sonar had indeed caused physical harm that led to the strandings. Balcomb watched (and videotaped) the necropsy in the Bahamas, and then another in a lab in Boston, and both found damage to the ears and below the brain that appeared to be the result of a massive wave of sound.
But eight weeks later, the Navy was still hedging on the connection and the results of the necropsy were not being made public. The scientist in him wanted to hold back, but Balcomb was so concerned that the information might be covered up that he agreed to join an environmental group at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington in releasing the findings. Sonar, he said, had caused the stranding and killed the whales.
Going so aggressively public with this news has made Balcomb something of a pariah in certain scientific and government circles, but it was also instrumental in sparking four years of intense (and often contentious) debate in the United States and Europe about how sonar might be harming whales to stand and what could be done to stop it. Although the U.S. Navy at first denied its boats had anything to do with the whale strandings, or were even in the channel that day, they later reported that eight Navy ships, including three submarines, were conducting a maneuver testing sonar at the time in the channel. A year later, they released a report stating that the sonar pings emitted twice a minute for 16 hours, at the jet-engine noise level of around 225 decibels, were the likely cause of the strandings. It was a remarkable aboutface and acknowledgement.
Then in 2002, another mass stranding of beaked whales occurred off the Canary Islands during multi-nation naval maneuvers and—alerted by events in the Bahamas—researchers there got even fresher specimens to study. Their research led them to the unexpected conclusion earlier this year that beaked whales in particular were stranding after sonar exercises because the intense noise invading their territory caused them to panic and surface too quickly. The smoking gun in these findings was the discovery of widespread gas and fat bubbles in the organs and vessels of the dead whales—the kind of bubbles that that amount to a cetacean version of the bends and can cause internal hemorrhaging. A scientifically plausible, though still debated, explanation for sonar-induced whale strandings had been found.
Soon after, the U.S. Congress allocated more than $1 million to hold a series of unprecedented scientific and policy conferences on the subject, involving scores of experts on whales, sonar, and their troubled interactions. Those meetings are now underway. The issue has clearly caught Washington’s attention, and money has begun to flow into research on how man-made sounds are changing the underwater world.
Concern is also growing internationally. A resolution to address sonar use was introduced last year in the European parliament, and a collection of 67 European and North American environmental groups wrote a letter to NATO headquarters calling for a major reconsideration and modifications of the alliance’s policy on sonar use. “We are deeply concerned about the growing use of intense active sonar in the marine environment,” the petition began. “There is grave concern that proliferation of this technology poses a significant threat to marine mammals, fish and other ocean wildlife.”
Balcomb finds all this activity remarkable and encouraging. But as he unhappily concluded during his beachside dissection, it doesn’t seem to make the animals much safer. The beaked whale—a canary of sorts in the oceanic mineshaft—is sending a message that man-made sound is seriously harming the underwater environment. But developments in Washington and elsewhere make it seem unlikely that much help is at hand.
Rear Admiral Steven Tomaszeski, the Navy’s Chief Oceanographer and for 30 years a Navy combat officer, wanted to be clear about one thing, the Navy cares about creatures in the sea, and is willing to spend millions of dollars each year to learn how to best protect them. In fact, the Navy funds about 70 percent of all marine mammal research in the United States, and almost 50 percent of the total worldwide. The Navy’s goal, he said, is to be the absolute, global standard-bearer for understanding and protecting marine mammals.
But that said, Tomaszeski wanted to be clear about something else—the U.S. Navy is a war-fighting organization, and its goal is to protect the United States and to “make sure that nobody can deny us access to any part of the world.” The hostilities of today’s world, he said, require more and better sonar, not less.
So there’s a balance to strike: Protect the marine mammals, but don’t jeopardize Ameica’s military readiness. There’s a problem, however, and Tomaszeski acknowledges it. Neither the Navy nor anyone else knows a great deal about life under the seas.
“We actually know more about the surface of the moon than we know about our oceans,” said the admiral, a tall man eager to be genial. “We don’t really know where many of the whales are, and we don’t know too much about how a whale’s ear works. Some would say that if you don’t know, then don’t take chances and let‘s keep our acoustic energy out of the water. It’s the precautionary principle. But in good conscience, I couldn’t send a fleet out to sea without sonar. It’s the best anti-submarine defense by far.”
To be a good defense, however, the sonar systems need trained sonar readers, and Tomaszeski said that requires on-the-water experience. Navy sonar training maneuvers occur regularly around the world, he said, and it was a sonar training exercise that brought the Navy to the channel off Abaco in 2000. Although literature was available describing the area as a haven for whales, Tomaszeski said the commander didn’t know that when he ordered the sonar exercise to commence. “The people involved told us they felt really terrible about what happened to the whales, but the truth is we just didn’t properly consider that they might be there.”
For the U.S. Navy and other military leaders around the world, the Bahamas stranding could not have come at a worse time. For several years, the Navy had been battling environmentalists over its plan to deploy a new and far louder global system of active low-frequency sonar, which can travel much further underwater than traditional mid-frequency sonar. That legal battle had been waged over regulatory issues—Did the Navy properly study the environment impact of its sonar system? Had they properly defined the possible harm to whales?—and was based largely on theoretical arguments. With the beaching on the Bahamas, the theoretical turn suddenly real, and in a manner that few predicted. The kind of mid-frequency sonar used in the Bahamas was supposed to be time-tested and safe.
The Navy position quickly changed from denying that sonar could harm whales to differentiating between the mid-frequency sonar used in the Bahamas and the low-frequency system (with its longer sound wavelengths) it now wants to deploy. The distinction is justified in that marine mammals do hear at different frequencies, but not particularly reassuring to many environmentalists. The largest baleen whales do not appear to be harmed by mid-frequency sonar because they hear at low frequencies. Does that mean they might be at greater risk from the new low-frequency systems?
The stakes are very high in this debate, and not only because the U.S. Navy has invested $350 million and a decade of research to develop the low-frequency active sonar. Military planners fear a new generation of ‘quiet’ diesel submarines from potentially hostile nations such as China, North Korea or Iran. The Navy says that unless it can deploy its more effective and longer-range sonar, these inexpensive and low-tech submarines can sneak into the busy American coastal waters and lay undetected, waiting for the right moment to strike. And it’s not just the U.S. Navy that wants low-frequency sonar; the Netherlands, United Kingdom, France, and Germany are also developing low-frequency sonar systems.
In the aftermath of the Bahamas stranding, a federal judge ruled last year that the Navy had not properly assessed the impact of its low-frequency sonar on marine life, and ordered that all testing be stopped. The Navy and the environmental groups that sued it later reached a temporary agreement to limit Navy testing of low-frequency sonar to the waters off East Asia—a result that the Navy finds unsatisfactory.
But just as the whale strandings galvanized environmentalists against Navy sonar, the sonar legal setback and rising protests over whale strandings spurred the Bush Administration and some members of Congress to do something that the Navy had been advocating for years—to exempt its ships and sonar from some of the marine mammal protection laws that it considers burdensome.
Legislation to do that had been defeated in Congress for several years, but last fall –with the military’s political muscle stronger than ever because of the wars in Iraq and against Al Qaeda—it passed as a last-minute addition to the Defense Department’s budget bill. The changes loosened the definition of ‘harassment’ of marine mammals, increased the number of animals that could be harmed without regulatory or legal consequences, and made it possible for the Navy to claim a total exemption from marine mammal laws if the defense secretary decided that was necessary. The relaxation occurred the same year that Congress allocated $1 million to examine how and why sonar might be harming whales, leading some to wonder whether Congress wasn?t putting the cart before the horse. “Don’t we need to know more about how sonar effects the whales before we make any decisions that would loosen the regulations we already have?” asked Naomi Rose, a marine biologist with the Humane Society of the United States, and a member of the congressionally-mandated.
Tomaszeski said that the Navy has no intention of invoking the exemption for anything short of combat. What’s more, he said confidently, the Navy is now capable of testing and using its sonar without causing any more strandings. But given the Navy’s history on the subject, some are skeptical. The Navy points to the Bahamas and later Canary Islands strandings as the only proven examples of harm caused by sonar, but researchers are now actively re-examining dozens of other beachings in the past decade to see whether sonar might have played a role as well. There have been unusual and unexplained mass strandings of whales off Japan, the Madiera Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands and additional ones off the Bahamas and, especially, the Canary Islands, but nobody at the time knew to investigate whether Navy exercises were underway. “We understand that people are watching now like never before, and it’s pretty hard to miss a whale if it comes up on a beach,” Tomaszeski replied. “So if more strandings occur, it’s pretty obvious who will be the first ones questioned about it.”
People around the world love whales and other marine mammals—for their grandeur, playfulness and intelligence—and are eager to protect them from man-made dangers. But because they spend their lives largely out of view, much about them remains a mystery. The North Atlantic right whale is said to be the most studied whale in the seas, but researchers still don’t know where they all go for several months of the year. If that’s the case for a well-studied whale, imagine what isn’t known about the beaked whale, which is as little understood as a five ton animal on Earth can be.
Named for their hard, sometimes long snouts, they spend as little time on the water surface as any known marine mammal. Nobody knows how many beaked whales swim the oceans, but researchers believe they are distributed widely around the globe. They are especially deep divers—regularly going down to 1000 meters for more than an hour—and they return to the surface in what recent research has found to be a uniquely slow pace. Because they spend so much time at such depths, they appear to live in a state of chronic supersaturation with nitrogen, a condition that could leave them especially susceptible to forming the kind of gas bubbles that lead to the bends. So while loud sonar blasts may be disorienting many kinds of marine mammals, beaked whales that are washing up on beaches because they are the most sensitive to its effects.
All whales depend on sound as their primary sense, using it to find food, to keep together in groups, to attract mates. Some sing long ‘songs,’ some whistle and make cries or howls. Whale vocalizing can be extremely loud—the sperm whale lets out a sound almost as loud as a jet engine—but clearly ocean creatures have learned to live with it.
Man-made noise is different. Researchers have found that the underwater background noise from shipping, gas and oil exploration, sonar and other sources is ten times louder in some places than it was just two decades ago. “It’s very hard to know if the increased background sound is causing subtle behavioral effects that could, we worry, translate into longterm population breeding declines,” said John Hildebrand, an underwater acoustics specialist with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, and another member of the federal marine-mammal panel. “The research here is limited, but it seems that the noise levels are going up a few percent each year.”
The growing man-made din underwater is a longterm threat, but it took the Bahamas whale strandings to put the issue of oceanic noise squarely on the scientific and public agenda. That stranding was the first to produce specimens to study, and the first to establish a direct, if still incompletely understood, physiological connection. Its aftermath also made clear that the community of people and organizations that had a stake in what noise might be doing to marine mammals was both large and deeply divided. Congress appropriated the $1 million last year to address the issue in large part because there was no agreement on how to proceed.
The second general meeting of the congressionally-convened panel took place in late April and included 28 representatives organizations ranging from the Navy to ExxonMobil and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. Balcomb, a bushy-bearded man of 62, was also a panel member. Most at home on a boat tracking whales, he seemed especially uncomfortable in the conference room just outside Washington. That the room included quite a few people he had tangled with personally about whales and sonar surely didn’t help.
The panel’s stated goal is to achieve a consensus on what kind of regulations, if any, the United States should implement to better protect marine mammals from the effects of man-made sound. The series of conferences, which will include a late September meeting in London, is supposed to end by the middle of next year. Listening to the discussion over two days in April, it’s difficult to see how the group could reach even the most basic agreement.
The issues tackled were often technical and theoretical, but it quickly became apparent that an underlying policy question was driving the debate: To what extent should humans be allowed to annoy, harass, and sometimes kill whales and other marine mammals with our noise? Environmentalists, whale advocates and scientists like Balcomb around the table made clear that they believe we’ve already gone too far. The Navy, research geologists and representatives from the oil and gas exploration and shipping industries said the problem was not only controllable, but already under control.
Perhaps because the Navy had scored its political victory in Congress last fall, the most pointed exchanges involved the oil and gas exploration representatives. Both they and research geologists fire extremely loud collections of airguns at the ocean floor in their work, and at least one whale stranding has been linked to an airgun array used by an American research vessel. The dead animal was found by American government biologists on vacation off Mexico, and researchers assume that if one animal has been harmed, then others are probably dying as well without being discovered.
Chip Gill, a panel member from the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, stressed of the need for ‘balance.’ “Yes, acoustic energy can be harmful, but that has to be weighed against the benefits to man,” he said after the meeting. “We’re quite concerned there may be regulations drawn up with significant economic impact on our ability to operate, and we just don’t see how the benefit to animals justifies the potentially significant costs.”
Panel member Naomi Rose of the Humane Society said she’s been dismayed by what she’s heard from the producers of ocean noise. “They try to say there’s no real problem, but it seems pretty clear that there is one. As we’ve seen in the strandings, the noise can be deadly itself. But even more, it’s an added burden on ocean ecosystems that are already under attack in so many other ways. Do we really want to push them to the breaking point?”
Ken Balcomb is a man of science, someone who believes in identifiable causes and effects, but he sometimes can’t help but wonder about how and why that first beaked whale came up quite literally to his beachfront doorstep in the Bahamas.
It was surely coincidence, he said recently on that same beach, that the animal and later several others swam to the place where they were most likely to get help. Not that they could be saved, since many already had major hemorrhages, and Balcomb believes even the animals he and others pushed back to sea probably soon died. Rather, the famously intelligent animals presented themselves to people who might best understand their unseen plight, and who would be most likely to sound the necessary alarm.
For a field biologist to have that kind of experience once is unusual. For it to occur again is well beyond unlikely. But that’s what happened to Balcomb three years after the Bahamas stranding, this time near his other whale research center across the United States in Washington state. After a Navy destroyer using sonar passed through the Haro Strait near the border with Canada in May 2003, a pod of orcas (or killer whales) began to act in what Balcomb and others considered to be a highly agitated manner, and in the next two weeks harbor porpoises began to wash up dead on nearby shores. In all, at least 16 porpoises died in the days after the sonar use, and once again Balcomb was there to collect samples for research.
This time, the Navy quickly concluded that it was not at fault. Its specialists examined Balcomb’s videotapes of the orcas, and found that their behavior was within normal ranges. If there was unusual behavior, the Navy report said, it was probably because a number of whale-watching boats were nearby and were themselves creating a lot of noise. As for the dead porpoises, the experts brought in by the Navy concluded that 10 died of natural causes and that six died for unknown reasons—a percentage they described as normal as well. The Navy maneuvers had been appropriate and necessary to train sailors in detecting floating mines, the report determined, and there was no reason to curtail them in that area in the future.
The conclusions made Balcomb angry, and he was especially critical of the way the animals were examined. The expert brought in by the Navy looked only for damage to the ear, he said. She made no effort to look for signs that the sonar had caused the animals to act in ways that led to their death, and she didn’t look for the kind of deadly gas and fat bubbles found in the Canary Island beaked whale stranding.
Balcomb described the porpoise stranding and the Navy‘s response as he searched a beach on the eastern side of his Bahamian island for another beaked whale that had washed up several weeks before. There was little left but the skeleton when he found it, but what he saw disturbed him. The large facial bones were an unusual color of black, stained by the likely remains of blood, possibly from an internal hemorrhage.
“Not long ago, we would have assumed it had been attacked by sharks as it beached and maybe the blood came from that,” Balcomb noted. “But because of what we know now, we have to consider the possibility of a sonar incident that caused internal bleeding. It’s a whole new way of thinking about whales and what they face out there in the ocean?
Marc Kaufman is a reporter on the national staff of the Washington Post, where he has followed the sonar story since 2001. He has worked as a journalist for more than 25 years, including reporting stints in India, Afghanistan, Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia. He currently focuses on science and health, and how the two intersect with U.S. government policy. He wrote this story exclusively for Ode.