Cover Story

Humpback whale breaching off Maui coastline. Taken under NMFS Permit # 883. Photographed by Jeff Pantukhoff/

Activists say sonar kills whales. The Navy isn't listening


Cover image for Apr 25, 2007

The U.S. Navy’s antisubmarine warfare strategists probably wish they could emulate the way whales and dolphins navigate the ocean depths. How they can penetrate, with high-pitched clicks, what the light spectrum cannot. How they can detect without touching, see without seeing. How they can ward off predators, stalk their prey, answer their kind across the distant and dark.

The Navy has none of these talents. Instead, it relies on various types of man-made sonar to monitor key shipping channels. With the advent of the modern, ultra-quiet enemy submarine, the Navy insists its personnel must be trained in the use of certain types of active sonar–the kind of sonar that blasts a pulse thousands of miles across the water and sends a pressure wave ripping through the lungs and brains of whales and dolphins, that causes deafness, disorientation, acute stress, violent behavior and separation of mother and calf pairs. This is only for starters.

‘[Sonar] causes hemorrhaging in their brains and lungs. They’ve found them bleeding from their ears, bleeding from their eyes.’
– Marsha Green, founder of the Ocean Mammal Institute

Underwater, sound increases exponentially, says Jeff Pantukhoff, who spearheads the international Save the Whales Again campaign. ‘When a huge bomb goes off in a city, it’s the pressure wave that causes the damage. The pressure wave from a sonar blast rips and tears apart the cells of marine mammals.’

The Navy admits that in some cases, marine mammals may be sensitive to mid-frequency sonar and that, in at least one stranding case, sonar testing was part of ‘a confluence of factors acting togetherÖthat ultimately resulted in the stranding.’ The Navy’s website explains that it is working with ‘independent researchers around the world to better understand what combinations of ocean conditions, geography and sonar may lead to marine mammal disturbance.’

According to Marsha Green, founder of the Ocean Mammal Institute and the International Ocean Noise Coalition, the Navy is making the problem sound more complicated than it is. Sonar doesn’t just disturb whales, she says, ‘It kills them.’

‘It causes hemorrhaging in their brains and lungs. They’ve found them bleeding from their ears, bleeding from their eyes.’

Marsha Green at the March 16 protest.
Bree ullman

On March 16, Green led a protest in Kahului against what she calls the Navy’s ‘lawlessness.’ Her flyers display beached whales bathed in blood. Any arguments questioning the lethality of active sonar lost their credibility in March 2000, she says, when 17 beaked whales in the Bahamas beached themselves and died after being exposed to 150 to 160 decibel sonar.

Marine Biologist Ken Balcomb, who was living in the Bahamas at the time of the beaked whale stranding, severed the heads of the whales, froze them and had them sent them back to a laboratory in Boston for dissection. He found hemorrhaging in the whales’ inner ears and brains as the result of an intense acoustic event.

‘When a huge bomb goes off in a city, it’s the pressure wave that
causes the damage. The pressure wave from
a sonar blast rips and tears apart the cells of
marine mammals.’
–Jeff Pantukhoff of Save the Whales Again

‘Envision a football squeezed to the size of a ping-pong ball by air pressure alone. Now envision this ping-pong ball compressing and decompressing hundreds of times per second. Imagine this ping-pong ball located in your head, between your two ears,’ Balcomb wrote after he finished dissecting the whales.

Even the Navy issued a statement admitting that its own mid-range tactical sonar was the ‘most plausible cause’ of the incident.

The focus of Green’s Maui protest, which coincided with simultaneous efforts throughout the state, was a January U.S. Department of Defense decision to exempt the Navy from the requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which makes it a crime to harass, kill or injure marine mammals. The two-year exemption will affect all coastal states, but Green says Hawai’i’s humpback whales will be especially hard hit.

Last fall the Navy announced that it would be expanding sonar exercises in Hawai’i. Their FONSI (Finding of No Significant Impact) on the planned exercises indicates that up to 10,000 humpbacks and 900 sperm whales may be exposed to active sonar blasts of between 173 and 195 decibels in the Hawai’i region. They do not expect that this will significantly impact marine life.

Bree ullman

Green, an animal behaviorist who studies the impacts of boat engine noise on whales, says that expectation is illogical. The Navy plans to test sonar at an intensity that is between 100,000 and 10 million times louder than the threshold at which a whale begins to avoid noise and as much as 10,000 times louder than the sonar that killed the beaked whales in the Bahamas, she explains.

Green can list the past decade’s headline-grabbing whale strandings from memory. Canary Islands, September 2002: Four hours after military exercises commence in the area, eight beaked whales strand themselves and die. Haro Strait, Washington, May 2003: 11 harbor porpoises strand and die as the U.S.S. Shoup tests its mid-frequency sonar system. North Carolina, January 2005: 37 whales beach themselves and die after Navy vessels on a deep-water training mission off the coast used powerful sonar as part of the exercise. The list goes on.

In Hawai’i, there have been few major stranding incidents. 1n 1998, a spinner dolphin calf, a melonheaded whale calf and a humpback whale calf were found separated from their mothers after scientists hired by the Navy tested low-level low-frequency sonar in the area. In 2004, close to 200 melonheaded whales crowded into the shoreline of Kaua’i’s Hanalei Bay after the use of mid-frequency sonar during RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific Exercise) exercises.

But most whales injured or killed by sonar will not be found, says Green–they will sink and die rather than beach themselves on shore. She notes that in the Bahamas, the entire population of beaked whales has gone missing since the stranding.

‘The whales that we observed swimming toward shore and stranding were only temporary survivors of an acoustic holocaust that can be likened to fishing with dynamite,’ wrote Balcomb in 2001.

But Green says the problem with the Navy’s FONSI is self-evident. ‘It seems to me that if you seek an exemption from an act (MMPA) that allows for the prosecution of those who kill, harass or injure marine mammals, then you’re admitting that your actions have a high probability of harassing, injuring or killing marine mammals,’ she says. ‘Why would you seek an exemption otherwise?’

The politics of acoustic trauma

According to Lindy Weilgart, a Nova Scotia-based marine biologist, financial control and sometimes overt intimidation have been the Navy’s mode of operation for years. A recent article in OnEarth Magazine calls noise pollution ‘the most contentious issue in marine mammal science today.’ Weilgart says this has less to do with any uncertainty in the data than it does with the level of control the Navy exerts on the scientific community.

The Navy funds 70 percent of the marine mammal research in the United States and 50 percent of marine mammal research in the world, says Weilgart. ‘They brag about this. It’s like they don’t understand the conflict of interest.’

She and her husband, Hal Whitehead, are both professors of marine biology at Dalhousie University. The couple has on several occasions blown the whistle on what they say is a ‘systematic unwillingness to publicly criticize defense-related projects within the U.S. marine-mammal research community,’ according to the Journal of Marine Mammal Science.

At a Navy-sponsored panel of scientists discussing the effects of noise pollution, Whitehead once commented that the situation at hand was akin to a ‘special session on lung cancer held at a professional conference of oncologists funded by the tobacco industry.’

On Weilgart’s website, she has posted an e-mail exchange between Navy officers that sheds some light on the Navy’s opinion of the role of a Navy research scientist. Released to the public as part of a National Resource Defense Council lawsuit, the document reveals a conversation between a representative of the operational branch of the U.S. Navy and an official of the Office of Naval Research (ONR), upon reading some critical public comments from ONR-sponsored marine mammal scientists.

The Navy representative describes the scientists’ findings as ‘negative and out of the box’ and remarks that ‘the proper way to bitch is via the sponsor.’ The ONR official describes making a ‘scorching phone call’ to set them straight. ‘I think they had some inkling that they might be about to take our money and make themselves look good to the enviros too,’ he wrote. ‘Scientists are sometimes like that, they’llÖgive their honest, sometimes harsh critique without knowing any of the politics or circumstancesÖ’

But Weilgart says marine biologists actually understand the ‘politics and circumstances’ quite well. Or at least, well enough to know that scientists whose research undermines their sponsors are asking for a funding slash. ‘The Navy has a chilling effect on scientists who might otherwise be inclined to testify against their programs,’ says Weilgart. ‘What we’re really trying to address is an entire system that places scientists in a bind of conflicting loyalties.’

Will sonar make us more secure?

Many of sonar’s proponents choose not to argue the finer points of marine science, and instead insist that human lives should trump environmental concerns. In a March 13 online chat session with the public hosted by the Honolulu Advertiser, Admiral Gary Roughead, then-commander of the Pacific fleet, championed active sonar as ‘our most effective detection method,’ arguing that we ‘must be able to train using that system if we are to operate against these increasingly quiet and deadly submarines.’

In July 2006, when federal judge Florence Marie Cooper issued a temporary restraining order blocking the Navy’s exercises in Hawai’i, the president of the Heritage Foundation, a DC-based conservative think tank, was reeling.

‘Our [battlefield dominance] shouldn’t be given away to protect whales,’ he wrote in a Chicago Sun-Times editorial ‘If we forget that, someday one of our enemies–one who won’t care how many whales it kills as long as plenty of Americans die too–will eventually remind us.’

It is a potentially persuasive line of argument. If the use of active sonar can be traced to a genuine need to protect the United States against immediate security threats, then doesn’t the prospect of a few dead whales lose its shock value?

It might, says Weilgart, if the military could provide some specifics. ‘Give me something I can grasp onto here,’ she says. ‘Show me an Al-Qaeda submarine. Tell me about an instance where an enemy sub could only be detected with active sonar. They act like they can’t protect our men and women without it, but they don’t show us why.’

Pantukhoff says the Navy doesn’t provide the evidence because it simply isn’t there. ‘The Navy hasn’t faced threat of attack on a U.S. submarine since the Cold War,’ he says. In fact, the Navy doesn’t explicitly claim that we are under the threat of an attack, but rather that in shipping channels around the world, submarines ‘could be used in the future to disrupt peace and stability by interrupting transportation and commerce.’ The Navy stresses the importance of keeping the oceans open for oil tankers and merchant fleets.

Regardless of its purpose, active sonar is ‘stupid technology,’ says Pantukhoff, who backs his claim with some unlikely sources. Testifying before Congress in 2000, Charles Bernard, former director of the U.S. Naval Weapons Lab, argued that active sonar makes ‘no sense’ because it has the disadvantage of highlighting the source vessel and other U.S. ships and submarines, compromising our own security and placing our own personnel in jeopardy.’

The same year, Navy Rear Admiral Malcolm Fages testified that active sonar was simply unnecessary. ‘The Navy now has the ability to detect quiet submarines in littoral waters using passive listening systems at considerable distances,’ he said.

War games in the whale nursery again?

While the international community may finally be paying heed to environmentalist badgering, ocean noise activists say Hawai’i’s efforts to protect the state’s marine life are flagging.

In July 2006 in the channel between Maui and Big Island, the Navy scheduled a nighttime choke-point exercise as part of the month-long RIMPAC war games conducted every other year in the Hawaiian Islands. The day before the scheduled blast, researchers who were monitoring RIMPAC noticed a pod of hundreds of melonheaded whales in the blasting zone. They radioed the Navy vessel and asked them to cancel the exercises.

At night, says Green, it would have been impossible to see whether whales were within range. Green says the researchers did not detect any sonar blasts that night and assumes that the warning convinced the Navy to hold off. ‘In reality, I think [the researchers] saved their butts,’ she says, ‘because let me tell you, the whole world was watching.’

‘Show me an Al-Qaeda submarine. Tell me about an instance where an enemy sub could only be detected with active sonar.’ –Marine biologist Lindy Weilgart

RIMPAC has been subject to intense public criticism for decades. In Hawai’i, many associate the war games with the bombing of Kaho’olawe, which was for years a major component of RIMPAC. Green says the non-incident of 2006 highlights the Navy’s unwillingness to take basic precautions that would lessen the likelihood of marine mammal fatalities. That the Navy insists on testing active sonar at night is telling, she says, but more telling is the fact that they are testing sonar in the prime breeding ground for humpback whales.

Encompassing approximately 1,218 square nautical miles, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary is the winter home to two thirds of the North Pacific’s humpbacks. The whales return each year to breed, calve and nurse their young in the warm, shallow waters of the world’s most isolated island archipelago. But in these very waters, between the islands of Maui, Lana’i, and Kaho’olawe, lies the U.S. Shallow Water Submarine Torpedo Training Range. There, the Navy has practiced antisubmarine warfare since 1988 with the aid of 52 hydrophones and eight acoustic projectors affixed to the ocean floor. Meanwhile, off Kaua’i’s north shore, NPAL has transmitted a source level sound of 195 decibels intermittently for the past 10 years. This Navy program is intended to measure the temperature of ocean waters, and the sonar travels 5,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean.

‘The Navy is really out of control,’ says Weilgart. ‘No one is saying shut down the Navy or stop all exercises altogether. We’re just saying do a better job, find a better spot. Why do they have to train in the Hawaiian Islands? Why do they have to train in a marine mammal breeding ground?

‘They could go 700 miles off- shore to conduct sonar exercises, and it would be much safer,’ adds Green.

But the military, she says, is not the sanctuary’s only threat. Every January, Green takes a group of students to Maui for an intensive fieldwork course on vehicle noise and marine life. The class has taken on a larger scope as Green has become increasingly disenchanted with the sanctuary’s failure to deliver on its goals.

In addition to the sonar exercises conducted in the sanctuary, marine mammals face boat engines and generators that produce sounds loud enough to travel for miles underwater, possibly disrupting whales ability to hear background chorusing or social sounds between mothers and calves.

The University of Hawai’i uses air guns to map the ocean floor, which produce sounds (up to 240 decibels) that are deadly to all marine mammals in proximity. Reports of boat collisions are increasing, and cruise ships still dump several hundred thousand gallons of sewage, oily bilge water, film processing and hair styling chemicals each year.

Frustrated with the sanctuary’s inaction, this year Green’s students took to the streets. Outside the national headquarters of the whale sanctuary in Maui, the students, along with about 20 other concerned citizens picketed outside the sanctuary headquarters on South Kihei Road.

Sanctuary director Alan Tom defended the organization in a Maui News article that followed the protest. When the sanctuary was established by then-Gov. Ben Cayetano, Tom explained, ‘He wanted the sanctuary to be involved in education and research. He didn’t want additional regulation on ocean activities. That was something he made very clear.’

He told reporters that he appreciated the interest but said he thought the students were in the wrong place. ‘I’m glad to see there are people who want to make changes. It doesn’t happen overnight. We would need data. If someone proposes a regulation, the [Sanctuary Advisory] Council will ask, where is the data to support that regulation?’

Green can only shake her head as she reads and rereads the article. ‘What do they mean they don’t have the data? They can contact experts. They can get the data themselves. They canÖ’

She shoves the newspaper away and sighs. ‘But it (the sanctuary) makes people feel that something is being done. It gives a false sense of security. In that aspect it really is quite insidious.’

Keeping up with California

Despite her frustrations with the sanctuary, Green says Tom is right about one thing: If there is to be any reprieve for Hawai’i’s marine mammals, the state will need to be involved.

How exactly does a state protect its coastal zone from a federal government program? They can start by hiring a lawyer. In California, they already have.

On March 22, the California Coastal Commission filed suit against the U.S. Navy in Federal District Court over the Navy’s decision not to comply with commission conditions that would help protect marine mammals from harmful impacts associated with use of undersea sonar during training exercises. But only the commission’s budget, explains director Peter Douglas, is subject to California state influence.

Hawai’i does not have its own coastal commission, and the Hawai’i Coastal Management Zone personnel are based in the state Office of Planning. The organization is subject to both state and federal influences; disputing the authority of either has not been their role in the past.

Still, Pantukhoff urges the state to follow California’s lead. ‘Lingle needs to take action here. If there were ever an issue that is worth distancing herself from the Bush administration on, it’s this one.’

According to Pantukhoff, even those with strictly practical concerns should realize that protecting the marine life of the nation’s only ocean state is a worthwhile enterprise.

‘People around Hawai’i need to know what’s at stake here,’ he says. Even the economy here is dependent on the health of the marine environment. We have no idea what collateral damage the sonar might do, what the long-term effects might be.’


The Whaleman Foundation []

Ocean Mammal Institute []