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Feature Story

Deadly Sonar

by Peter Canby

The U.S. Navy Bears Down on Whales -- and the Scientists who Study Them.

Hal Whitehead and his wife, Linda Weilgart, live on a cove's edge half an hour south of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Their house has views over Tribune Head -- a steep granite headland on which a British ship, the Tribune, foundered in 1797 -- and beyond that, the Atlantic Ocean. Below the house is a dock at which Whitehead and Weilgart keep their 40-foot Valiant-class sailboat, Balaena, which, over the years, they've sailed most of the way around the world. Whitehead, 54, has an aureole of reddish sandy hair and the ruddy complexion of someone who's not only spent a lot of time on the water but also bikes to his lab at four or five each morning. He explained to me that he and Weilgart bought the house -- a ramshackle, recently built structure -- because it was the only place they could find at which they could also moor the boat. One of his students told me that once when Weilgart was out of town for a stretch, Whitehead had moved onto Balaena and, when asked about it, had seemed puzzled that anyone would actually prefer to live in a house.

Whitehead is a professor and Weilgart an assistant professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, an institution an ecologist friend recently characterized for me as "kilo for kilo, the most exciting marine research center in the world." Whitehead is the world's foremost expert on sperm whales. He is known both for a suite of innovative techniques that have allowed him and Weilgart to study these deepwater creatures from Balaena and for making (with a colleague, Luke Rendell) the controversial argument that whales not only have "culture" but have used that culture to adapt successfully to the ocean's demanding environments. Because of this, they argue, whales should be included on a short list of the world's most highly evolved creatures.

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Whitehead's father was a professor of engineering at Cambridge, and Whitehead himself has an undergraduate degree in mathematics from that same university. This background seems to have bequeathed him a certain intellectual confidence. Because they're so difficult to observe, deepwater whales such as sperm whales are famously difficult to study and all but impossible to experiment on, and Whitehead's ideas about whale culture and whale evolution are built upon meticulously gathered data and complex statistical formulas that are objects of awe for many of his peers. David Lusseau, a postdoc who came to Dalhousie specifically to study with Whitehead, said, "There's animal behavior before Hal and after Hal. Hal has worked up a set of statistical tools to infer general principles from incompletely observed phenomena. No one else has worked up a method for analyzing social structure in all types of animal behavior."

But I had asked to speak to Whitehead and Weilgart on another subject, one I wasn’t sure they’d want to talk about publicly. That subject was the vexing problem of the U.S. Navy’s increasing tactical dependence on marine sonar and the growing evidence that sonar is damaging, and in some cases fatal, to cetaceans. Navy sonar is very likely the most contentious issue in marine-mammal science today, and it’s a subject few marine biologists are willing to touch, perhaps because so many labs and individual scientists are dependent on navy grants. Even though they themselves do not receive navy funds, Whitehead and Weilgart let it be known, when I first asked if they’d be willing to be interviewed on this subject, that they had no desire to become poster children for the navy-sonar issue. Their reaction was hardly unique, as I subsequently discovered when a series of seemingly matter-of-fact calls and e-mails to oceanographers and marine biologists in connection with this article either went unanswered or were answered evasively and incompletely. (It did not help, of course, that the Natural Resources Defense Council [NRDC] has filed lawsuits against the navy to prevent sonar tests that may be damaging to cetaceans.)

Eventually, however, Whitehead and Weilgart relented -- or at least relented partly. They agreed to talk about a related subject on which they’ve both been outspoken: their belief that the navy’s dominant role in funding marine-mammal science has had a corrupting effect on the nature of the research being undertaken. Indeed, Whitehead and Weilgart had already published a 1995 article on the subject in the professional journal Marine Mammal Science and a long letter on the same subject in the same journal in 2005. In these pieces they noted that the navy sponsored 70 percent of all marine-mammal research in the United States as well as 50 percent of all research world-wide, and that this had led to a "systematic unwillingness to publicly criticize defense-related projects within the U.S. marine-mammal research community." They likened this situation to "a special information session on lung cancer at a professional meeting of oncologists funded by the tobacco industry."

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Peter Canby is a senior editor at the New Yorker. He is the author of The Heart of the Sky: Travels Among the Maya and writes about politics and the environment for publications including the New York Review of Books, Harper's, and the Nation.

Top Photo caption: A navy ship tests mid-frequency sonar in Washington's Haro Strait, close to a pod of orca whales.

Photos: Kenneth Balcomb; Carl Walsh

OnEarth. Spring 2007
Copyright 2007 by the Natural Resources Defense Council