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Feature Story
Deadly Sonar
Page 3

The navy’s reluctance to concede a causal relationship between its exercises and the strandings grew increasingly strained, however, as physical evidence of the nature of the damage to stranded whales gradually emerged. Kenneth Balcomb, an independent whale biologist and former navy underwater-surveillance officer, happened to be living in the Bahamas in 2000 when five navy ships conducted anti–submarine warfare exercises in the narrow channel between Grand Bahama and Grand Abaco Island, leading to the stranding of 17 cetaceans -- including nine Cuvier’s beaked whales and three Blainville’s beaked whales -- and the deaths of at least eight of them. Balcomb had been studying this particular population of beaked whales, and it had seemed to him as if he were studying a population of dinosaurs. "Few whale biologists even today," he told me, "have ever seen a beaked whale." After the whales died, he severed the heads of several and froze them. The navy then flew the heads to a lab in Boston for analysis. There, Balcomb and Darlene Ketten, a biologist funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal agency with jurisdiction over marine mammals, conducted necropsies that clearly showed fatal hemorrhaging of the delicate tissues around the whales’ brains and ears. Balcomb attributed this to "resonance phenomena" caused by the navy sonar.

This was the first physical evidence of sonar-related injuries to whales and bad news for the navy. When he first came across the stranded whales, Balcomb had effectively reported up the chain of command by calling Robert Gisiner, the marine-mammals program director for the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the man who makes funding decisions for much of the navy’s marine-mammals science. But at some point during the Boston necropsies Balcomb began to suspect that the navy might bury the incident. He insisted on both videotaping the necropsies for himself and keeping copies of the CAT scans. When, after a number of months, the navy and NOAA were still sitting on the evidence of cranial hemorrhaging, Balcomb decided to take the radical step of breaking the code of silence surrounding navy-funded projects.

His announcement of his findings was hugely controversial, and in December 2001, a year and a half after he had spoken out, the navy and NOAA jointly issued an interim report on the stranding, in which they acknowledged that navy sonar was "the most plausible source" of the "acoustic or impulse trauma" that led to the deaths of the whales. Balcomb believes that the navy took this unprecedented step only because he had the evidence, but even in its preliminary report (a final one has never been released) the navy did not concede much. While acknowledging the brain hemorrhaging, the navy argued that this had not in itself been fatal and suggested that the whales had actually died from "cardiovascular collapse" after stranding, a conclusion Balcomb strongly disputes and for which he says there is no evidence. Balcomb likens the stranding to "fishing with dynamite."

Two years after the Bahamas incident, a different kind of physical evidence emerged when a team of Spanish veterinarians arrived at a stranding of 14 beaked whales on the Canary Islands, not long after a NATO naval exercise. The whales were "severely shocked and dying rapidly" and bleeding profusely from their mouths and eyes. In the Bahamas, Balcomb and Ketten had focused on the heads of the whales, but the Spanish team was able to make more detailed full-carcass examinations. Like Balcomb and Ketten, they found "massive" hemorrhaging around the animals’ brains, but they also found hemorrhaging of the blood vessels of many of the whales’ other organs, including their kidneys, liver, and lungs. They were able to discern gas and fat bubbles in the blood vessels, consistent with those found in divers who contract the bends. The Spanish veterinarians suggested that the animals might have altered their normal surfacing routine and shot to the surface in response to the intense sonar to which they’d been exposed.

By 2003, these and other strandings had led to a public outcry sufficient for Congress to direct the Marine Mammal Commission, an agency within the federal government, to create an "advisory committee on acoustic impacts on marine mammals." The committee included all interested parties -- the navy, the oil and gas industry, the shipping industry, academics, and environmentalists. Perhaps in recognition of the dysfunctional relationship among these groups, the committee convened under the direction of a conflict-resolution organization. The plan was to hammer out a consensus report that would serve as a guide to Congress in making decisions on marine-acoustic issues.

The committee met regularly over a two-year period, "haggling over every sentence, every phrase, fighting over every line and compromising over every word," as one member put it. At the end of that time, according to several participants, the committee was struggling with a late draft of the consensus report when the navy suddenly ceased cooperating. Frank Stone, of the office of the chief of naval operations, talked to the panelists by speakerphone and told them the navy no longer agreed with a single line of the draft consensus report. Asked to comment on the collapse of the process, Rear Admiral James Symonds, director of navy environmental programs, said, "It is inaccurate to attribute the lack of consensus among the committee to any one member."

In the end the panel issued a set of sharply differing caucus reports. Linda Weilgart, who’d been an alternate member of the advisory committee, was the principal author of the environmental caucus report. In a comment filed separately, she noted that "we are not just talking about a small-scale effect on a few individual [whales]. There is every reason to believe that impacts could be large scale and considerable."

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