U.S. Navy Implicated in New Mass Stranding of Whales

Yesterday afternoon, while the U.S. and other navies played war games somewhere offshore, Cuvier’s beaked whales began stranding along the southern coast of Crete.  Those on the scene knew right away what they were dealing with, for yesterday’s strandings were only the most recent in a line of similar calamities in the region, going back two decades.  And in this case, as in the previous ones, all signs point navy.

Cuvier’s beaked whales are a remarkable species. They have the deepest recorded dives of all marine mammals, some descending an astonishing 3000 meters below the water’s surface before coming up for air.  Favoring deep water, they don’t strand nearly as often as coastal species, and they don’t strand in number, and they don’t strand alive. 

Yet that is exactly what happened yesterday. Beginning around noon, three Cuvier’s beaked whales came ashore in one spot along the Cretan coast, two others beached some 17 kilometers further west, and two more turned up nearby. All were alive when they stranded.

For Greece, none of this is new. In 1996 and again in 1997, dozens of beaked whales of the same species turned up along the Peloponnesian coast; in 2011, they stranded on the island of Corfu as well as the east coast of Italy, across the Ionian Sea.  In each case, navies were training with high-powered sonar in the area. Indeed, according to the Smithsonian Institution and International Whaling Commission, every beaked whale mass stranding on record everywhere in the world has occurred with naval activities, usually sonar, taking place in the vicinity.

And yesterday was no exception. For the last week, the U.S., Greek, and Israeli navies have been running a joint military exercise off Crete known as Operation Noble Dina. The exercise includes anti-submarine warfare training, which requires the use of high-powered military sonar.

Each of these events is tragic in its way, but this one feels particularly cruel. Just last year, the Scientific Committee of ACCOBAMS, an agreement for the conservation of whales and dolphins in the Mediterranean and Black Seas, drew a map where sonar training should be avoided.  One area on the map is off southeastern Crete—exactly where the new mass stranding occurred—around a highly sensitive marine area known as the Hellenic Trench.  But Greece fought the recommendation, and it wasn’t adopted. 

Now experts are despairing that, with stranding after stranding, the region’s beaked whale populations are being decimated.  

Beaked whales that have died from sonar exposure—at least the ones recovered in time for investigation—have suffered from a suite of severe, telltale pathologies, similar to those seen in decompression sickness, or the bends.  Sonar is believed to kill them by disrupting their dive patterns.  The ones that reach shore are considered the tip of an iceberg.

Stranding responders, including Dr. Alexandros Frantzis, the Scientific Director of the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute, have asked the Greek authorities to intervene so that military sonar will no longer be used in the area in the days ahead. The same urgent request must be made of the U.S. Navy, which appears to have participated in this exercise without complying with U.S. law. 

This event and others like it keep driving home a simple fact: military sonar and marine mammals don’t mix. How many more whales must die before navies agree to avoid important and vulnerable marine mammal habitat, like the area identified off Crete? Continuing to operate as the principals have in this instance approaches something like reckless indifference, like barrelling a truck down a crowded city street.  Our oceans are large enough to accommodate whales and military training, if our navies had the will to do the right thing.

To demand that the Navy protect whales, please go here.

About the Authors

Michael Jasny

Director, Marine Mammal Protection Project, Land & Wildlife program

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