Bahama Stranding Information

From: mike williamson (williams@www1.wheelock.edu)
Date: Sat Mar 25 2000 - 11:26:29 EST


      Tuesday March 21 8:29 PM ET
      Bahamas Whales Deaths Prompt Probe

                  AP Photo

      By JESSICA ROBERTSON, Associated Press Writer

      FREEPORT, Bahamas (AP) - Eight whales beached and died soon after
the
U.S. Navy conducted anti-submarine exercises off the northern Bahamas,
prompting an investigation and calls for an end to such exercises.

      The Navy said Tuesday that there was no evidence to link the whale
deaths to last week's exercise testing sonar detection of submarines.

      Navy Cmdr. Greg Smith said the sonar tests were scheduled only one
day
and took place from about 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. March 15 off Abaco Island.

      Marine biologist Ken Balcomb of the Earthwatch environmental group
said beachings began that same day and within two days at least 14 whales
had grounded themselves on Abaco, Grand Bahama to the north, and Eleuthera
to the south. Eight died, prompting investigations by Bahamian and U.S.
scientists and authorities.

      ``A whale beaching in the Bahamas is a once-in-a-decade
occurrence,''
said Balcomb, an American who has been studying whales around Abaco island
for nine years.

      ``We will be making recommendations to the Bahamian government that
these sort of exercises be terminated,'' he said. ``The fact that it
coincides with the military exercises cannot be just coincidental.''

      But the Navy spokesman said there was no evidence linking the two
events and the Navy planned to continue such tests.

      ``There's no suggestion we have, and no scientific data, that the
testing that we are doing was in any way linked to the current,
unfortunate
demise of great mammals,'' said Smith.

      ``My understanding of the actual locations would put the island
between the operations where the `sonobuoys' were located and where the
whales eventually beached themselves,'' said Smith.

      Naomi Rose of the Washington-based Humane Society of the United
States, maintained the signals could still do damage.

      ``These signals, depending on frequency, could travel quite a
distance
and could even wrap around the island,'' said Rose, a marine mammal
scientist. ``One could argue that they fled the area where the sonar was
being transmitted.''

      Another U.S. marine biologist here to investigate, Charles Potter of
the Smithsonian Institute, said the number of whales beached is
``extremely
unusual. But he said the postmortems showed the whales had suffered no
physical damage, such as broken ear drums.

      Balcomb said the mammals included several deep-water beaked whales,
goose beaked whales measuring 16-19 feet, dense beaked whales measuring
10-13 feet, baleen whales measuring up to 27 feet and some small minke
whales.

      Michael Breynan, director of the Bahamian Fisheries Department, said
he was working with U.S. scientists to try to determine the cause. Breynan
said his department kept no records of beached whales but added: ``I am
not
aware of any similar incident (having occurred) in the Bahamas.''

      He said further tests on the dead whales would be carried out in the
United States, a process that could take months.

      Smith said the exercise was testing for upgrades of what the Navy
calls the Directional Command Activated Sonobuoy System.

      The exercise involved a Navy P-3 aircraft dropping two buoys north
of
Abaco, one as close as 35 miles to the island, the other 70 to 75 miles
from
the island. One buoy emitted a sonar signal which was received by the
other,
and a submarine was moving between the two buoys.

      He said the exercise had nothing to do with low frequency active
sonar, a new and controversial system that transmits sonar pulses so loud
they can match the roar of a rocket launch.

      The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, responsible for
overseeing
all U.S. actions that could affect the environment at home or abroad, said
it approved the Navy's environmental assessment for its exercise.

      Roger Gentry, coordinator of the service's acoustics team, said the
exercises shouldn't have affected the whales. ``Yet we have beached
whales.''

      The service has also sent veterinarians and acoustic experts to
investigate.

      Marine scientists have been expressing growing concern in recent
years
about the possible effects of man-made noises on marine mammals who rely
on
their hearing perhaps more than their sight.

      ``We already know from preliminary research that's been done that
there are some problems with man-made noise in the marine environment,''
said Rose of the Humane Society.

      However, other experts have been quick to point out that none of the
research has been able to conclusively blame man-made noise for events
such
as the whale beachings in the Bahamas.

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