Subject: Navy sonar may cause marine mammal beachings

Jim Galasyn (
Thu, 5 Mar 1998 18:29:12 -0800

Navy Experiments on Whales Draw Ire=20
Sounding Out Humpbacks=20

   "In May 1996, 12 Cuvier beaked whales washed up=20
   on the west coast of Greece, just days after NATO=20
   tested an LFAS system to detect nuclear submarines.=20
   The deep-diving species rarely gets stranded."

By E.J. Gong Jr.

March 4 - A Navy experiment to fill the ocean with sonar in whale
country has angered some who say it's a cruel experiment in the=20
name of research.=20
=A0=A0=A0=A0 Navy researchers last week began dragging a sonar array 50 f=
below the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Hawaii. For 40 seconds at a=20
time, it emits a pulse of low-frequency sonar into a prime humpback-
whale breeding area.=20
=A0=A0=A0=A0 Navy officials say the experiment will help them learn what=20
sonar levels, if any, harm whales. They hope to use the technology=20
one day to track enemy submarines. But environmentalists are livid,=20
calling it a sadistic exercise.=20

Day in Court
Next week, a U.S. District judge is expected to rule on an=20
environmentalist's request to halt the project. As the two sides=20
battle in court, a Greek marine biologist's recent study may shed=20
some light on the issue.=20
=A0=A0=A0=A0 In this week's journal Nature, Alexandros Frantzis suggests=20
that low-frequency active sonar (LFAS) not only irritates whales,=20
but can lead to mass strandings.=20
=A0=A0=A0=A0 In May 1996, 12 Cuvier beaked whales washed up on the west=20
coast of Greece, just days after NATO tested an LFAS system to=20
detect nuclear submarines. The deep-diving species rarely gets=20
=A0=A0=A0=A0 Frantzis, and a growing number of scientists around the worl=
believe the two events are more than just a coincidence.=20

Sonar the Culprit?
"We know that LFAS was used in the Kyparissiakos Gulf," says=20
Frantzis. "We also know that no other LFAS or mass strandings have=20
occurred in the Greek Ionian (Mediterranean) Sea since 1981."=20
=A0=A0=A0=A0 Beaked whales are slate-gray with a pale underside, and have
a distinct beak protruding from their skull. They typically grow to
about 23 feet, weigh up to a ton, and can dive to 3,300 feet.=20
=A0=A0=A0=A0 For decades, scientists have believed sonar affects whales,=20
dolphins and porpoises. The animals rely on their acute hearing to=20
navigate, find food and communicate. The echo from the sounds they=20
emit measures the location and distance of objects. But there's=20
been little evidence to connect man-made sonar with whales until=20
=A0=A0=A0=A0 Looking at the last 16 years, the odds of the mass stranding=
in Greece and LFAS tests being a coincidence are minuscule,=20
Frantzis says less than 0.07 percent.=20

Breakthrough Study
Frantzis thinks the sonar disorients whales, and they end up on=20
the beach. Autopsies on the dead whales have revealed no diseases=20
or physical abnormalities, and the animals have bellies full of=20
=A0=A0=A0=A0 Canadian marine biologist Hal Whitehead calls Frantzis'=20
findings a breakthrough.=20
=A0=A0=A0=A0 "Sound to a whale is like vision to us,'' says Whitehead.=20
"When the acoustic and sound environment is disturbed, it's the=20
same as covering our eyes up. "=20
=A0=A0=A0=A0 Whitehead believes other whale beachings might be=20
attributed to other LFAS tests, though it's hard to prove because=20
LFAS use is treated as top secret.=20
=A0=A0=A0=A0 For its part, the Navy says current tests in Hawaii are=20
crucial to national safety. Commander Kevin Wensing says the Navy=20
plans to use four LFAS systems around the globe to monitor nuclear=20
submarines by 2004. That would allow them to scan thousands of=20
miles at a time for enemy subs.=20

This is Just a Test
Prominent whale expert Chris Clark of Cornell University stresses=20
that the current LFAS testing in Hawaii differs entirely from the=20
incident in Greece.=20
=A0=A0=A0=A0 "That was a NATO naval operation," says Clark, who is=20
leading the Navy's project. "This is a different context. We're=20
using low levels of LFAS to see at which point we get a behavioral=20
change. We're being careful not to harm the whales."=20
=A0=A0=A0=A0 But some environmentalists are concerned nonetheless. They=20
question how the Navy can know the long-term effects of the=20
testing and whether they can accurately determine how much is too=20

Environmentalists vs. Navy
"There's too much about LFAS that we simply don't know about yet,"
says environmental activist Paul Achitoff, who worries that the=20
Navy isn't taking enough precautions to protect the humpbacks. If,
for example, the testing drives the whales from their breeding=20
ground, says Achitoff, that could affect reproduction.=20
=A0=A0=A0=A0 Both the Navy and Chris Clark insist that the levels will=20
never get that high. They use a state-of-the-art sound system to=20
look for any changes in the whales' feeding behavior or song=20
patterns. They're confident their experiment won't adversely=20
affect the whale population.=20

How Loud is Loud?
So just how loud are the tests? Depends on who you ask. The Navy=20
says their sonar would sound like a lawnmower if you stood six=20
feet away from the source. Environmentalists say it'd be like=20
standing on the tarmac when a jet takes off.=20
=A0=A0=A0=A0 But water changes the quality of sound, and whales, after=20
all, are not humans. The loudness depends on how far you are from=20
the source of the sound. But the 180 decibels, which is the=20
starting level for the navy sonar tests, cannot be easily=20
translated into whale terms.=20
=A0=A0=A0=A0 If you stuck your head underwater, the LFAS would sound like
a deep low groan. That deep groan can be heard by whales for=20
hundreds, and in certain ocean conditions, thousands of miles.=20
=A0=A0=A0=A0 That's precisely why the Navy favors LFAS. It's a=20
far-reaching sonar that can go long distances before dissipating.=20
=A0=A0=A0=A0 As the sides battle in Hawaii, Frantzis of Greece is careful
to reserve judgment.=20
=A0=A0=A0=A0 But, he allows, "for me, it's more important that whales are=
safe and not disturbed than advancing our knowledge on them."=20