Subject: Submarine tests too loud for whales

Mike Williamson (
Fri, 13 Mar 1998 11:46:35 -0500 (EST)

Date: Tue, 10 Mar 98 04:23:00 GMT 
Subject: Submarine tests too loud for w

Submarine tests too loud for whales?

 UPI Science News
   WASHINGTON, Mar. 9 (UPI) -- Using sonar to detect distant enemy
submarines presents a problem for the military: Seawater quickly dampens
most sound, leaving the far-off subs to maintain their stealthy
   But scientists found a way around the problem: Since very low-
frequency waves can travel much farther than other sounds, they said,
the military should try blasting very loud, very low-frequency signals
into the water and wait for the echoes to return. That's the method
whales use to communicate over thousands of kilometers.
   In the early 1990s scientists for the Navy and NATO began
experimenting around the globe with such extremely loud, low-frequency
   Then in 1994, Joel Reynolds, an attorney with the Natural Resources
Defense Council, learned of the experiments and insisted the Navy
determine whether the noises might be disturbing endangered marine life.
To do so would constitute a violation of federal laws.
   The Navy halted the program until an Environmental Impact Statement
could be prepared. It targeted the end of 1998 for a draft.
   To test the impact of the sounds on whales, the Navy engaged experts
from Cornell University's Shoals Marine Laboratory and the Woods Hole
Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. The first experiments -- on
gray, blue, and fin whales off the coast of California -- began last
fall. The final tests were to begin late last month off Hawaii, where
two-thirds of the world's population of humpbacks breed in March.
   Whereupon an angry coalition of environmental groups stepped in.
   The groups sued to halt the Navy testing. When the federal district
court judge in Honolulu ruled against them recently on grounds they had
failed to establish sufficient evidence of harm to the animals, members
of one of the groups sailed into test-site waters. Benjamin White, the
group's director, promised to "get as many human bodies as possible
between the Navy and the whales."
   Judge Helen Gilmor at the federal district court in Honolulu heard
the case twice, and a decision is expected anytime.
   Chief plaintiff against the Navy and its researchers is
psychobiologist Marsha Green, of Albright College in Reading, Pa., a
specialist on the effects on whales of the engine noise of marine
vessels. Says Green, "Blasting humpback whales with sounds of this
intensity could kill them."
   A Navy spokesman responds that neither the environmental impact tests
nor its military program have yet produced ill effects on any marine
creatures. If further testing turns out to affect those creatures, the
spokesman told United Press International, the program "will stop."
   Green fears the damage will already have been done.
   She bases her reasoning in part on an understanding that the
experimental sonar is capable of sounds as loud as 230 decibels, and
that even the environmental impact tests could run as loud as 215 dB.
Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund,the firm that has taken up the
environmentalist case, describes that as 1,000 times louder than a 747
   Green argues that troubles start at intensites well under 215 dB. She
points to a recent research paper in which the authors say even at 180
dB sound waves can "shear" living tissues -- especially in marine
mammals, which have lungs, and so a significant differential versus
surrounding water pressure.
   She notes there was a mass-stranding of beaked whales on the Greek
shore in May. Because such mass-strandings are highly unusual, a
University of Athens zoologist has written in the journal Nature that it
may have been precipitated by NATO tests of its low-frequency submarine-
detection system.
   And Green refers to sightings of dead whales at places where
biologists from the Scripps Oceanographic Institute studied the behavior
of loud, low-frequency sounds to gauge ocean temperatures.
   Cornell University animal communications specialist Christopher
Clark, the researcher leading the environmental impact experiment for
the Navy, says he will issue sonic "pulses" of 125 dB or lower, at
least initially. In water, he says, that is about as loud as human
speech. And he says he will take the signals no louder than 155 dB. In
water, he says, that is "about as loud as a Waring blender."
   But Clark also acknowledges he has seen apparent signs of discomfort
in whales exposed to loud boat engines.
   According to Peter Tyack, a Woods Hole whale expert respected by both
sides of the controversy, whales have been known to change their
migratory patterns when encountering manmade sounds as "low" as 120
dB, such as those produced by underwater oil-drilling.
   Environmental lawyer Reynolds, for his part, says that while he
opposes deployment of the submarine detection system per se, he
reluctantly supports research into the damage it might cause. "If it's
necessary to get data," he says, "then I'm prepared to live with it."