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Science: Sonar and Beaked Whales

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Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 15, 2007; 11:00 AM

Washington Post staff writer Marc Kaufman was online Monday, Oct. 15 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss a Navy project to learn how sonar and other loud ocean noises affect the deep-diving beaked whale.

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Read the article: Sounding Out Whales for Clues to Sonar's Effects

The transcript follows.

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Marc Kaufman: Good morning. The question of whether Navy sonar, and to some extent seismic testing by oil and gas explorers, is causing harm to whales has crept up slowly. The first documented stranding of whales right after naval sonar occurred during the 1990s off of Greece, but the connected was really not fully established until four or five years ago. This is a tough issue: Nobody wants to jeopardize national security by stopping all sonar testing to avoid whale kills. At the same time, it is a real problem that sonar can harm some whales, and may be harming (and killing) far more than we know. Today's story was about a Navy-sponsored effort to learn more about whales and sonar through research in the Bahamas -- scene of the most high profile sonar-induced whale stranding back in 2001.

Any thoughts to share, or questions to ask?

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Arlington, Va.: Even if the Navy finds conclusive evidence that sonar is harming the whales, will anything really change. If we need sonar for defense purposes, won't we have to sacrifice a few whales?

Marc Kaufman: I think that some things could change. The more we know about whale behavior, and especially these deep-diving beaked whales, the better we can work out systems to limit the damage from sonar. Already the Navy has initiated a range of measures to "mitigate" the harm, but many whale advocates argue it is not nearly enough. So as I see it, the question is this: Through research and through changed sonar testing procedures, can we limit the damage? The incidents that have been documented all involved sonar testing maneuvers (rather than active warfare duty), and so there is some room for experimentation.

Incidently, this is not a problem unique to the U.S. Navy. Other navies have caused whale strandings as well.

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North McLean: As someone who works with airborne acoustics, I know that certain pitches can do a lot of mischief to humans even if they are not terribly loud. Do researchers suspect that the suspected damage is largely due to the loudness of the SONAR, or is it due more from the specific pitch being used?

Marc Kaufman: There are several theories about what is actually happening to the whales. One is that the loud noise frightens and disorients deep-diving whales, and that they then swim too fast to the surface, resulting in a nitrogen buildup in their veins and organs, and a case of the bends. Different whales apparently hear at different sound frequencies, and so a loud sonar blast in mid-frequency might terrify a beaked whale but do nothing to a sperm whale. Similarly, new and powerful low-frequency sonar -- which the Navy wants to deploy globally -- may well affect the larger humpback, right and other whales. While research has begun on these issues, it is still in its infancy.

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Winona, Minn.: So basically, they are going to blast the whales w/SONAR to see if it kills them? Gee I wonder how that will work out?

Marc Kaufman: The researchers, led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will not be using sonar at decibel levels likely to cause harm. It may change whale behavior, but it is not believed to be loud enough to cause the kind off strandings we've seen.

This approach to testing will likely limit or eliminate any harm to whale, but it also makes it somewhat less likely that we'll know when it's over how and why sonar effects whales.

It's a Catch-22 often seen in clinical trials for human medicines -- where it is unethical to give trial medications to people with certain conditions or to give higher dosages than prescribed, although in real life people with those conditions do take the drugs and sometimes they are used a dosages different than what the government has approved.

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Auberry, Calif.: I'm wondering, as someone with friends and relatives in the U.S. Navy, do the environmentalists who are protesting the Navy's use of sonar for anti-submarine warfare care about the sailors who may be killed or injured if a submarine sinks a Navy ship because it wasn't detected by the sonar the environmentalists are crying about? Do they realize that if there is another naval war (say, with China) and ships are sunk and sailors lost because the greenies prevented use of certain sonar, they may be blamed for sailors' deaths? I'd like to hear their solution to sub-hunting, or their real position (which seems to put whales above sailors' lives.).

Marc Kaufman: I have been writing about this issue for several years, and I periodically hear this complaint -- that environmentalists care more about the whales than the sailors. I personally think that not accurate, and something of a red herring. First off, any limits on sonar use come off during times of conflict, or whenever the president deems it necessary. Second, the environmentalists have, I believe, done their job by bringing a problem to public attention. None that I have spoken with think that sonar should be banned or limited in ways that would jeopardize the lives of sailors. They are looking for ways to limit harm to whales while continuing to protect sailors and national security.

Incidently, during World War II, many whales were apparently blown up by navies that saw a shape that looked like a submarine on their radar. While this is a sad thing, I don't think you'd get many people arguing that it shouldn't have been done.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Marc, I thought you might want to know that similar research is being funded in Hawaii. The University of Hawaii's marine research facility on Coconut Island, is working with bottlenose dolphins to see how sonar effects their movements and health. Also a company, BAE Systems is working on alternative detection systems, which would allow the military to track whale movements.

I am originally from Hawaii and work for Congressman Neil Abercrombie, who was one of the advocates of this type of funding. I am glad to see that other's find this as important as I do.

Marc Kaufman: Thanks for your info. There is, indeed, a growing awareness about this issue and research is picking up. I know that Congress as a body has begun to take note -- putting a proposed underwater sonar testing range off North Carolina on hold because of public and private concerns.

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Pleasant Valley, Iowa: The mitigation measures negotiated by the Navy and NOAA Fisheries for protection of whales during submarine tests and trials are not tested for their effectiveness, and will not be effective on marine mammals that stay underwater for long periods of time, such as beaked whales. The measures depend primarily on visual observation of surfacing marine mammals and zones of influence for the various sonars proposed for use. In addition to the transmitter protocols described in the article, what other protocols are being used to study this extremely secretive and deep diving species that appears to be so sensitive to mid-frequency sonar?

Marc Kaufman: The current Bahamas research is taking advantage of a large array of hydrophones on the bottom of the sea at the Navy's AUTEC testing range. Special software was developed to allow the hydrophones to better follow the movement of whales and other marine mammals, and I believe similar upgrades are planned for the Pacific.

While the current mitigation measures may be limited, they can definitely be strengthened with the addition of more information about whale behavior. It appears to be the deep-diving beaked whales that are most harmed, and lots of work is going on now to learn where they are most likely to be found. If many lives around the Canary Islands, for instance, perhaps that is not a great place for sonar testing exercises.

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Baltimore, Md.: As someone with a deep commitment to the cetacean species, what can I do to foster more education and some assurance that no more whales will be injured unnecessarily? Are there funds to donate to?

Marc Kaufman: There are indeed a number of advocacy groups working hard on this issue, and I think they should be pretty easy to find online. I agree that education is a key issue here.

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Tampa, Fla.: We as a society have to realize we all play a part in life.

Everything matters, everything. Plants, animals, water, people, air. EVERYTHING

Please take care of everything in the seas.

Please know we are killing everything, all that I mentioned.

What even are the sonograms doing to are unborn children, maybe autism. check it out.

Love one another, Love our world. Thanks, Patsy

Marc Kaufman: I think whales play a very special role in human imagination, and so many people get especially concerned when they appear to be endangered. And then, again, there is the unfortunate fact that commercial whaling did so much to diminish the populations of these great creatures. So many people believe we have a special responsibility to protect, or at least limit harm, to these grand creatures.

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Accokeek, Md.: Given the differences in underwater topography, or marine "habitats" where various species of whales live, what can we expect in terms of "success" in applying what we learn from the Bahamas experiment to any other habitat in the world, or for any of the numerous species of marine animals that depend on sound to survive?

Marc Kaufman: Very good point. I think the research is really at the basic science level -- trying to learn how beaked whales dive and return to the surface, and how they might respond to specific sounds. Adapting that information for real world use would have to come later.

Navy scientists have said that the underwater topography around the Bahamas played a significant role in the 2001 stranding, and that it wouldn't have happened if the whales and the ships had not been in the same relatively narrow channel.

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Hawaii: Has anyone had the experience of being immersed in the water when one of these sonar tests are conducted? The sound permeates your very core, but at least we can get out of the water quickly. What are the poor sea creatures to do? A "thank you" to the people who are studying the issue.

Marc Kaufman: The sounds are indeed loud -- likened sometimes to that of a jet engine at close range. And whales have very keen hearing, which could make the noise all the more problematic.

Researchers often point out that the ocean is a naturally noisy place, and whales learn to live with some pretty loud sounds. But they also say that man-made noise is becoming increasingly common, and that the long-term effects could be as problematic as the effects of a short burst of very loud sonar.

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Arlington, Va.: I used to work with sonar and hope that the researchers find a way to minimize the damage. It isn't an either "save whales or save the sailors" kind of thing. Many sailors actually, you know, love the sea and the creatures that live in it.

Marc Kaufman: Thanks for your comment. I'm certain that you are correct that many sailors have a special affection for sea creatures, and it is also true that the Navy funds much of the ocean research that gets funded. And I, too, don't see this as an either/or situation, but rather one where we have to learn to take better care to avoid unwanted and unpredicted consequences.

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Fairfax, Va.: You said:

"Incidentally, during World War II, many whales were apparently blown up by navies that saw a shape that looked like a submarine on their radar. While this is a sad thing, I don't think you'd get many people arguing that it shouldn't have been done."

RADAR was relatively uncommon through much of WWII, and very crude. Can you cite one source for this information? This sounds a great deal like 'urban legend"

Marc Kaufman: I'll have to check that out further. Navy officials told me that, but perhaps I misunderstood. Or maybe they were detecting the sub-like shapes of the whales with other technology.

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Washington, D.C.: To the "greenie" basher. The point isn't to stop using sonar. The point is to understand what is going on to make an informed decision.

Marc Kaufman: Makes sense to me...

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Fairfax, Va.: Thank you for educating the general population about this long occurring problem. Will you continue to follow the research and publish it in the Post.

Marc Kaufman: I do hope to continue writing about this issue, although it is not really on my beat. But I've always thought a reporter's main mission is to bring information to people that they would otherwise not have, and that's what I've tried to do on this subject. It was pretty lonely writing about this issue when I began six years ago because few reporters seemed to take it seriously. I think that is changing.

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RE: Auberry: So, we should drive other species to extinction just because we can't make peace with other members of our own? What's a little collateral damage amongst God's creatures?

Marc Kaufman: As this posting demonstrates, there are some strong feelings on all sides of this issue.

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Marc Kaufman: Afraid I have to go. Many thanks for your questions, and hopefully we'll have reason to discuss this more in the future.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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