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Animals In Print
The On-Line Newsletter

From 8 April 2001 Issue:

Navy Sonar Has Deadly Effect On Beaked Whales

On Tuesday, April 3, 60 MINUTES II did a story on the deadly effect of navy sonar on beaked whales.

Reporter David Martin tells us of a day when fifteen whales beached themselves in the New Providence Channel. Locals managed to turn seven whales back to sea, but eight died. An autopsy on one of the whales showed bleeding into the inner ears -- hemorrhages in some of the tissues that are pressure and sound sensitive. Out searching for more stranded whales, the locals found Navy ships operating in the same waters the whales had fled. Martin tells us:

"Balcomb had spent five years in the Navy tracking Soviet submarines, and believed the whales were hit by sonar....a sonar which sends out an earsplitting screech that travels through the water as a pressure wave until it bounces off a submarine or some other underwater object."

Martin also tells us:

"It's not the first time beaked whales have stranded after a sonar exercise. Four years ago, it happened in Greece--12 beaked whales came ashore just after NATO ships began testing a new long-range sonar. Scientists failed to preserve the forensic evidence, so the link to sonar was never proved. Still, the Greek strandings remain a troubling coincidence."

At first the navy would not admit that their ships were anywhere near the New Providence Channel whales. However, Robert Pirie, the undersecretary of the Navy and the official in charge of making sure the fleet does not damage the environment, took the matter seriously. He has not flatly admitted that the navy caused the deaths but did admit that the findings were very suggestive since the navy had been using sonar in the water all day.

Martin tells us a little about beaked whales:

"Sensitive creatures that are believed to have been on the planet for 20 million years. One of the deepest diving of all marine mammals, beaked whales can stay under for an hour, and dive up to one mile deep. At those depths, where there is no sunlight, the ears are all-important, since the whales must rely on sound for their sense of direction. They shy away from people and prefer to live in underwater canyons, which may explain why they could have been so disoriented by the Navy's sonar."

We learn that the navy has become more sensitive to the problem. Martin says:

"So instead of sneaking through under the cover of darkness, the exercise doesn't begin until first light, when shipboard lookouts and helicopters circling overhead have a better chance of spotting any whales. MacArthur says his battle group will get all the training it needs."

But he adds,

"But finding a way to live with marine mammals does not mean the Navy is about to give up its sonar. The Navy insists sonar is mostly harmless, even though it knows there's no other explanation for what happened to those whales. There's still no prohibition on the use of sonar around whales but it will be long time, if ever, before the Navy conducts another anti-submarine exercise in the New Providence Channel."

I believe that any precautions taken by the navy will be entirely due to the way the major media has publicized the issue and swayed public opinion in favor of the whales. 60 MINUTES II deserves a thank you for that. The show takes comments at: [email protected] 

Here's a link for AOLers: <A HREF="mailto:[email protected]">Email 60 Minutes II</A>

NOTE: While I was searching the 60 MINUTES II site for information on the sonar story, I stumbled on a story from earlier this year that I had missed - a story on the possible communication between whales and humans via song. If you are interested in checking it out, you will find it at:,1597,264144-412,00.shtml  

Yours and the animals', Karen Dawn

(DawnWatch is an animal rights media watch that looks at animal issues in the media and facilitates one click responses to the relevant media outlets. To subscribe to DawnWatch, email [email protected]   and tell me you'd like to receive alerts. If at any time you find DawnWatch is not for you, just let me know via email and I'll take you off the subscriber list immediately. If you forward or reprint DawnWatch alerts, please include this tag line.)

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