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In Review: War of the Whales

A gripping tale of how two environmentalists took on the US Navy to save our ocean’s giants

Joshua Horwitz has come up with an outstanding book about whales, the environment, and the clash between whales and the US Navy. Deeply researched over six years, this well paced and exciting book is both an education in whale and acoustic science and in how environmental issues grow from relative obscurity to become front-page news.

photo of a beached whale, two people examining it showing the scalephoto by Aleria Jensen, NOAA/NMFS/AKFSC (Wikimedia Commons)Whales rely on their acute and highly specialized hearing for communication, navigation, and detecting predators. Underwater sonar pulses used in during Naval exercises disorients and sometimes leads to their death.

War of the Whales is also one of the best books I’ve read that shows how environmentalists and scientists actually work, and how they often can work in tandem to address important issues that would otherwise be ignored by political decision-makers. Most books about the environment will focus on individuals who are interviewed about what should be done, but few authors actually get into the daily nitty-gritty of environmental advocacy – the planning, the choices, the implementation of strategy and the evaluation of the outcome, and then what comes next. And, as noted, Horwitz makes it interesting and involving – the tension in the book never lets up.

War of the Whales opens on a beach in the Bahamas, where researcher Ken Balcomb, one of the world’s authorities on whales, including little-studied beaked whales, is startled to find one of the whales he knew wash up on the beach in front of his house (Balcomb takes photos of whales dorsal fin and back and uses these to identify individuals).  There have been previous strandings of beaked whales, but usually only one at a time between long intervals of years. This whale was one of more than a dozen others of several different species that washed up around the same morning on different beaches in the Bahamas.

Similar large strandings had been recorded previously in Europe and often associated with sea trials run by various world navies, including the US Navy, but the difference was that this time Balcomb was able to remove several of the whales’ heads and preserve them in freezers. An autopsy of the heads proved, for the first time, that the trauma these whales encountered came from sound – specifically underwater sonars booming at immense levels. The evidence was in the delicate ears of the cetaceans, which normally deteriorate so rapidly after death that the structure turns to mush before a researcher can arrive to dissect it.

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Lawyer and activist Joel Reynolds of the Natural Resources Defense Council realized the importance of the Balcomb’s findings right away.  Reynolds had long been looking for cases that would prove that of the use of very loud noise underwater – which is common for oil exploration (huge air cannons are pointed at the seabed and set), increasingly louder Navy sonars (used to find enemy ships and submarines), and vessel traffic – were polluting the underwater world and causing much harm to marine life. Before Balcomb’s discovery and preservation of the evidence, the US Navy and maritime industry were in a position to deny that their activities were harmful.

Reynolds contacted Balcomb and suggested they work together to pressure the US Navy and the US National Marine Fisheries Service (the federal agency responsible for whales), to reveal what they knew and to take action to stop the harm to whales. Thus began a long series of lawsuits by NRDC against the government, which triggered important new research, sponsored by the US Navy, on just how sound impacts whales and other marine life. (Full disclosure:  I know both Ken Balcomb and Joel Reynolds and have worked with them on several issues, including ocean noise, during the period covered in Horwitz’s book.)

Horwitz was able to interview a large number of the naval personnel involved in the decision-making on ocean noise issues while facing the incoming research results, public awareness campaigns, and lawsuits.  This is even more impressive when one realizes that a lot of the information contained in the book was at one time classified and deeply secret, accounting in part for the Navy’s reluctance to accept any blame for the whale strandings. Horwitz, as well as Balcomb and Reynolds, are also sympathetic to the need the Navy expresses for real-time trainings with Navy sonars for the purposes of protecting its ships and crews from enemy submarines. The fight eventually comes down not to banning loud ocean sonars, but rather where and when to use them to protect whales while providing training opportunities for Navy sonar crews.

SPECIAL DEAL:  For every copy of War of the Whales purchased from Ken Balcomb’s Center for Whale Research, the Center will receive $5 to support research on orcas and other cetaceans. Buy your copy here.

Still, the sheer scale of the noise impacts on the ocean is almost incredible. For example, Low Frequency Active Sonar – a new, experimental type of sonar that is used to try to identify submarines underwater at distances of a hundred or more miles away from the sonar array – puts out a noise at the source that is the equivalent to standing next to the space shuttle on takeoff. Noise with such high levels of vibrations can be lethal to divers, let alone whales; although underwater the sound level usually drops off fairly quickly the farther one is from the sonar array.

Horwitz weaves together the story of Balcomb’s research efforts on whales and ocean noise with Reynold’s legal filings and negotiations with the leaders of the most powerful Navy in the world.  It is a fascinating chronicle. He does an excellent job of describing complicated issues of whale biology and ocean acoustics. The book includes photos of Balcomb and Reynolds (I think the book could have used more photos of whales and strandings and Navy vessels, but so be it) and a very nice end-paper map showing the extent of the Bahamas stranding.

And in the end, there is no end. Conservation battles are constant, and an environmentalist’s work is never really finished. David Brower, founder of Earth Island Institute, noted that environmentalists need to constantly win, while developers and dam builders and loggers need only win once. Thanks to scientists like Ken Balcomb and activist lawyers like Joel Reynolds, whales have some dedicated defenders who don’t quit.

Mark J. Palmer
Mark J. Palmer is Associate Director of the International Marine Mammal Project.

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