found to be similar to the Bahamas,
avoid using sonar.
“There was a number of bathymetry issues, the number of ships that
were involved, the length that they
were using sonar, and all those factors came together to force that specific species, beaked whales, to
strand in the Bahamas,” Rice said.
But environmentalists point to
numerous other incidents in which
whales and dolphins beached
themselves during or after naval
exercises or navy ships passed by,
and insist that the frequency is
more than coincidental:
■ In July 2004, 200 melon-headed
whales stranded themselves in shallow water during a Rim of the Pacific
exercise off Hawaii, shortly after
ships began testing sonar. One whale
calf died. NOAA scientists could not
say conclusively whether sonar contributed to the mass
stranding. The Navy contends that its vessels were too far
away to have contributed.
■ In September 2002, 14 whales of three different
species stranded during exercises in the Canary
Islands. A team of British and Spanish researchers
found unusual gas bubbles in the whales’ organs,
which they likened to the bends in divers.
■ In May 2000, three Cuvier beaked whales stranded
in Madeira, Spain, during a NATO exercise involving
■ In May 1996, 14 Cuvier beaked whales stranded
themselves in Greece during a NATO exercise.
“I think there’s very little dispute in the scientific
community that military sonar can injure, kill and
cause widespread disruption to marine mammals,”
Jasny said. “Beaked whales have been found to have
severe hemorrhaging around meninges, and emboli
have been found in the liver, lungs and other organs.”
It is not as black and white as that, says one scientist.
“Well, I know from my experience looking at the
animals in the Bahamas, doing the necropsies, that
they did not experience an acoustic trauma. There
weren’t any blown-out [acoustic] membranes. There
was blood inside the fluid space between the brain and
the skull, and the information I have is we don’t really
know what caused it. It could be that they bleed under
stress, we simply need to do more research,” said
Darlene Ketten, a senior scientist with Woods Hole
For the past five years, the Navy has spent $17 million
to $20 million annually to research the topic. During a
Rear Adm. Lawrence S. Rice, director of the Chief of Naval Operations
Environmental Readiness Division, answers questions during a lecture about
sonar impact on whales and other marine life to members of the Navy League’s
Santa Barbara, Calif., Council at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum.
test last summer, scientists tagged a beaked whale and
then followed its movement during sonar operations.
Rather than rush to the surface, which could lead to
the bends, as some scientists have argued, the whale
shortened its dive, first ceasing its foraging behavior,
moving away from the source and eventually surfacing.
“This notion that they are bolting to the surface isn’t
really what we saw down there,” Rice said.
The service invited scientists and subject matter
experts onboard USS Mitscher in May off the coast of
Norfolk, Va., to familiarize them with the Navy’s mission and allow them to hear a sonar “ping.”
Onboard ship, Sue Barco, a research scientists who
leads the stranding team at the Virginia Aquarium &
Marine Science Center, said she would like the Navy to
be more forthcoming about when it uses sonar off the
“We’ve seen an increase in strandings. Whether it’s
related, I don’t know. If a very loud noise was to irritate
an animal into stranding itself, there wouldn’t be any
evidence. … Part of our problem is we don’t know
when sonar activity is occurring,” Barco said.
In explaining its mission to the scientists aboard
Mitscher, the Navy argued that it needs well-trained
sonar technicians to safeguard its strike groups from
highly advanced diesel electric submarines. Case in
point: in 2006, a Chinese diesel electric sub surfaced
near the carrier Kitty Hawk undetected.
Last November, Kyodo News Service reported that a
Chinese submarine shadowed the strike group in the
Taiwan Strait. The Navy denied the report, but insists that
an increase in purchases of diesel electric subs by coun-