Whale expert takes U.S. Navy to task over sonar in ‘War of the Whales’

 <span class="cutline_leadin">WAR OF THE WHALES:</span> A True Story. Joshua Horwitz. Simon & Schuster. 426 pages. $28.
WAR OF THE WHALES: A True Story. Joshua Horwitz. Simon & Schuster. 426 pages. $28.

Sometimes debates arise that clarify the values and conflicts of our society. They needn’t involve the grand questions of the day — which most often are endlessly partisan and complex — but they nonetheless can offer unmistakable insights into who we really are. One example: the naval use of increasingly powerful sonar and the effect of those blasts of sound on marine mammals, especially whales.

As Joshua Horwitz makes convincingly clear in his new book, the connection between naval sonar and deadly mass strandings of whales is scientifically undeniable. Whales of all kinds — but especially the remarkable and deep-diving beaked whales — regularly wash up dead or dying after naval sonar use around the world. The U.S. Navy argues that these practice sessions with sonar provide essential training for sailors in charge of protecting their ships from submarine attack. That some whales might die as a result seems an acceptable price. After all, more whales are probably killed by boat strikes or the omnipresent noise of commercial ships and underwater oil-and-gas exploration.

But as War of the Whales lays out in a strong and valuable narrative, the stakes are quite high.

The story starts on the island of Abaco in the Bahamas, home to a former naval acoustics specialist turned freelance whale researcher, Ken Balcomb. For 10 years he and his then-wife, Diane Claridge, had documented the presence and habits of the whales that lived in the deep canyon nearby. Then one evening in 2000, a Cuvier’s beaked whale washed up onshore 100 feet from Balcomb’s house, which happened to be filled with volunteers helping with a census. Soon Balcomb was flying around the area to see if other whales had been harmed; he and his colleagues found and videotaped 17 whales of several species washed up on nearby islands in the largest mass stranding in recent memory. Balcomb also saw a Navy destroyer, and his initial suspicions that the whales had been blasted with sonar grew stronger.

Thanks to a public outcry after news of the strandings went viral, and to research and lawsuits by Natural Resources Defense Council, it was revealed that Navy war games with sonar had been under way. After losing their ability to conduct war games off the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, the fleet commanders had selected the Grand Canyon of the Bahamas as an alternative. Had this been public knowledge ahead of time, Balcomb would certainly have raised hell about the likely lethal effects of the sonar on the whales he had been studying for a decade.

As Horwitz explains, the Bahamas stranding drama helped open up a much larger world of secret sonar use and planning for ever-grander systems. It also refocused attention on the continuing plight of whales almost three decades after commercial fishing of the animals was banned internationally and four decades after the U.S. Marine Mammals Protection Act mandated presumably strict safeguards.

War of the Whales is particularly good at highlighting the role of individuals, working against long odds. Balcomb is a compelling figure: a reluctant whistle-blower whose love for whales is palpable. Joel Reynolds of the Natural Resources Defense Council did the heavy litigating, and either won most of his cases or reached significant settlements (though the conservative majority of the Supreme Court ultimately limited or rejected some of those victories). Navy and federal regulatory officials often do not come off well, but there are exceptions, and Horwitz presents the military’s positions in full.

The stories and words of the key players propel the story along, though sometimes at the cost of some credibility. Quite a few quotes and exchanges in the book make readers feel they are right there, even if the writer clearly was not. A fuller explanation of this sort of re-created dialogue and its pitfalls would have reassured this reader.

By the end of the tale, the Navy has become far more transparent. It applies for sonar-training use permits rather than doing what it wants in secret. But in his epilogue, Horwitz writes that in 2012, the Navy applied to build a low-frequency sonar system that sends out loud sounds able to detect submarines. The new system would inevitably harm some (perhaps many) marine mammals, too, and another lawsuit was filed. In other words, much had changed, but even more had not.

This is why the book is so clarifying. Nobody wants to harm intelligent, grand, long-hunted and sometimes near-extinct whales. But a system is in place that pushes us all in that direction anyway.

Harmful, unintended consequences, which accompany so many technological advances, need to be discussed and debated, not denied or wished away. By telling the sonar-and-the-whales story in such detail and breadth, the author may provoke a more substantial debate about what human advances and priorities are doing to the rest of the planet.

Marc Kaufman reviewed this book for The Washington Post.

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