October 10, 2002
Whale Watching

This last week I was in Our Nations Capital visiting my old friend Julie. One night over beer the subject of whale watching came up.

A girl from Spain, a close friend of Jules', said it was on her list of things to do before leaving the country. There are places near the mouth of the St Lawrence River and off the coast of Newfoundland that she was genuinely excited about visiting. Perversely enough, I found myself straining to remember an article I had read that appeared in The Star on August 5th:

Is new sonar driving whales ashore?
By Jim Trautman

On July 16, the U.S. navy was granted a permit to deploy its frequency active sonar known as SURTASS LFA. The low-frequency Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System is a product of the Cold War. Its development to detect enemy submarines cost some $300 million. Last week, there were three beachings of pilot whales on Cape Cod, Mass., the largest beaching in that area in the past 20 years. Is there a connection to the July 16 approval and the events of July 27? According to a spokesperson for Coastal Watch, involved in the three rescue attempts of the pilot whales, there is no link. T he U.S. navy is only operating the system in the Pacific area at present. But, what is known is that in March, 2000, near the Bahamas, at least four different species of whales and dolphins beached themselves shortly after a navy SURTASS LFA test. The surveillance sensor system is capable of transmitting signals as powerful as 215 decibels. Marine scientists believe whales are affected by sounds louder than 110 decibels. At 180 decibels, a whale's eardrums can explode. Whales are not the only ones who will be affected by this new military system; dolphins and other higher functioning mammals of the world's oceans are equally at risk. The navy's strategic plan is to cover 80 per cent of the world's oceans with the new active sonar system. The system functions like a floodlight, scanning the ocean for vast distances and areas with intense sound. Each transmitter can generate 215 decibels of sound. Scientists say this sound level is not only unsafe for whales and dolphins, but can also kill human divers in its path. The navy's own testing has indicated that when the signals expand, the sound range can reach 240 decibels. To place the system in context, a decibel scale is much like the Richter scale for earthquakes: each employs small differences to increasing orders of magnitude. In a test in 1991, a loud, low frequency signal sent from an island in the Indian Ocean was detected on the West Coast of the United States. In late January, 2001, the navy released its own environmental impact report in which it admitted to exposing a 32-year-old navy diver to 12 minutes of the LFA system, at 160 decibels. After 12 minutes, the diver experienced dizziness and drowsiness. He was hospitalized, but continued to suffer memory problems and seizures. He improved only after being treated with antidepressants and seizure medications. Whales and other mammals employ their sensitive hearing to follow migration routes, locate one another and keep track of their calves. Noise that can destroy their eardrums will kill whales. Since whales travel in families, this could lead to more beachings in the future. Dolphins will be impacted in the same manner. Even if the whales are not killed, it will play havoc with their migration patterns. The SURTASS LFA was kept secret until 1995. The Bush administration defends its use on the grounds of national security, arguing that new submarines are becoming quieter and more difficult to detect. The navy contends that safeguards will be in place to ensure that no harm comes to marine life. The navy will be required to employ special measures, such as scanning for any marine mammals in the area and shutting the system down if animals are found. No mention is made of human divers. But the navy has been granted a five-year exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Under the act, the navy and the personnel responsible could be charged over the death of a whale or other marine mammals. A "free pass" has now been granted. Or as Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defence Council explains, "The Bush administration has issued a blank cheque for the global use of the system."

Jim Trautman is a freelance writer who specializes in defence issues.

Of course, I couldnt recall all the details. Numbers dont stay in my head. As I strained to get the general point of the article across, I was met with expressions of shock, and understandable disbelief. If this was actually happening, surely it would be a wedge issue by now, something everyone at the table of whale-lovers would know about, not something that only a guy with a self-professed tendency to botch the facts would recall. And could it be true or was it just more confabulation-- "80% of the world's oceans?"

They couldn't believe me, and I couldn't blame them.

Posted by at October 10, 2002 05:03 PM

Why does everything suck?

Posted by: king on October 18, 2002 11:53 PM .

What safeguards have been developed to protect whales from exploitation by the Australian whale- watching industry?

Why do locals and tourists enjoy whalewatching?

Posted by: jarryd on August 11, 2003 01:24 AM .

Whale watching doesn't seem like the real problem to me, tho what do I know? The sonar is justified because the Bush administration doesn't believe in this "sea life" stuff.

Posted by: on February 11, 2004 06:33 PM .

... A booming voice says, Wrong, cretin!, and you notice that you
have turned into a pile of dust.

Posted by: Party Poker on November 4, 2004 12:50 PM .
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