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War of the Whales

Posted on Jul 18, 2014

Photo by Simon & Schuster

By Marc Kaufman

To see long excerpts from “War of the Whales” at Google Books, click here.

“War of the Whales: A True Story”
A book by Joshua Horwitz

Sometimes debates come up 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 “War of the Whales,” by Joshua Horwitz, makes convincingly clear, 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 following naval sonar use around the world. The American Navy and others argue that these practice sessions with sonar provide essential training for sailors in charge of protecting their ships from submarine attack—a high priority now that scores of nations operate submarine fleets. 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 the “War of the Whales” lays out in a strong and valuable narrative, the stakes are quite high. The question, after all, made its way from the shores of the Bahamas, Greece, England and Madeira to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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 (especially the beaked 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 the Natural Resources Defense Council, it was revealed that Navy war games with sonar had been underway as the whales washed up. It turned out that 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.

At a New York City news conference joined by the initially reluctant Balcomb, he summed up his involvement in the strandings as “the most unusual event of my life.” Horwitz describes what happened as Balcomb ran a videotape: “He watched along with the audience as [a] beaked whale repeatedly circled back toward shore. ... ‘This whale was not hit by a ship or a propeller,’ he began. ‘He was hit by a pressure wave of sound.’ ”

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.

Perhaps even more important, the stranding became an opportunity for researchers and activists to bring the public up to date on whale research—how some orcas and dolphins (a kind of whale) have brains larger than humans and clearly know how to use them, how some beaked whales can dive far deeper than a submarine can descend, how sophisticated communication within whale pods is the norm.

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