Marc Kaufman / MSNBC – 2004-09-01 23:43:54
(August 31, 2004) — The Navy has acknowledged that vessels on maneuver off Hawaii last month used their sonar periodically in the 20 hours before a large pod of melon-headed whales unexpectedly came to shore in the area. The acknowledgement added to an already contentious debate over whether the sound from sonar has been causing marine mammals to strand.
Navy officials said that a review of the July 3 incident indicates that two ships turned on their sonar between 6:45 and 7:10 a.m., by most accounts just before the unusual movement of almost 200 deep-water whales to the shoreline of a Kauai bay. The Navy had said earlier that no sonar was used until more than 90 minutes later, well after the animals came ashore.
‘No Evidence of a Relationship’
Lt. Cmdr. Greg Geisen, the Navy spokesman responsible for information about the maneuver, said a Navy review of the incident still concluded that the ships were either too far from the whales or were using the sonar at the wrong time to cause the mass movement.
“There is no evidence of a relationship here between the sonar use and the whale behavior,” he said.
But the newly released information from Geisen and other Navy officials — that the ships were testing their sonar in preparation for the maneuver on the day before the whales came ashore, and early on the morning of the near-stranding — has caused some observers to question that conclusion.
“Every time the Navy changes its story, it reduces its credibility on this issue,” said Cara Horowitz, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has sued the Navy over a related sonar issue. “The Navy would be better off spending more time developing commonsense ways to protect whales from sonar and less time denying a connection that is unfortunately been repeatedly shown.”
Officials at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is looking into the incident, said it remains uncertain what caused the near-stranding.
“At this point, we still know very little about what might have made those whales behave so unusually,” said Donna Wieting, chief of the Marine Mammal Conservation Division of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.
“But saying that sonar played no role might be a premature determination,” she said. “Even if we can’t establish a clear cause and effect, we’re having these coincidences [of unusual and sometimes deadly] marine mammal behavior around sonar, and we have to ask why.”
Some marine mammals come to shore naturally, because they are following a sick lead animal or trying to avoid predators and such natural occurrences as potentially harmful red tides. Melon-headed whales are relatively small and highly social animals that normally live in deep waters, at least 15 miles from shore. Wildlife officials said it is highly unusual for such a large number of them to come to shore as they did on July 3, although there is one report of a similar mass movement in the 1850s.
The new Navy information about when the sonar was used off Hawaii was first made public in late July, at a meeting of the federal Marine Mammal Commission focused on how to limit the effects of ocean noise on whales and other sea creatures. Rear Adm. Steven Tomaszeski updated the information then, and said the Navy had concluded there was no connection between the sonar use and the unusual whale behavior.
He and Geisen said the July 2 sonar use could not have caused the whales to head into Hanalei Bay because the ships — four Japanese and two American — were too far away when the equipment was used. Geisen also said the Navy first learned of the stranding from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) at 5:30 a.m. on July 3, and not between 7 and 7:30 a.m., as earlier reported, making it impossible for the 6:45 to 7:10 a.m. sonar usage to have harmed the whales.
Wieting of NMFS said, however, that her office has received no reports of a 5:30 sighting, and still believes the whales were first seen after 7 a.m.
Threat from ‘Quiet’ Submarines
Navy officials are adamant about the need for sonar training. They say there is a substantial and growing threat from “quiet” diesel submarines that could menace the United States from coastal waters, and that only active sonar use can detect them. The Navy is planning a sonar training ground in the Atlantic Ocean, off the Carolinas.
Residents and government officials worked throughout July 3 to steer the whales back to open water, and all made it except one newborn calf that died of starvation. Officials say that some of the animals may have died at sea without a trace.
The Hawaii incident is the third significant one involving sonar and marine mammal strandings near the United States since 2000. The stranding of 17 whales of various kinds off the Bahamas in 2000, which resulted in the death of at least six of them, occurred during a major Navy maneuver. Navy officials at first said there was no connection between their exercise and the stranding, but later acknowledged that the loud sound from the sonar had caused the animals to flee ashore.
Another incident occurred off the coast of Washington state last year, where harbor porpoises unexpectedly came ashore after a sonar exercise. The Navy concluded that there was no connection between the two, but NOAA is still reviewing the incident.
The International Whaling Commission said in a report last month that there is “compelling evidence” that Navy sonar is harming some species of whales, but Navy officials dismissed the conclusion as “unscientific.”
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
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Navy Changes Claim on Sonar Ise
Jan TenBruggencate / Honolulu Advertiser Science Writer
LIHU’E, Kaua’i — The Navy now concedes that warships used active sonar off Kaua’i July 3, just before a pod of some 200 deepwater melon-headed whales appeared in Hanalei Bay shallows.
Marine mammal experts on the scene said the whales were behaving strangely and ultimately left a dead infant behind as they were coaxed out of the bay by beachgoers on canoes and kayaks.
Navy officials insist that the sonar was used too far away from Kaua’i — one ship about 30 miles and one 37 miles northwest of Hanalei Bay — to have affected the whales. But investigators say they’re not ready to accept that conclusion as debate continues over the effect of sonar on marine mammals.
“I think that it’s premature to make that determination until we have all the facts together,” said Donna Wieting, deputy director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Protected Resources.
Authorities in several countries are probing links between high-volume sonar and whale injuries, a field that Wieting said was not even generally considered an issue as recently as five years ago.
“I think it’s clear that we now know that certain intense incidences of man-made noise can injure or kill marine mammals,” said Erin Heskett, senior program officer with the International Fund for Animal Welfare and a member of the U.S. Marine Mammal Advisory Committee on Acoustic Impacts on Marine Mammals.
He said he and others on the committee have been briefed by the Navy about the Kaua’i incident and have watched the Navy’s position change over time. He said he is frustrated by the lack of consistency. “They are now acknowledging that indeed the two ships turned on their sonar. From my perspective, we need to get the story straight. We need to get our facts right and try to come up with a solution,” he said.
The Navy initially said that sonar could not have been responsible for the whale behavior because sonar was first employed at 8:33 a.m. on July 3, an hour after the deep-ocean whales were first spotted in a tight pod in the shallows of Hanalei Bay. The most consistent time for the first sighting of the whales in Hanalei is 7:30 a.m., although Navy officials say they are investigating a possible earlier sighting.
US and Japanese Navy Ships Involved
US and Japanese navy ships were using the sub-finding sonar technology as part of a RIMPAC multi-national naval exercises off Kaua’i’s Pacific Missile Range Facility. Six sonar-equipped ships were involved and all used their sonar during the exercise. Active sonar uses an intense burst of sound that travels through the water, and identifies the location of enemy submarines when the sound echoes off their hulls.
Two Japanese ships tested their sonar before the exercise began. Pearl Harbor-based Navy Pacific Fleet spokesman Jon Yoshishige yesterday said a review of the data from the exercise shows that one ship tested its active sonar at 6:45 a.m., and that a second ship tested its sonar at 7 a.m.
Navy spokesman Lt. David Benham yesterday said that, following standard procedures, every ship conducted a full 360-degree visual search of surrounding waters to make sure no whales or civilian boaters were in the region before turning on the sonar.
NOAA’s Wieting said Navy officials have also reported they were using the sonar a day earlier. “They actually were testing the sonar and using it starting at midday on the second (of July),” as they were in transit from Pearl Harbor to Kaua’i, she said. Yoshishige confirmed that Navy ships did test their active sonar in the Kaua’i Channel on July 2.
Wildlife officials worldwide have been studying the link between the use of active sonar gear and marine mammals, particularly after 17 whales were found dead in the Bahamas following a military sonar exercise. In that case, the Navy conceded that under certain conditions, loud mid-frequency sonar could damage marine mammals.
In the Kaua’i case, there is no evidence that sonar was directly or indirectly associated with the whales’ activity. Marine mammal veterinarian Bob Braun said that while he could see no injured whales, the pod as a whole was behaving as if under stress on July 3.
The Navy halted its sonar use at 4:45 p.m. July 3, immediately after learning of the whales’ behavior, Benham said. Sonar use continued to be prohibited off the Pacific Missile Range until July 7, he said.
Kayakers and canoe paddlers used a cable of twisted leafy vines to herd the melon-headed whale pod back out the sea on July 4. The next morning, a dead infant melon-headed whale was found washed up on Hanalei Bay’s sand beach. Veterinarian Braun said the necropsy on the whale, performed on the Mainland, showed no obvious injuries. The newborn whale appeared to have died because it had not been feeding.
“Either the kid couldn’t keep up, or the mom couldn’t provide — something like that,” Braun said.
Various working theories about the whales in Hanalei have been broached, including Navy sonar, some other ocean noise, whales following an injured pod-mate to shore, or some kind of toxic “red tide” bloom offshore.
Wieting said it is fully possible that no firm cause will be determined.
“It’s unlikely that we will be able to know what caused these animals to almost strand. Maybe it was a disease. Maybe it was a noise. Maybe it was something else,” she said.
Part of the problem, Wieting said, is that “we know very little about melon-headed whales. We don’t know how fast they can swim. We don’t know the frequency range of their vocalizations. We don’t know the impact of this (sonar) frequency range on them.”
Heskett’s International Fund for Animal Welfare is one of several large environmental organizations calling on the Navy to employ measures to reduce sonar effects on marine mammals. Suggested techniques involve having trained marine mammal experts on all Navy ships using sonar in testing, gradually ramping up the sound level to give whales time to escape before the noise reaches damaging levels, and reducing the ultimate volume of the sonar.
“Hopefully what comes out of this is the identification of ways to mitigate or improve this situation,” he said.
Reach Jan TenBruggencate at firstname.lastname@example.org or (808)245-3074.
EAW thanks Gary Andersen for forwarding the report from Honolulu. Anderson notes: “The taxonomy of the species is subject to debate.”
The melon-headed whale is in a genus by itself, although prior to 1960 it was in the Lagenorhynchus genus with the dusky dolphin and the Atlantic white-sided dolphin. It is considered to be an “outcast” member of the blackfish group, a term used to describe other members of the subfamily Globicephalinae. These include the killer, pygmy killer, false killer, short-finned pilot and long-finned pilot whales.
Posted in accordance with US Code Title 17 for noncommercial, educational purposes.