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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Sound-off on Sonar

Air Date: Week of

Three years ago, whales and dolphins beached themselves on the coast of the Bahamas. The U.S. Navy later acknowledged that its use of a powerful sonar system damaged the mammals’ auditory systems, which may have caused the beachings. Ken Balcomb is a whale researcher and a former naval officer who’s been campaigning to end sonar testing in marine mammal habitat. Host Laura Knoy speaks with him from his oceanfront headquarters on San Juan Island.


KNOY: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Laura Knoy.

Three years ago, the U.S. Navy's use of a powerful underwater sonar system came under scrutiny when whales and dolphins beached themselves in the Bahamas around the time of naval exercises there. Eight of the animals died and the Navy eventually conceded that its sonar caused trauma to the marine mammals' auditory systems, injuries that probably led to the beachings. By chance, whale researcher and former Naval officer Ken Balcomb observed those beachings. Since then, he's been campaigning to end sonar testing in areas frequented by marine mammals. Now, the issue has, quite literally, landed at Balcomb's doorstep on San Juan Island, off the northern coast of Washington state. That's where he runs the Center for Whale Research and from where he joins me from now.

Mr. Balcomb, take us back to May fifth of this year, when you got that phone call from the captain of a whale-watching boat. What did he say to you?

BALCOMB: Well, the captain was hearing this very strange sound and had observed the whales starting to have some strange behavior. So he held the phone up to his speaker for his hydrophone, and I listened and heard sonar signals.

KNOY: And what type of whales are we talking about?

BALCOMB: These are killer whales, the very large dolphins, black and white, beautiful animals of the Northwest.

KNOY: Animals that you’ve been studying for a long time, right?

BALCOMB: Yes, we’ve been studying these now our 28th year. We’ve kept track of every whale every year.

KNOY: So how unusual was the behavior that the captain described to you?

BALCOMB: Well, the captain’s description was rather remarkable. This was a rather sudden transition from foraging to gathering in a tight, apparently nervous group, and heading very close to the shoreline where presumably the sound field was less intense.

KNOY: And did they end up getting beached?

BALCOMB: Well, no, actually they came up the west side of San Juan Island, moving away from the military vessel. But then the vessel turned into Harrow’s Straight and came right up a few miles behind them, and tracked along in the same direction they were traveling. At that point they came very near the front of my house, and I was videotaping and listening to the hydrophone at the same time, and just couldn’t believe my ears, or my eyes, what was going on.

KNOY: We actually have a piece of that tape that we’d like to play now. Now we’re going to hear you on the phone, speaking to the whale watch captain, and we’ll also hear a high-pitched whistle whish is the sonar sound being picked up by an underwater microphone.


BALCOMB: (ON TAPE) There’s definitely something wrong with those whales’ behavior right now. This is nuts, man, this is nuts.

KNOY: Ken, that sounds pretty loud. How powerful is that sonar?

BALCOMB: It’s approximately 235 to 250 decibels at the source level, and where we were listening with our hydrophones, where the whales were located, it was above 150 decibels, which is incredibly loud noise. It would be like having a police siren right in the back seat of your automobile going wherever you were going.

KNOY: Wow. What happens, Ken, to whales and dolphins when they hear a sound like that? You know, what happens to their bodies, physically?

BALCOMB: It affects the vestibular system, the organs of balance. And it’s painful.

KNOY: Over the next couple of weeks after this incident in Washington state, ten porpoises washed up dead. Now the Navy says that until the National Marine Fisheries Service examines these animals, their deaths cannot be linked to the sonar. But Ken, I understand you were able to get somebody to get a CAT scan done on one of the porpoises. What did that exam show you?

BALCOMB: We knew that getting a CAT scan would show us evidence, if any, of hemorrhage in the brain and ear spaces. So a private laboratory generously offered to scan one of the specimens that we had in our freezer following that sonar incident. And we observed some hemorrhages in the head and ear.

KNOY: So you think sonic pressure caused that hemorrhaging?

BALCOMB: I think it’s entirely possible that we’re seeing very strong evidence again of sound pressure causing trauma in the ears and brain of these animals.

KNOY: You know, you have an interesting perspective, I think, on this issue because you’re a Navy veteran. You trained as a pilot. You actually worked with sonar while you were in the service.

BALCOMB: Well, yes, I was quite fortunate to have in my military service a background in sonar. And I very much appreciate the art and magic, as well as the science, of that sonar operation.

KNOY: Now, the Navy’s perspective on the incident that we’re talking about is that it was testing sonar that day, but that it made a search for animals in the water before it proceeded with the test. And what’s more, the Navy says it just has to test sonar to maintain national preparedness, national security. How do you feel about that, again, as a former Navy person?

BALCOMB: This is the killer whale capital of the world. It’s a sanctuary for these animals. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s virtually impossible for them to detect and mitigate at distances that these sonars are driving animals crazy, wild, and out of the water, and injuring them. To train in such areas is just irresponsible. We’re going to have to designate areas where this can be done for practice, instead of doing it in our marine sanctuaries and known areas of high density of marine mammals. Do it in low density or no density areas.

KNOY: Mr. Balcomb, the incident that we’re talking about involved what’s described as mid-range sonar. As you know, the Navy is hoping to bring online soon a more powerful, low frequency sonar system. What do you think the implications of that will be?

BALCOMB: Until we find out just what it is about the sonars that are driving these animals out of the water and killing them, I believe we have to hold up on deployment of these systems, and see if we can find an alternative.

KNOY: Ken Balcomb is senior scientist with the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island in Washington state. Well, Ken Balcomb, thank you.

BALCOMB: You’re very welcome.



The Center for Whale Research

CT scan report on beached porpoise

NOAA Press Release on Navy Protections for Marine Mammals While Using Low Frequency Sonar


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