Posted by: underseaencounters | November 16, 2008

The Navy vs. Whales

Recently by a 5-4 majority, the Supreme Court reduced the restrictions for the Navy’s use of sonar near marine mammals, arguing that these restrictions imposed during military exercises pose a threat to national security.

Whales and dolphins have an additional sense that we don’t; they “see” with sound. In murky water, sound is more important than vision. Whales and dolphins, particularly toothed whales, produce sounds that allow the animal to orient itself and locate objects by means of the returning sound waves or echoes.

As humans, we rely almost exclusively on vision. Imagine if you and some friends were dropped into the middle of a city blindfolded and told to find your way home. You might cling together, follow whoever seemed to be the leader, probably go the wrong way, and maybe even walk right into traffic.

By disrupting their ability to use echolocation, Navy sonar may be causing this type of disorientation in whales. It may be one of the reasons for whale and dolphin mass strandings, especially for toothed whales (baleen whales rely less on echolocation). The high-powered sonar used by the Navy is also probably painful for whales and can cause injuries such as internal bleeding.

Whales and dolphins are our closest relatives in the sea. They face so many obstacles to survival—collisions with ships, global warming threatening their food supply, pollution, hunting, and so on. I do believe accommodations can be made to protect them from unnecessary injury, without compromising our national security. On the East Coast, for example, the government has issued regulations requiring Navy and commercial shipping in certain zones to slow down to protect endangered right whales.

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