Starfish that live symbiotically inside a tube sponge were long
believed to assist the sponge with its cleaning activities, while
the starfish received a protective home for being such a helpful
companion. This type of mutually beneficial symbiosis is called
But this long-held assumption — that both the brittlestar and
gray tube sponge were benefitting from the deal — turned out to be
wrong when researchers took a close look at the relationship.
The video describing this whole affair and the research behind
it became a finalist in the Ocean 180 Video Challenge, judged by
37,795 students in 1,600 classrooms in 21 countries. Ocean 180 is
all about connecting science to people, and the video challenge is
designed to help scientists turn their discoveries into
I really like the concept of this contest. Joseph Pawlik, one of
the researchers involved, did a good job telling the story of the
starfish and the sponge in the video production, assisted by Jack
Koch of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. They called
the video “The maid did it! The surprising case of the
I won’t give away who killed whom, but answers to the murder
mystery are revealed toward the end of the 3-minute video.
A much more extensive research project involves monitoring the
largest active volcano off the coast of Oregon, a location called
Axial Seamount. University of Washington researchers and students
conducted the research and produced the video about the equipment
used in an extreme environment and how the data are transmitted
back to land via a fiber optic cable.
While the videos of the starfish-and-sponge and offshore volcano
were among the top 10 finalists, neither were among the top award
First-place winner Kelly Jaakkola of the Dolphin Research Center
said Ocean 180 is a way to make a connection with the next
generation of ocean scientists:
“For a lot of students, science can have a negative, scary
image. They picture people in white lab coats talking about topics
that nobody understands in the most boring, unimaginative way
possible. If we want to get kids excited about science, we need to
change that image.”
Third-place winner Charles Waters said some of the most
inspiring science writing uses analogies, metaphors and similes to
describe the scientific process and research findings:
“Video helps lift images from print, and the message comes
closer to being an experience for the audience in contrast to a
mere information stream.”
The Ocean 180 Video Challenge is sponsored by Florida Center for
Ocean Sciences Education Excellence.
Wyland Foundation’s annual “Water is Life” mural and art
challenge always seems to attract a sizable number of entries —
some 3,500 last year, according to organizers.
I’m always impressed with many of the winners in the individual
competition for grades 1-12 along with collaborative work on a
variety of murals.
Last year’s theme for the contest was “Our Ocean.” The
foundation provided 100 packages of art supplies, including a large
canvass. Also included were educational materials for students and
teachers to study ocean issues and work together to paint a
Theme for the 2015 contest will be “Our Coast and Climate.” For
details about entering individual entries and qualifying for free
art supplies, visit Wyland’s
website. The deadline for this year’s contest is Nov. 25.
Below are more of the individual winners along with the winning
For the past 22 years, students from across the country have
been painting and drawing some amazing pictures of ducks, swans,
geese and related water birds.
Each year, the best pictures are printed up as Federal Junior
Duck Stamps, which can be purchased from participating post offices
and sporting good stores. With the deadline for the 2015 art
contest approaching, I thought it would be a good time to share
some of these great artworks.
The Junior Duck Stamp Conservation and Design Program is
sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The $5 junior duck
stamps are modeled on the $15 Federal Duck Stamps, purchased by
hunters and used by others as a pass for national wildlife
Proceeds from the junior duck stamps are used for conservation
education, including a national curriculum for students from
kindergarten through 12th grade. The national program involves
elements of science, art, math and technology.
The deadline for the art competition is March 15. At the state
level, students are judged in four groups by grade: K-3, 4-6, 7-9
and 10-12. Numerous awards are given in each group, and one “best
of show” from each state are entered into the national competition
in April. Participants are encouraged to include a conservation
message with their entries.
BirdNote originated in 2005 at a single station — KPLU in Tacoma
— and expanded to 50 participating stations by 2010 with about 200
stations today, according to a
list of facts put together for the anniversary. Birdnote began
as a once-a-week segment before expanding to daily segments in
The searchable archive
covers more than 1,200 shows, featuring more than 650 species of
birds. Besides the daily audio clips, each webpage links to related
sources — including photos or videos; a little history or
biography; scientific explanations; occasional notes or blogs; and
often more information about the featured birds.
In honor of the 10th anniversary of BirdNote, and since this is
a blog about water issues, I’ve picked out 20 clips from the past
two years or so that I think you will enjoy:
Kingston’s sewage treatment plant could provide irrigation water
for the nearby White Horse Golf Course and possibly other uses
under a plan now in development.
Kitsap County commissioners recently signed a $325,000
“predesign” contract with Brown and Caldwell engineers. The firm
was hired to answer a host of questions about the feasibility of
producing high-quality effluent at the plant and then putting the
clean water to good use.
“We’re just starting to look at the whole project,” said Barbara
Zaroff of Kitsap County’s Wastewater Division. “We just had our
kickoff meeting two weeks ago, and now Brown and Caldwell will be
going out to collect data.”
I peppered Barbara with questions that she could not answer at
this point, because the detail work is yet to be done. But we know
from a previous study by
Golder Associates (PDF 18.2 mb) that producing high-quality
effluent in Kingston is more than a random thought.
Golder found benefits from using the water for supplementing
flows in nearby Grover’s Creek while recharging much-needed
groundwater in that area of the county. The Suquamish Tribe, which
owns White Horse Golf Course, has expressed interest in acquiring
the water if various issues can be resolved.
The Kingston treatment plant, completed in 2005, produces an
average of 150,000 gallons of effluent per day, currently
discharged into Appletree Cove. As population grows, the plant can
be expanded to about 300,000 gallons per day.
It appears it would be cost-effective to treat the water to
tertiary standards with sand filters, although other technologies
will be explored. A pond could be built on or near the golf course,
which would store the water for irrigation and allow infiltration
into the ground. The available water should provide the needs of
the course with plenty of water left over.
Discharging into a wetland that feeds into Grover’s Creek is
another idea, along with providing irrigation at the county’s North
Kitsap Heritage Park. Unused water might still be discharged into
Puget Sound, particularly in winter months when irrigation water is
One question that always arises with reclaimed water is what
happens to trace amounts of chemicals that pass through the
treatment process, such as pharmaceutical drugs that mimic
hormones. We know from studies that some of these chemicals can
affect the growth, development and metabolism of fish in some
An analysis by
Golder Associates (PDF 18.2 mb) concluded that future treatment
processes in the Kingston plant would remove between 80 and 97
percent of endocrine disrupting compounds coming into the plant.
Environmental conditions where reclaimed water is discharged would
degrade the chemicals further, so the overall risk would be low for
salmon and other fish, according to the report.
The new study is expected to look further into the risks.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Ecology is continuing to work on
reclaimed-water rule that could improve permitting and
monitoring by producers of reclaimed water.
The Kingston project would be similar to what is happening at
the Central Kitsap Wastewater Treatment Plant near Brownsville,
where construction is adding sand filters as part of an overall
upgrade to the plant.
The nearby Silverdale Water District has installed about 15,000
feet of “purple pipe” for reclaimed water on the major arterials of
Silverdale, including Silverdale Way. The project is part of the
water district’s major pipe-replacement project. Another 2,000 feet
will be added as part of the Bucklin Hill Bridge project, General
Manager Morgan Johnson told me.
Much of the new commercial construction in Silverdale is being
designed to use reclaimed water for irrigation, and some buildings
are being plumbed to use reclaimed water for flushing toilets and
other secondary uses. Ballfields in the area could get some of the
A public-outreach program is being planned to educate the public
about reclaimed water and to answer questions that people may have.
Under the current schedule, the reclaimed-water valve would be
turned on in 2020, but that date may be pushed back, Morgan
In Kingston, it will take about a year to put the information
together and identify a preferred alternative, Barbara told me.
Final engineering and design will follow under a new contract if
things go as expected.
The current contract will examine pipeline routes to convey the
water to the potential users. Costs for building and operating the
system will be explored.
Yet to be determined is how costs and benefits of the reclaimed
water will be shared between the county, which owns the treatment
facilities, and those who will use the water. That goes for both
Kingston and Central Kitsap.
Many golf courses across the country — especially in the arid
Southwest — are using reclaimed water for irrigation. In a few
places where water is in extremely short supply, water systems have
begun adding the clean effluent straight into their drinking water.
Check out reporter Emily Schmall’s story for
the Associated Press.
While water is still somewhat plentiful in the Puget Sound area,
it only makes sense to find uses for freshwater that would
otherwise be dumped into salty Puget Sound.
Lolita, the Puget Sound orca kept for 44 years at Miami
Seaquarium, has been declared a member of the endangered population
of Southern Resident killer whales.
Advocates for Lolita’s “retirement” and possible release back to
her family say the action by NOAA Fisheries is a key step in the
effort to free the 48-year-old whale. The next step would be a
lawsuit filed under the Endangered Species Act, and advocates say
they are prepared for that eventuality.
A news release issued today by
NOAA Fisheries plays down the effect of listing Lolita among
the endangered orcas:
“While Lolita will now share the endangered listing status of
the population she came from, the decision does not impact her
residence at the Miami Seaquarium. Lolita is a killer whale that
has resided at the Miami Seaquarium since 1970.”
The original listing created an exemption for captive killer
whales, an exemption that was challenged in a petition filed in
2013 by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
“NOAA Fisheries considered the petition and concluded that
captive animals such as Lolita cannot be assigned separate legal
status from their wild counterparts.”
NOAA received nearly
20,000 comments on the proposal to list Lolita as endangered,
and many expressed hope that Lolita would be returned to her home.
But that would go against the wishes of Miami Seaquarium, which
does not plan to give her up.
“Lolita has been part of the Miami Seaquarium family for 44
years. Just because she was listed as part of the Endangered
Species Act does not mean that she is going anywhere. Lolita is
healthy and thriving in her home where she shares her habitat with
Pacific white-sided dolphins. There is no scientific evidence that
the 49-year-old post-reproductive Lolita could survive in a sea pen
or the open waters of the Pacific Northwest and we are not willing
to treat her life as an experiment.”
As stated by NOAA Fisheries in the news release:
“While issues concerning release into the wild are not related
to this Endangered Species Act listing decision, any future plan to
move or release Lolita would require a permit from NOAA Fisheries
and would undergo rigorous scientific review.
“Releasing a whale which has spent most of its life in captivity
raises many concerns that would need to be carefully addressed.
These concerns include disease transmission, the ability of
released animals to adequately find food, difficulty in social
integration, and that behavioral patterns developed in captivity
could impact wild animals.
“Previous attempts to release captive killer whales and dolphins
have often been unsuccessful, and some have ended tragically with
the death of the released animal.”
Howard Garrett of Orca Network, a longtime advocate for
returning Lolita to Puget Sound, said he expects that concerns
raised by the agency can be overcome, as they were with Keiko
(“Free Willy”). Following Keiko’s movie career and a fund-raising
campaign, the killer whale was returned to his home in Iceland and
learned to feed himself. Still, it seemed he never fully integrated
with wild whales that he encountered, and nobody knows if he ever
found his family. Keiko died of apparent pneumonia about two years
after his release.
Howie insists that the situation with Lolita is entirely
different, since we can identify her family, including her mother,
L-25, named Ocean Sun. The mom is estimated to be 87 years old and
still doing fine.
Plans have been developed to bring Lolita to a sea pen in Puget
Sound, providing care and companionship, such as she gets now.
Then, if she could integrate with L pod, release would be a likely
option. In any case, Lolita would have much more room to move
about, Howie says.
Getting Lolita listed as endangered is important, he said,
because she will be covered by the Endangered Species Act, which
makes it illegal to harm or harass a listed species. A court would
need to decide whether confinement in a small tank constitutes harm
or harassment, he said, but some evidence is provided by the 40 or
so orcas taken from Puget Sound that died well before their
The decision is certain to spur on the debate about whether the
killer whale would be better off living out her life in
now-familiar surroundings or giving her a taste of freedom with the
risks that come with moving her to open waters.
Howie has been working with PETA attorney Jared Goodman on a
potential lawsuit against Miami Seaquarium to improve conditions
“We are prepared to do whatever is necessary to ensure that her
newly granted protections are enforced,” Jared told me. “I cannot
speak specifically about what PETA will do next.”
Jared said he needs to know whether NOAA Fisheries will take any
enforcement action before he proceeds with a “citizens lawsuit”
under the ESA.
Talk of Lolita’s release into the wild is premature, he said.
The goal is to transfer her back to her original home in the San
Juan Islands and place her in a large protected pen. Only after
determining that release is in her best interest would that idea be
furthered and developed into an action plan.
Meanwhile, PETA is preparing for oral arguments in March before
the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on another case involving Lolita.
The organization, along with the Animal Legal Defense Fund,
contends that conditions in the Miami Seaquarium constitute abuse
under the federal Animal Welfare Act. The specific conditions at
issue are the size of her tank, her ongoing exposure to sun and her
lack of animal companionship.
A lower court ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has
discretion to determine what constitutes acceptable conditions,
despite written guidelines, when granting permits to zoos and
Howard Garrett addressed the issue of abuse in a news release
“Our society doesn’t like animal abuse, and the more we learn
about orcas the less we can tolerate seeing them locked up as
circus acts. The legal initiatives that led to this ruling have
been brilliant and effective, as the mood of the country shifts
from acceptance to rejection of captive orca entertainment
enterprises. Things that seemed impossible a year ago seem doable
Today’s determination was not a surprise, as I addressed the
logic of the federal listing when it was proposed a year ago. My
Water Ways on Jan. 28 includes links to previous discussions
But I noticed another minor trend among the commercials: the use
of historical voice-overs connected to meaningful images. It began
with the first commercial after the game started. That ad, for
Carnival Corporation’s cruise lines, seems especially appropriate
for this blog, because it deals with the human connection to the
We hear President John F. Kennedy’s voice as he talks about our
connection to the sea:
“We have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are
tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea — whether it is
to sail or to watch —we are going back from whence we came.”
The commercial contains wonderful images, as you can see in the
first video on this page. The second video shows Kennedy giving
that speech at a 1962 dinner in Newport, R.I, where the president
spoke about the America’s Cup Challenge. It was the year Sir Frank
Packer became the first Australian challenger for the cup, with his
crew aboard the 12-meter yacht Gretel. The dinner was given by the
Australian ambassador. A transcript of the speech is available from
the website of the
Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
The commercial for Carnival apparently was selected from among
five contenders in an online contest to determine which video would
be played during the Super Bowl. The runners-up were also pretty
“Get Away” was the
humorous video that did not make it to the TV screen.
The voice-over approach was continued in the first quarter in a
Toyota commercial featuring Amy Purdy, the celebrity who lost her
legs to meningitis when she was 19. Amy’s father donated a kidney
so she could survive. She then went on to compete in snowboarding
in the Paralympics, perform in movies and on television, and take
second place in Season 18 of “Dancing with the Stars.”
The commercial shows Amy running, snowboarding and dancing, but
especially driving a Toyota. The company claims on its website that
“our story is about much more than our vehicles.”
The voice you hear on the video is Muhammad Ali, talking about
his upcoming boxing match with George Foreman in 1974. You can see
him talking in the fourth video on this page, which offers a dark
shot of the speech that some call his greatest ever.
There was another voice-over in a commercial for NO MORE, a
campaign against domestic violence by the Joyful Heart
Foundation. The audio comes from an actual 911 call, which
speaks for itself. The version played during the Super Bowl was 30
seconds long, but I’ve posted the longer 60-second version, because
it contains a more accurate editing of the call.
If you’d like to view any or all the Super Bowl commercials,
arranged in order, go to iSpot’s “Super
Bowl Ad Center.”
A two-day survey of Kitsap County’s shoreline identified 90
boats moored on buoys, at anchor or aground — and 18 of them were
found to have some kind of problem, according to Richard Bazzell of
the Kitsap Public Health District.
The survey, conducted Monday and Tuesday, is considered a key
step in Kitsap County’s new Derelict Vessel Prevention Program,
which I described in a
Kitsap Sun story (subscription) last May. The idea is to
identify neglected vessels that could pose a risk of sinking if not
given some attention.
Of the 18 vessels with problems, three were declared “derelict”
boats with a high risk of sinking or polluting the water, based on
criteria developed by the state’s
Derelict Vessel Removal Program. Owners of those boats will get
an official warning, and the state could take control of the boats
if the owners fail to make them seaworthy.
Richard told me that he has the greatest concern for a 30-foot
power boat moored in Port Gamble Bay. The other two boats are
sailboats. Because of their condition, they could be considered
illegal dumping and managed under the county’s solid-waste
regulations, as well as under the state’s derelict vessels laws, he
For the other boats needing attention, the approach will be a
friendly reminder, Richard told me. Ten of the 18 boats were
unregistered, which is an early sign of neglect for boats in the
water. Other problems range from deteriorating hulls to weak lines
to excessive algae growth. The greatest concerns are that the boats
will spill toxic chemicals, such as fuel, or create a navigational
hazard for other boats.
It was encouraging to find a relatively small number of boats
with problems, Richard said.
“We were expecting to run into a lot more problems,” he noted.
“Surprisingly, we didn’t, and that is a good thing.”
The county will offer technical assistance to help boat owners
figure out what to do, and educational workshops could provide
general maintenance information.
Boats with the most significant problems were found in these
Kitsap County embayments: Yukon Harbor in South Kitsap; Dyes and
Sinclair inlets in Central Kitsap; and Liberty Bay, Appletree Cove
and Port Gamble Bay in North Kitsap.
This week’s survey covered about 250 miles of county shoreline,
where the health district’s efforts are funded with a state grant.
Excluded are military bases, where private mooring is not allowed,
and Bainbridge Island, where the city’s harbormaster is conducting
similar work under the state grant.
The overall $250,000 grant for the prevention program is being
coordinated by Marc Forlenza, who developed a procedure proven to
be successful in San Juan County. Marc credits Joanruth Bauman, who
operated the derelict vessel program in San Juan County, as being
the brainchild of the prevention program.
Money for the
prevention program came from the Environmental Protection Agency’s
Puget Sound Restoration Fund. The grant is managed by the Puget
Seven counties, including San Juan and Kitsap, are involved in
the regional effort. The other counties are King, Pierce,
Snohomish, Mason and Jefferson. Thurston County is covered by the
Pierce County grant.
Some counties have been up and running for months. Others,
including Kitsap, are a little slow because of contract
complications. San Juan County contracted with Kitsap County, which
then contracted with the health district and Bainbridge Island.
Those last contracts were approved earlier this month.
The whole idea, Marc said, is to work with boat owners to keep
the vessels from becoming derelict in the first place. If boat
owners can take care of the problems, it costs the county and state
almost nothing. Once declared derelict, government officials are
forced to spend money in an effort to keep boats from sinking.
When a boat sinks, Marc said, the cost of dealing with the
problem rises 10-fold, and the resulting pollution can destroy
In San Juan County, early action on problem boats has reduced
the cost of dealing with derelict vessels from $76,000 in 2012 to
$23,000 in 2013 to zero in 2014, he said. That doesn’t include
vessels taken by the Washington Department of Natural Resources
under the new Voluntary Turn-In Program, which I’ll discuss in a
Marc has a good way of dealing with people. He seems to
understand the needs and challenges of boat ownership, and he tries
to nudge people in the right direction.
“You have to take time to talk to boat owners,” he explained. “I
call it ‘boat psychology.’ Some of these people have held onto
their boats for 20, 30 or 40 years. They have loved their boat.
When I talk to them, some will say, ‘I guess it’s time to let ol’
Betsy go,’ while others will say, ‘Over my dead body.’”
For the latter group, Marc drives home the fact that a boat
owner may be held criminally liable for maintaining a derelict boat
— and the Attorney General’s Office is now prosecuting such cases.
Beyond that, an owner may be held financially responsible if a boat
sinks — including the cost of raising the boat along with any
natural resource damages caused by pollution.
“That can cost tens of thousands of dollars, or even hundreds of
thousands of dollars in some cases,” he said. “You try to appeal to
people’s better sense.”
In Kitsap County, people who see a boat listing or potentially
sinking should call 911. For nonemergency conditions, one can call
Kitsap One, 360-337-5777, except for Bainbridge Island where people
should call Harbormaster Tami Allen at 206-786-7627. Additional information and phone
numbers for other counties can be found on a Puget Sound Partnership
The DNR’s Vessel Turn-In Program gives some people a way to take
action with little cost. To qualify, boats must be less than 45
feet long and have practically no value. The owner must lack the
means to repair or dispose of the boat. If approved by DNR, the
owner must drive or tow the vessel to a disposal location and turn
over ownership to the state. For details, check out the DNR’s
website on the
Vessel Turn-In Program.
Since the turn-in program started last May, DNR has disposed 19
boats, with another five lined up for disposal, according to Joe
Smillie of the agency. The Legislature provided $400,000 for the
new turn-in program, which is separate from the larger Derelict
Vessel Removal Program.
The removal program targets vessels at risk of sinking. In
emergencies, DNR or local agencies can take immediate action, but
normally the owner is given at least 30 days to move or repair the
Since 2002, DNR has removed about 550 abandoned vessels
throughout the state. About 150 others have been tagged as “vessels
In 2014 alone, 40 vessels were removed, including the sunken
Helena Star. The Helena Star was raised from Tacoma’s Hylebos
Waterway and salvaged at a cost of $1.16 million, requiring special
funding from the Legislature. The owner of the vessel was later
charged with a crime.
I can always count on the annual National Wildlife Photo Contest
to provide some amazing water-related photos — and the 2014 contest
was no exception.
This is the 44th year for the contest, sponsored by National
Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation. This year’s
contest attracted more than 29,000 entries, according to a
statement accompanying the winning photographs.
The winner of the Grand Prize, Hungarian photographer Bence
Mate, spent 74 nights in a blind over a period of several years to
figure out how to capture this remarkable image of gray herons in
Hungary’s Kiskunsag National Park.
By experimenting with his camera gear, he was able to capture a
clear image of the birds and water in dim light, while also showing
us the stars, which were not in the same depth of field. His
home-made equipment was able to achieve good exposure throughout
“I made the photo with a fish-eye lens that was less than a
meter away from the closest bird and had to be careful not to scare
the herons with noise or light,” he was quoted as saying.
The birds kept moving during the 32 seconds that the shutter was
open, “and they created interesting forms in front of the starry
sky,” he noted.
I like the whimsical appearance of this bullfrog, captured by
Cheryl Rose of Hopkinton, Mass., as she explored Waseeka Wildlife
Sanctuary in Central Massachusetts. The water seems to wrap around
the log, becoming part of the sky with clouds in the distance.
“There were so many frogs in this pond,” she said, “but this one
gave me the perfect pose.”
The photo won second place in the Other Wildlife category — a
category for something other than birds, mammals, baby animals and
First place in the Baby Animals category went to Nathan
Goshgarian of Woburn, Mass., who watching as this mallard duckling
leaped at flies swarming over Horn Pond in his city.
“It had the incredible ability to select a single fly from the
seemingly random movements of the swarm and launch itself out of
the water,” he said.
In the book “War of the Whales,” author Joshua Horwitz reveals,
in exquisite detail, how Ken Balcomb played a central role in
showing how Navy sonar was killing and injuring whales around the
Ken, who we know as the dean of orca research in Puget Sound,
has not been alone, of course, in the quest to get the Navy to
better protect marine mammals. Horwitz introduces us to a variety
of people, each with his or her own interest in saving the
Frankly, I was surprised at how much I learned from the book,
given that I have been covering these same issues as a reporter for
many years. What really gained my admiration for Horwitz was how he
was able to weave scientific and historical aspects of the story
into a gripping tale that reads like a detective thriller.
I consider this book to be several stories woven into one.
First, there are the personal biographies of two key players in
this conflict with the Navy. The lives of Ken Balcomb, of the
Center for Whale Research, and Joel Reynolds, of the Natural
Resources Defense Council, became intertwined with each other after
the NRDC sued the Navy over its use of sonar around whales.
Next, we are given the history of the Navy’s sonar technology,
developed to track stealthy submarines. We meet many of the Navy
officials involved, including some who became emotionally involved
with marine mammals, flipping to the other side, as Horwitz
The Navy has long controlled much of the research involving
marine mammals — the original models for sonar. At times, whales
and dolphins were even trained as military combatants, with mixed
Last, but not least, we are shown the legal arguments related to
environmental law versus the need for national security. As a
result, we see how the Navy has become more open today about the
risks to whales from its testing and training procedures.
Horwitz paints intimate portraits of many of the characters,
especially Balcomb, the biologist, and Reynolds, the lawyer. He
sees the pair coming together from different backgrounds and
uniting in their effort to protect the whales against the Navy’s
single-minded approach to national security.
“Ken was such an extraordinary character,” Horwitz told me in a
telephone interview. “He was a reluctant activist. Activism wasn’t
The story begins in the Bahamas, where Balcomb was doing
research when a mass stranding of beaked whales took place,
practically at his doorstep. Navy sonar had been suspected of
killing whales in other areas of the world, but Balcomb was able to
secure fresh tissues — essential evidence to understand how their
injuries were caused by sound waves. Balcomb also observed that the
Navy was conducting exercises in the Bahamas at the same time, and
he made the connection to the dead whales.
From there, other researchers and policy officials became
involved, but Balcomb kept pushing to keep the incident from being
swept under the rug.
“Ken’s investment was immediate,” Horwitz explained. “One night
the Navy just plowed through and decimated this population of
We learn from the book about Ken’s serendipitous life. As a
young biologist, he collected whale lungs for research by going to
a commercial whaling station still operating in California. He
later signed onto a research crew as a dishwasher, but his skills
with a shotgun earned him the lead job of tagging whales.
Balcomb joined the Navy during the Vietnam War and became a
pilot. A series of circumstances led him into Fleet Sonar School
and the Navy’s highly secretive Sound Surveillance System, or
SOSUS. At the same time, his compatriots in graduate school became
some of the top marine mammal experts for the Navy and the National
Marine Fisheries Service. His later interactions with these folks
revealed something about their past and present positions in
Horwitz ties all these pieces of the story together in a
compelling narrative that kept offering me new and surprising
tidbits of information. It took the author seven years to complete
“He kept asking over and over the same questions,” said Ken,
somewhat amused when I asked him about it. “I didn’t know if he had
confused notes or what.”
Horwitz was seeking an extraordinary level of precision and
accuracy, so that his telling of this true and controversial story
could not be assailed.
Balcomb said he could find no errors, except for the conscious
decision by Horowitz and his editors to describe two overflights by
Balcomb in the Bahamas as a single event.
Most surprising of all was the account from Navy officials,
whose story about underwater warfare has rarely been told, except
perhaps in novels by Tom Clancy and others. Horwitz said
active-duty military officials were no help to him, but he got to
know retired Admiral Dick Pittenger, who opened doors to other
“He (Pittenger) was a total career Navy guy, but he was
skeptical about the way the Navy was handling some of these
matters,” Horwitz said, noting that the admiral spent days helping
him understand anti-submarine warfare.
Pittenger wanted the story told right, and he must have been
satisfied with the result, since he offered this comment in
promotional materials for the book:
“‘War of the Whales’ is an important book about a major
post-Cold War problem: the often conflicting goals of national
security and environmental protection. The author presents this
very complex and multidimensional story with great clarity.
“I’m certain that no one who has been involved with this issue
will agree with everything in this book (I don’t). But the topic
is, by its nature, so emotionally charged and controversial that I
doubt anyone can read it without a strong personal response. The
importance of this book is that it tells the ‘inside’ story to the
wide reading public in a compelling way.”
In my mind, Horwitz did a remarkable job of capturing the
relevant facts for this complicated story. He then seamlessly
joined the pieces together into a coherent and dramatic story — one
especially important to those of us living in an area where the
Navy maintains a strong presence among an abundance of marine
Check back to “Watching Our Water Ways” tomorrow, when I will
describe more of Josh Horowitz’s personal views about his book and
what he learned along the way.