“Sonic Sea,” which will air Thursday on Discovery Channel, will
take you down beneath the ocean waves, where sounds take on new
meaning, some with dangerous implications.
Humans spend most of their time in air, a medium that transmits
light so well that we have no trouble seeing the shapes of objects
in a room or mountains many miles away. In the same way, water is
the right medium for sound, which shapes the world of marine
mammals and other species that live under water.
The hour-long documentary film reveals how humpback whales use
low-frequency sounds to communicate with other whales across an
entire ocean and how killer whales use high-frequency sound to
locate their prey in dark waters.
“The whales see the ocean through sound, so their mind’s eye is
their mind’s ear,” says Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources
Defense Council, an environment group that produced the film with
the help of the production company Imaginary Forces.
“Sonic Sea” opens with Ken Balcomb, dean of killer whale
research in Puget Sound, telling the story of how he learned about
16 beaked whales that had beached themselves in the Bahamas, where
he was doing research in 2001.
“Animals that I had grown to know over a 10-year period were now
dead,” Ken says during the movie, recalling the horrifying day when
one whale after another was discovered dead or dying. “They were
trying to get away. I was driven to find out why.”
Thanks to Ken’s presence during that stranding incident, experts
were able to prove that Navy sonar could be deadly. It took two
years for Navy officials to overcome their denial.
As I watched the film, I wondered if people would identify with
the idea that hearing to marine mammals is like sight to humans.
Would people see how much humans have invaded the underwater world
with noise from ship traffic, oil exploration, military training
and shoreline construction?
“I listen to the world, and to me song is life,” said Chris
Clark, a bioacoustics expert at Cornell Lab of Ornithology,. “It is
the essence of who we are, and it joins us all. The problem is, in
the ocean, we are injecting enormous amounts of noise, so much so
that we are acoustically bleaching the ocean. All the singing
voices of the planet are lost in that cloud of noise.”
This type of human invasion is different from wiping out habitat
as new construction changes the land, but the effect can be equally
devastating to some species.
In September of 2001, a group of researchers on the East Coast
were collecting fecal samples from right whales to check for stress
hormones. Stress levels were running high among the whales, except
for a few days when the levels dropped dramatically. That happened
right after Sept. 11, when ship traffic in the area was shut down
following the bombing of the World Trade Center. It still isn’t
clear what that constant stress is doing to the animals, but it
can’t be good. See
Duke University press release.
The good news, the film tells us, is that ships can be made
quieter, with an important side benefit: Quieter ships are more
efficient, which makes them cheaper to operate. Ships can also
reduce noise by going slower, saving on fuel. Beyond shipping,
people can find ways to operate in the ocean with less sonic harm
to sea life.
The Navy’s viewpoint, as represented in the film, appears to be
a more enlightened approach that I have seen until now. Of course,
protecting Navy ships against enemy attacks is the priority, but
the need to accommodate marine life seems to be recognized to a
“It comes down to what we value,” Clark said. “We value a living
ocean. We are putting the ocean at risk. And if you put the ocean
at risk, you are putting all of us at risk.”
The first video on this page is the trailer to “Sonic Sea” as
provided by the producers of the film. The second is the trailer
provided by Discovery Channel.
A new controversy is beginning to rumble over the potential
injury to marine mammals from sounds transmitted in the water.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, also called NOAA
Fisheries, is moving closer to finalizing new “technical guidance”
for assessing temporary and permanent hearing loss in whales and
dolphins caused by human activities — including Navy sonar, seismic
explorations and underwater explosions. The guidance will be used
for approving “take” permits under the Marine Mammal Protection Act
and Endangered Species Act.
Meanwhile, in another development, Navy officials have
acknowledged that Navy personnel made a mistake by using sonar in
Puget Sound without getting approval through the chain of command.
I’ll describe the circumstances of that event in a moment.
The new guidance is focused on hearing loss rather than how the
behavior of marine mammals might change in the presence of loud
noise. Since foraging and social activity are essential among
whales and dolphins, further guidance is expected to assess how
animals may be affected in other ways by noise.
The new guidance does not include mitigation measures for
minimizing the effects of sound. In some cases, the new information
may lead to additional protections for the animals, but in other
cases protections may be reduced, according to information from
Currently, regulators use a single noise threshold for cetaceans
(whales and dolphins) and a single threshold for pinnipeds (seals
and sea lions). They do not account for the different hearing
abilities within the two groups or how different types of sound may
The new acoustic threshold levels divide sounds into two groups:
1) impulsive sounds lasting less than a second, such as from
airguns and impact pile drivers, and 2) non-impulsive sounds, in
which the sound pressure rises and declines more gradually, such as
from sonar and vibratory pile drivers. Measures account for both
peak sound pressure and cumulative sound exposure.
Marine mammals also are divided into groups based on their
general range of hearing. There are the low-frequency cetaceans,
including the large baleen whales; the mid-frequency cetaceans,
including the dolphins; and the high-frequency cetaceans, including
The pinnipeds are divided into two groups. The eared seals,
including sea lions, have a somewhat wider hearing range than true
seals, including harbor seals.
After years of covering the effects of sonar and other noise,
I’m just beginning to understand the complexity of how sound is
measured and the mathematics used to calculate levels at various
locations. At the same time, the guidelines are growing more
complex — as they should to model the real world. New thresholds
account for the duration of sound exposure as well as the
intensity, and they somewhat customize the thresholds to the
animals affected. For additional information, see NOAA’
Fisheries webpage on the guidance.
Despite incorporating new studies into the guidelines, some
acoustics experts are finding serious problems with the methods
used to arrive at the new thresholds, according to Michael Jasny of
the Natural Resources Defense Council. The NRDC, an environmental
group, has a long history of battling NOAA Fisheries and the Navy
over sound exposures for marine mammals.
“This is an extremely technical subject,” Michael said, noting
that he relies on experts who have provided comments on the
methodology. “By and large, NMFS has drunk the Navy’s Kool-Aid with
the exception of low-frequency effects, even though the Navy’s
science has been sharply criticized.”
The statistical analyses leading to the guidelines are so flawed
that they call into question how they could be used to protect
marine mammals, Michael said, pointing to a paper by
Andrew J. Wright of George Mason University.
“These are high stakes we are talking about,” Michael said. “We
are talking about damaging the hearing of endangered species that
depend on their hearing to survive.”
The effects of sound on behavior, which are not described in the
new guidelines, may be just as important, he said, since too much
noise can impede an animal’s ability to catch prey or undertake
social behavior that contribute to the perpetuation of the species.
NOAA Fisheries needs to move forward to raise the level of
protection, not just for injury related to hearing but for other
effects, he said. One can review a series of related studies on
“If these guidelines are not improved, at least to address
fundamental statistical errors, then it is easy to imagine that
they might be legally challenged — and they would deserve to be,”
Michael told me.
Sonar in Puget Sound
As for the Navy’s mistake with sonar, the story goes back to
Jan. 13 of this year, when acoustics expert Scott Veirs of Beam
Reach Marine Science picked up the sound of sonar on hydrophones in
the San Juan Islands. About the same time, Ken Balcomb of the
Center for Whale Research was observing transient killer whales to
the south in Haro Strait.
At first, Scott believed the sonar may have been coming from the
Canadian Navy ship HMCS Ottawa, but Canadian officials were quick
to deny it. His suspicions shifted to the U.S. Navy. He was
disturbed by that prospect since the Navy stopped using sonar
during training exercises in Puget Sound shortly after the USS
Shoup incident in 2003. For a reminder of that incident, check my
story in the
Kitsap Sun, March 17, 2005.
Later, the requirement for approval from the Pacific Fleet
command became an enforceable regulation when it was added to the
letter of authorization (PDF 3.4 mb) issued by NOAA Fisheries.
The letter allows the Navy a specific “take” of marine mammals
during testing and training operations.
Within days of this year’s sonar incident, Scott learned from
observers that two Navy ships had traveled through Haro Strait
about the time that sonar was heard on a nearby hydrophone. Navy
Region Northwest confirmed the presence of Navy vessels.
Later, Scott received an email from Lt. Julianne Holland, deputy
public affairs officer for the Navy’s Third Fleet. She confirmed
that a Navy ship used sonar for about 10 minutes at the time of
Scott’s recording. The ship was identified as a guided missile
destroyer — the same type as the Shoup — but its name has never
“The Navy vessel followed the process to check on the
requirements for this type of use in this location, but a technical
error occurred which resulted in the unit not being made aware of
the requirement to request permission,” according to Lt. Holland’s
email to Scott. “The exercise was very brief in duration, lasting
less than 10 minutes, and the Navy has taken steps to correct the
procedures to ensure this doesn’t occur again at this, or any
Because no marine mammals appeared to be injured, the story kind
of faded away until I recently contacted Lt. Holland to tie up some
loose ends. She ignored my questions about whether disciplinary
actions had been taken against any Navy personnel. “The Navy has
taken appropriate action to address the issue, including reissuance
of specific guidance on the use of sonar in the Pacific Northwest.”
The memo was sent to “all units in the Northwest.”
After I reopened the discussion, Scott did some acoustic
calculations based on figures and graphs he found in a Navy report
on the Shoup incident. He located published estimates of the source
levels and concluded, based on NOAA’s old thresholds, that marine
mammals within 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) would experience noise
levels likely to change their behavior (level B harassment).
Based on the data available, Scott could not conclude whether
the transient killer whales in Haro Strait were within that range,
but he said it was encouraging that Ken Balcomb did not notice any
changes in their behavior. It was also helpful that the sonar was
used for a relatively short time.
“It was a little nerve racking to hear the Navy was making
mistakes,” Scott said, “but we can give them a pat on the back for
doing the exercise during the day” when lookouts on the ship at
least have a chance to spot the animals.
UPDATE, Oct. 2, 2015
The Navy has released its
final environmental impact statement on Northwest testing and
training operations. The document does not consider an option for
avoiding “biologically significant areas” when using sonar or
explosives, as in the legal settlement for operations in California
and Hawaii. It is yet to be seen whether National Marine Fisheries
Service will add new restrictions when issuing permits for
incidental “take” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Here is
news release (PDF 548 kb).
A legal agreement approved this week to limit the Navy’s use of
sonar and explosives in “biologically important areas” of Southern
California and Hawaii represents a “sea change” in the Navy’s
protection of marine mammals, says Michael Jasny of the Natural
Resources Defense Council.
Encouraged by the cooperative effort to reach an out-of-court
settlement with the Navy, Michael said the deal could have
implications for future Navy activities in the Northwest and
throughout the country.
The NRDC and seven other environmental groups filed suit over
Navy plans to train with sonar and explosives in Southern
California and Hawaii with no specific geographic limitations. The
environmental groups argued that one good way to reduce injury and
death to marine mammals is to avoid areas where large numbers of
whales and dolphins congregate to feed, socialize and
A federal judge ruled in favor of the environmental groups,
saying “it makes no sense” for the Navy to insist that its training
exercises require the use every square mile of ocean. The ruling
drew the Navy into settlement negotiations.
“This settlement resulted from a constructive good-faith effort
on all sides,” Michael Jasny told me by phone. “That, in itself,
represents a real change in the way the Navy has interacted with
the conservation community. It took litigation to create this
window of opportunity to advance policy to be consistent with
Michael said research by the Navy and other groups has shown how
marine mammals are killed and injured by Navy sonar and explosives.
As the science has evolved, so have the tools to reduce impacts —
such as maps showing where marine mammals hang out, maps that can
help the Navy reduce its harm to many species.
Michael said it has been shameful to watch the National Marine
Fisheries Service — the agency charged with protecting marine
mammals — stand by and issue permits that allow the Navy to do
whatever it wants. Now, he added, the negotiations between the Navy
and environmental groups provide a blueprint for how NMFS can
better live up to its mission of protecting marine mammals.
“Frankly, after years of fighting about these issues, we are
seeing folks on both sides very willing to find solutions,” Michael
said. “Folks on the Navy side have generally been willing to come
to the table. The Navy would not have entered into this agreement
if it believed these measures prevented it from achieving their
military readiness objective.”
For its part, the Navy tends to downplay the significance of
this week’s settlement.
“After a federal court ruled in favor of plaintiffs’ claims, the
Navy faced the real possibility that the court would stop
critically important training and testing,” said Lt. Cmdr. Matt
Knight, spokesman for the Pacific Fleet. “Instead, NMFS and the
Navy negotiated in good faith with the plaintiffs over five months
to reach this agreement.”
In a written statement, Knight said the Navy’s existing
protective measures are “significant” and the agreement increases
restrictions in select areas. Those restrictions will remain in
place until the current permit expires on Dec. 24, 2018.
“It is essential that sailors have realistic training at sea
that fully prepares them to prevail when and where necessary with
equipment that has been thoroughly tested,” Knight said in the
statement. “This settlement agreement preserves critically
important testing and training.”
In an email, I asked the Navy spokesman how the agreement might
translate into special protections in other areas, particularly the
Northwest where we know that Navy ships cross paths with many
different kinds of whales and dolphins. His answer was somewhat
“The Navy continues to work with NMFS to develop necessary and
appropriate measures to protect marine mammals,” he wrote back.
“The Navy’s current protective measures afford significant
protections to marine mammals. That said, the Navy will not
prejudge what measures will be appropriate to address future
The Navy is about to complete an environmental impact statement
that outlines the effects of its testing and training operations in
Puget Sound and along the Washington Coast. In comments on the
draft EIS and proposed permit, environmental groups again called
attention to the need to restrict operations in places where large
numbers of marine mammals can be found. For example, one letter
signed by 18 conservation groups addresses the operational details
in the Northwest Training and Testing Range:
“Despite the vast geographic extent of the Northwest Training
and Testing Study Area, the Navy and NMFS have neither proposed nor
adequately considered mitigation to reduce activities in
biologically important marine mammal habitat. Virtually all of the
mitigation that the Navy and NMFS have proposed for acoustic
impacts boils down to a small safety zone around the sonar vessel
or impulsive source, maintained primarily with visual monitoring by
onboard lookouts, with aid from non-dedicated aircraft (when in the
vicinity) and passive monitoring (through vessels’ generic sonar
“The NMFS mitigation scheme disregards the best available
science on the ineffectiveness of visual monitoring to prevent
impacts on marine mammals. Indeed, the species perhaps most
vulnerable to sonar-related injuries, beaked whales, are among the
most difficult to detect because of their small size and diving
behavior. It has been estimated that in anything stronger than a
light breeze, only one in fifty beaked whales surfacing in the
direct track line of a ship would be sighted. As the distance
approaches 1 kilometer, that number drops to zero. The agency’s
reliance on visual observation as the mainstay of its mitigation
plan is therefore profoundly insufficient and misplaced.”
Even before this week’s out-of-court settlement, environmental
groups were urging the Navy and NMFS to delay completion of the EIS
until they fairly evaluate new studies about the effects of sonar,
explosives and sound on marine mammals. Measures to protect whales
and other animals should include restrictions within biologically
important areas, they say.
This week’s out-of-court settlement included limitations on the
use of sonar and explosives in the BIAs of Southern California and
Hawaii. For details, check out the
signed order itself (PDF 1.5 mb) with associated maps,
or read the summary in news releases by
Earthjustice. Not all BIAs that have been identified are
getting special protection under the agreement.
Biologically important areas for whales, dolphins and porpoises
include places used for reproduction, feeding and migration, along
with limited areas occupied by small populations of residents. For
a list of identified BIAs, go to NOAA’s Cetacean
and Sound Mapping website. For additional details, see NOAA’s
release on the subject.
Michael Jasny said he is encouraged with the Navy’s
acknowledgement that it can adequately conduct testing and training
exercises while abiding by restrictions in specified geographic
areas. He hopes the Navy uses the same logic to protect marine
mammals on the East Coast, including Virginia where seismic
exploration increases the risk; portions of the Gulf of Mexico; the
Gulf of Alaska; the Mariana Islands; and, of course, the Pacific
Zak Smith, an NRDC attorney involved with Northwest sonar
issues, said the settlement in California and Hawaii should
encourage the National Marine Fisheries Service to apply the same
mitigation to testing and training to waters in Washington, Oregon,
California and Alaska.
“I would hope when they come out with a final rule that the
Fisheries Service would have engaged with the kind of management
approach that we did in the settlement,” he said. “The Fisheries
Service and the Navy should sit down and review biologically
significant areas against the Navy’s training and testing
Clearly, if you read through the comments, environmental groups
are dismayed about the Navy’s potential harm to marine mammals and
its failure to address the problem:
“The sonar and munitions training contemplated in the Navy’s
NWTT Draft Environmental Impact Statement is extensive and details
extraordinary harm to the Pacific Northwest’s marine resources….
Even using the Navy and NMFS’s analysis, which substantially
understates the potential effects, the activities would cause
nearly 250,000 biologically significant impacts on marine mammals
along the Washington, Oregon, Northern California, and Southern
Alaska coasts each year – more than 1.2 million takes during the
5-year life of a Marine Mammal Protection Act incidental take
I’m not sure it is necessary for me to point out that without
significant changes to the Navy’s current plans, we are likely to
see another lawsuit over routine testing and training
L-84, a 25-year-old male orca named Nyssa, has been carrying a
satellite transmitter for more than two months now, allowing
researchers to track the movements of Nyssa and any whales
traveling with him.
Nyssa, the last survivor of his immediate family, tends to stay
around L-54, a 38-year-old female named Ino, and Ino’s two
offspring, L-108 (Coho) and L-117 (Keta). Often, other members of L
pod are with him, and sometimes K pod has been around as well,
according to observers.
The satellite tracking is part of an effort to learn more about
the three pods of Southern Resident killer whales, which are listed
as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. That means they
are headed for extinction without changes that increase their rate
The Navy, which has long been training off the West Coast, has
been supporting some of the research in hopes of finding ways to
reduce inadvertent harm from its active training in that area,
Since L-84 was tagged on Feb. 17, the whales have been generally
traveling up and down the Washington and Oregon coasts. At various
times, researchers — including biologists from Cascadia Research —
have been able to get close enough to collect fecal samples from
the whales and scales from fish they are eating. The goal is to
determine their prey selection at this time of year. Chinook salmon
are their fish of choice, but they will eat other species as
Winter storms and waves create challenging conditions to study
the whales, but the satellite-tagging program has helped
researchers find them, said Brad Hanson, who is leading the study
for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.
Brad told me that he is thrilled that the satellite tag on L-84
has remained in operation so long, allowing more and more data to
be collected. Satellite tags are designed to fall off after a time,
and the compact batteries will eventually run out of juice.
“This is the latest (in the season) that we have had a tag on a
Southern Resident,” Brad said. “Who knows how long it will last?
The battery will probably make it until the end of May, and the
attachment looked good the last anyone saw the tag.”
The research is not just about figuring out where the whales
travel, Brad said. It is about finding out which areas are
important to them.
While tracking the whales by satellite, the research is being
expanded with the use of acoustic recording devices deployed in key
locations along the coast. The goal is to find ways to track the
whales with less intrusion. But how does one know where they are
located during periods when the whales go silent — sometimes for
days at a time? Those are the kind of questions that researchers
hope to answer by correlating the acoustic and satellite data
together, Brad said.
With Navy funding, 17 recorders are now deployed along the
coast, including one recorder many miles offshore to pick up whales
that get out into the deep ocean.
“We have certainly reduced a lot of the mystery,” Brad said.
“The main issue — and what the Navy is interested in — is how they
mitigate for marine mammal presence.”
Knowing that killer whales can be silent, the Navy has largely
relied on visual sightings to determine the presence of the
animals. During high waves, that may not be a reliable method of
detection. The answer, based on tracking the whales, could be to
move the training operations farther offshore — beyond the
continental shelf, since the Southern Residents appear to rarely go
out that far.
The Southern Residents are among the most studied marine mammals
in the world, yet it is not entirely clear why their population is
not recovering. An upcoming effort will begin to look at whether
new information about the health condition of the whales can be
teased out of existing fecal and biopsy samples or if new methods
of study are needed to assess their health.
Meanwhile, raw data from various studies continue to pour in,
challenging NOAA researchers to focus on specific questions,
complete their analyses and share the findings in scientific
reports. According to Brad, ongoing staff cutbacks makes that final
step even harder than it has been in the past.
The title of the book “War of the Whales” comes from the
“cultural war” between the Navy, which is primarily interested in
national security, and environmental advocates trying to protect
whales, according to author Joshua Horwitz.
“You have these two groups that care about the whales but for
different reasons,” Josh told me in a telephone interview. “One
group is trying to save the whales; the other is trying to get a
leg up on the Cold War.”
As I described yesterday in
Water Ways, “War of the Whales” is really several stories woven
into an exquisitely detailed narrative. I found the biography of
Ken Balcomb, who served in the Navy, especially compelling within
the full context of the Navy’s involvement with marine mammals.
Horwitz was successful in interviewing retired Navy officers,
who explained anti-submarine warfare and put the Navy’s viewpoint
“I have a lot of respect for the Navy,” he said. “None of these
guys are villains. This is a totally different story from
‘Blackfish.’ The Navy is a lot more complicated.”
While SeaWorld, the subject of Blackfish, and other aquariums
exploit marine mammals for commercial purposes, the Navy has our
national interest at heart, Josh said, adding that some Navy
officials failed to understand the full implications of the harm
they were doing.
“They hate to see their reputation sullied as good stewards of
the environment,” he noted. “They do care, and it almost tears them
up that they have gotten a black eye.”
Through a series of lawsuits, the Navy was forced to confront
the effects of its testing and training exercises with sonar, Josh
“I think the Navy has come a long way on what they do on ranges
on our coasts,” he said. “They are taking the process much more
seriously now. But they still aren’t doing that on the foreign
New lawsuits have been filed by NRDC based on potential impacts
to marine mammals, as revealed in a series of environmental impact
statements dealing with the effects of Navy training.
“I really do feel that it is important to keep the pressure on
the Navy and the government on all fronts,” Josh said. “There is a
limit to what the courts can do. And there are enough good actors
inside the Navy.”
One lawsuit, which Horwitz followed closely in “War of the
Whales,” focused on violations of environmental and administrative
law — until the Navy pulled out its “national security card.” The
U.S. Supreme Court seemed reluctant to put a hard edge on its
ruling, thus allowing uncertain security threats to trump potential
harm to marine life.
Josh contends that responsible parties from all sides should sit
down together and work out reasonable procedures for Navy training.
They should include exclusionary zones for the deployment of sonar
and live bombing in areas where whales go, at least during times
when whales are likely to be there.
More could be done with computer simulations to train Navy
personnel, he said. The other armed services are doing much more in
terms of simulating and responding to conditions that may be
encountered in real life.
“I have heard from well-placed people in the Navy that there is
room for vastly increasing the amount of simulation training,” he
“We know you can’t land an aircraft on a carrier (with
simulation), but if you can reduce the amount of live training, it
would be a win for everybody,” he added.
Simulations would not only reduce the impact on the marine
ecosystem, it would reduce the Navy’s cost of training, its use of
energy and its overall carbon footprint.
One thing is for sure, he said. Government oversight into the
Navy’s operations is nothing like the oversight into private
business. The National Marine Fisheries Service is so outgunned by
the Navy in terms of “political muscle” that the agency is
relegated to approving practically anything the Navy wants to do.
“I hope that comes through in the book,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Navy has developed the technology that could help
quiet commercial ships and reduce the noise and stress on marine
life throughout the world, he said.
“The Navy could take the lead and wear the white hat and save
the ocean from noise pollution,” Josh told me. “When you mitigate
for noise, the pollution goes away. It’s not like plastic pollution
that will still be there for a very long time.”
At the start, Horwitz was not sure what kind of story would
develop. It began with a meeting with Joel Reynolds, the lead
attorney for NRDC. At the time, Josh had just taken his 13-year-old
daughter on a whale-watching trip to Baja, Mexico. Like many of us,
he got sucked into one whale story after another, and he came to
learn about the Navy’s long and complicated relationship with
Horwitz has been involved in the publishing industry since the
1990s. He calls himself a kind of “midwife” for new books, which
involves putting writers together with characters who have a great
story to tell. He initially planned to “package” the story of the
whales by working with a professional journalist, but his wife
encouraged him to forge his passion into a book of his own.
Josh had co-written a handful of books in his life, including
some children’s books, after he graduated from film school at New
York University. But this was the first time he had tackled a
project with the breadth and depth of the story that became “War of
the Whales.” The project took seven years to research, write and
craft into a full-length, hard-bound book. Now, a paperback version
is in the works.
During the early part of the project, Josh continued part-time
with his publishing business. Over the final two years or so, he
devoted his full effort into the writing and follow-up research. To
pay the bills, he supplemented his publisher’s advance with money
raised through The Ocean Foundation.
By the time the writing was done, several editors who originally
expressed interest in the book were no longer in the business, he
said. As luck would have it, one interested editor had risen in the
ranks to publisher and was able to help him complete the project
and get the book into print.
Josh and his wife, Ericka Markman, live in Washington, D.C.,
with their three daughters, ages 20, 18 and 13.
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.
The Navy is continuing its efforts to control commercial
over-water structures in Hood Canal. The idea is to buy subtidal
conservation easements from the Washington Department of Natural
Resources, which owns these deep-water areas.
The first easement was proposed for the Jefferson County side of
Hood Canal (map at right). The easement application is now working
its way through a formal review process. The proposal received a
lot of attention when it was announced in May, in part because of
the potential to derail the controversial pit-to-pier project. A
story I wrote for the
Kitsap Sun on May 15 describes the overall goals of the Navy’s
program and its potential effects.
After that initial announcement, I was surprised that the Navy
and DNR seemed reluctant to talk about the next phase, which turned
out to be a second easement along the Kitsap County shoreline from
the Hood Canal bridge to the county line near Holly. I described
that proposal in a story I wrote for the
Kitsap Sun yesterday (subscription).
Both proposed easements fall under the Department of Defense
Readiness and Environmental Protection Initiative (REPI).
Liane Nakahara, spokeswoman for Navy Region Northwest, said the
need for the Kitsap easement, like the one in Jefferson County,
relates to protections of Navy operations, including testing and
training in legally defined ranges:
“The proposed restrictive easement over the bedlands would
protect these ranges from incompatible development that may limit
the Navy’s ability to use the approved ranges and continue
operations in the future. In addition to the protection of the
Navy’s military operating areas, the proposed easement will provide
new protections for sensitive marine ecosystems.”
I’m not sure where the Navy will go with its next easement
proposal. Work continues on upland properties in some areas. See
reporter Ed Friedrich’s story about a related agreement two years
ago, when the Navy began buying easements in the Dabob Bay area of
(Kitsap Sun, Oct. 8, 2011). Officials are saying almost nothing
about the next steps. But I have seen a map that purportedly shows
the “area of interest” regarding the Navy’s REPI efforts. The area
outlined includes all of Hood Canal and the regions around Indian
Island, Keyport and Bremerton.
For the Jefferson County easement, the DNR issued a
“determination of nonsignificance” during the environmental review.
An appraiser has been hired to estimate the value of the easement
and determine what the Navy should pay the state for lost
Thorndyke Resource, which proposed the pit-to-pier project, has
been pushing for increased environmental review, rather than the
limited review undertaken so far by the DNR. It appears that if the
proposal moves forward, the Navy and DNR are likely to face a
lawsuit from the company.
Here are three recent documents related to the proposed
Jefferson County easement:
An easement requested by the Navy to prevent industrial
development along the western shoreline of Hood Canal appears to be
the first of its kind in Washington state.
One can envision this easement as a strip of underwater area
from the Hood Canal bridge south to a spot just south of the
Jefferson-Mason County line near Eldon, as I described in a
Kitsap Sun story on May 15.
In most areas, the protected bedlands will be defined by their
depths, from 18 feet below the average low tide to 70 feet down.
More than 4,000 acres of state-owned bedlands would be covered by
“The practical effect of the agreement will be to preclude new
near-shore commercial or industrial construction along the areas of
the Hood Canal and neighboring waterways managed by DNR where the
Navy operates,” states a joint press release issued by the
Navy along with the
Washington Department of Natural Resources.
It was quickly recognized that this could mean the end of the
controversial pit-to-pier project for loading gravel onto ships and
barges. If the developer, Thorndyke Resource, is unable to obtain a
state lease for the proposed pier, the project would be dead in the
water. The company, which has been working on the project for
years, does not intend to give up without a fight.
Since the story first came out, the Navy has been preparing to
conduct an appraisal, which will involve hiring an independent
contractor, according to Liane Nakahara, spokeswoman for Navy
Region Northwest. Once the appraisal work begins, it will take at
least a couple months to complete, she said. Then the Navy and DNR
must each approve the appraisal results.
I can’t imagine how difficult it will be to estimate how much
money the state could lose by locking up this strip of underwater
area for decades. If the pit-to-pier project were a certainty, then
it would be easier to figure out how much revenue the state would
lose by blocking that one lease. But what would be the probability
of the pit-to-pier project getting all the required permits if the
easement were not a factor?
What other types of development would be foreclosed by the
Navy’s easement along Hood Canal, and where might these projects be
located? If one could assume that the Jefferson County shoreline of
Hood Canal would never be developed with marinas or piers anyway,
then the loss would be zero and the Navy’s easement would be cheap.
These are the questions that will drive an appraiser crazy.
Nobody doubts the passion that Gov. Chris Gregoire holds for
Puget Sound or that she was instrumental in setting up the Puget
Sound Partnership, which has charted a course for restoration.
But how will the work to protect Puget Sound proceed under a new
It’s an issue that has not been discussed much in the ongoing
governor’s race. (I need to question the candidates on this issue.)
But I had a chance yesterday to chat with the governor over coffee
(she had tea) in the galley of the Coast Guard cutter Sea Devil on
the way to Dabob Bay.
“I created it, so the next governor can uncreate it,” Gregoire
told me simply, a comment I reported in
today’s Kitsap Sun.
Still, she said, the partnership fills a need in coordinating
the work of many government agencies, businesses and private
groups. The effort has increased awareness and provided
accountability needed to bring restoration dollars to the region.
She seemed to be saying that whatever management structure is used,
coordination will remain essential to the effort.
Gregoire filled me in on a story I had never heard before, one
she later repeated for the 15 or so visitors on the boat ride
across Hood Canal. It was about how the Puget Sound Partnership
grew from a spark of an idea that erupted over a lunch with U.S.
Rep. Norm Dicks.
“We were excited and got quite loud, as you can imagine with
Norm Dicks,” she said. “It was quite a shouting match, and everyone
in the restaurant was watching us.”
After that lunch, Gregoire called on Bill Ruckelshaus, former
director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to head a
study commission leading up to formation of the Puget Sound
Partnership, as I reported in today’s story.
Both Gregoire and Dicks will leave office at the end of the
year, and the governor says she is ready to pass the baton to
The reason for yesterday’s boat ride was to celebrate a new
in-lieu-fee mitigation program for Hood Canal, which could be a
model for other parts of Puget Sound and, as some suggested
yesterday, for the entire nation.
The idea is that developers would pay a flat fee rather than
construct a mitigation project on their own. Money could be pooled,
if necessary, to promote significant long-term ecological
The Navy is expected to jump-start the effort with several
million dollars for mitigation of damage from its proposed
$715-million explosives handling wharf to service submarines at
Bangor on Hood Canal.
Rather than rehash all the work that has gone into fashioning
this rare mitigation program, I’ll refer you to my stories and
other sources. One thing to note is that the mitigation plan —
outlined in a document called an “instrument” — includes a complex
accounting system to keep track of the money as well as ecological
debits and credits. It’s all geared to ensure that the
environmental damage from development is fully compensated in
An Associated Press story came out even before the Navy
officially published its environmental impact statement in the
The EIS predicted that 200
deaths and 1,600 instances of hearing loss would be suffered by
marine mammals in the Navy’s testing and training ranges in Hawaii
and California, reported
AP writer Audrey McAvoy.
The old Navy analysis, she said, listed injuries or deaths to
about 100 marine mammals.
It turns out that the causes are multiple and the implications
many, as I reported in a story in
Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.
In both California-Hawaii and the Northwest, the greatest
effects come from the use of sonar and explosives, which the Navy
considers essential to proper training and testing. By far, the
greatest number of injuries and deaths are to dolphins. But the
higher numbers do not mean that the Navy will be changing its
operations to a great degree. If one doesn’t read this carefully,
the higher numbers are easy to get confused.