Human voice heard underwater last night in San Juans

UPDATE: Wednesday 8:15 p.m.

Navy spokeswoman Sheila Murray received confirmation this evening that the fast-attack submarine USS San Francisco, accompanied by a surface ship, was operating its sonar last night as it passed through the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The sub was conducting “required training dives” and did not enter Haro Strait, she said. The Navy undertakes precautions to protect marine mammals, she noted.

The voices heard on the hydrophones were from an underwater communication system between the ship and the submarine, she explained.

I have requested additional details, including the precise precautions that Navy personnel took to protect transient killer whales that may have been in the area.

Original post:
I have asked a Navy public affairs officer to help me track down an unusual incident involving a human voice heard underwater last night in Haro Strait near the San Juan Islands.

Val Veirs, who operates hydrophones in the San Juan Islands, picked up odd sounds that he and his computerized monitoring system have never heard in at least seven years of operation.

As best as anyone can tell, the sounds consist of a human voice interspersed with loud sonar pings.

      1. Click here for one of many sound files that Val saved.

“I have never heard anything like this before,” Val told me this morning. “I have computer codes that try to reject the usual things. The Shoup came out of that, and these programs are getting better at discriminating unusual sounds. They were telling us last night that this was something very different.”

Val, currently president of the board for The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, was the person who added scientific credibility to the loud pinging caused by the Navy destroyer USS Shoup as it passed through Haro Strait in 2002. Biologists on the water at the time reported that killer whales seemed to be fleeing from the sound. Since then, Navy ships are required to receive permission from fleet commanders before operating sonar in Puget Sound.

If anyone has specific or general information about the kind of sounds heard last night, please comment on this blog or send me an e-mail,

During last night’s incident, Val said he went outside, where he has a clear view through Haro Strait. He says he is more than 90 percent sure that no surface ships were operating in the area.

“The sounds were filling the deep waters of Haro Strait, from one end to the other — and there was no visible source,” he told me.

Unlike the Shoup, which moved on through the Strait, Val said he could hear the strange sounds on two distant hydrophones, and they seemed to be moving back and forth in the channel.

Meanwhile, Jeanne Hyde of Friday Harbor, a frequent listener to the online Salish Sea Hydrophone Network said she heard the sounds and began making phone calls.

“I contacted the Bellingham Coast Guard Station and they called back and said it was the Navy, and it was a submarine,” Hyde said in an e-mail. “This was sonar all night, up until the last I was listening until 4:30 this morning.”

One of the concerns among whale observers is that transient orcas were seen in the area two days ago yesterday afternoon. Of course, the Navy is supposed to follow procedures to make sure marine mammals are not within a range where sonar could harm them.

Reports from Scott Veirs, Val’s son, and Jeanne Hyde, can be read on their respective blogs.

Fred Felleman, Northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth, points out that this unusual incident comes in the midst of the Navy’s effort to expand its training operations off the Washington Coast. See the Navy’s Web site for details.

“If the Navy wants to maintain their operations here, let alone expand them, then they should contribute information,” Felleman said.

Felleman has made the point many times that the Navy surely has a wealth of information that could add to the science about marine mammals, but the Navy keeps its information under wraps in the name of national security.

23 thoughts on “Human voice heard underwater last night in San Juans

  1. Two additions to this report on the bizzarly timed sonar and voice transmissions in Haro Strait last night:
    First, there were transient orcas aplenty in or near Haro Strait as of yesterday afternoon. As reported by Orca Network…

    April 7
    Jeff LaMarche called Orca Network at 11:20 am to report ~ 6 Transient orcas 2.5 miles SE of East Sooke Park, S. Vancouver Island, taking a Steller Sea Lion. So far, ID’s included 4 T30’s, T172 & possibly T38.

    April 7
    At about 11 AM Tuesday, April 7, While working as Lighthouse Keepers for a week at New Dungeness Spit Lighthouse, Karla Harrison saw a group of four orcas in Dungeness Bay at approximately N48.17974 W123.10975, directly south of the lighthouse and about 100 yards off the beach.
    Mike Marsh

    We forwarded the photos sent with this report on to researchers, and heard this back from Mark Malleson:
    My guess is T14 (captured in 1976 and released with radio tag) with the T49A’s as they were headed that direction last night. The fin shape is right for T14.
    Mark Malleson, Victoria B.C.

    April 7
    Bob Whitney of Port Townsend called Orca Network with an interesting whale report this afternoon – at 2:30 pm he sighted a Minke whale, a Gray whale, and 1 female Orca in Admiralty Inlet, off Pt. Wilson, NW of Port Townsend.

    And second, this incident will be discussed in a public forum to be held Thursday evening in Port Townsend, 7:30 pm at the Community Center, 620 Tyler St., about the Navy’s NW Training Range Expansion Environmental Impact Statement. The comment period on this expansion of sonar and live munitions training to include Admiralty Inlet and Strait of Juan de Fuca as well as the coasts of Washington and Oregon and No. California, ends April 13. Presenters will include Michael Jasny of NRDC, Fred Felleman of Friends of the Earth, Kyle Loring of Friends of the San Juans, and myself, Howard Garrett of Orca Network.

  2. I was the one listening all night long and at one point the really loud sonar pings were occurring every 10 minutes. Please listen to these sounds as they are very disturbing, but sure to turn your volume down on your computer. Please read my blog and the others above to get a real understanding of what occurred. I logged it in minute by minute as it occurred.

  3. Lets put two and two together eh?

    From the front page of todays Kitsap Sun.

    “USS San Francisco Leaves Bremerton After Long Stay”

    Hmmm… coincidence?

  4. The USS San Francisco left Bremerton yesterday, mid morning, could have been them testing out their new un-smashed Bow Sonar array.

  5. It sounds like underwater comms (aka: WQC, Gertrude, UW telephone, etc.) between two sources. Possibly a submarine or a surface vessel with a portable underwater comms unit.

    Nothing too sinister about it, although, from years of experience, I doubt that a US submarine would be operating in the Haro Strait submerged. For one, the Strait straddles the US/Canadian border and a quick look of the chart shows why submerged navigation is not the answer. The sound may have been coming from further south in the SOJ/Eastern/Hein Bank area through a sound channel.

    Other sources could be diving ops in the area, research vessels, Canadian operations, etc. Lots of different answers but nothing to get scared about. Those are familiar sounds for those who have served on submarines or have been involved in other underwater comms.

  6. I don’t see the whales fleeing from whale watching boats or boaters in general, but when the Navy comes through, they are obviously distressed. But which group do the powers to be regulate and harass? What a crock!

  7. Funny…m. jackson thinks they’re fish. Please, m. jackson, do yourself a favor and look up the definition of ‘fish’, ‘orca’, and ‘human’, then note something 2 of these have in common.

  8. Whats so significant about underwater communications and sonar pings being heard? Why are you people making such a big deal about this, seriously? I understand your concern for the sea life in the area however I feel that the majority of you dont truly understand the reasoning behind the use of this technology and how it is REQUIRED to safely operate a submarine. Ever try driving your car blindfolded? So say you guys “Win” and the Navy stops using active sonar pings; who is to blame when they accidently have a collision at sea? What if that collision at sea happens to take some human life? Sure, if you are close to the source of the noise, its going to be loud. It wont kill you. Its one hell of an anoyance I am sure… but I would rather annoy some sea life than lose the lives of those who are defending my freedom or innocent civilians out enjoying the beautifull scenery our area has to offer.

    Theres nothing sinister about this. Just a Submarine testing its repaired equipment. Equipment that saves their lives, others lives, and in the long run.. maybe your life.

  9. OK, first off–if the Navy was indeed operating in the Strait of Juan de Fuca as claimed, why the discrepancy in the recordings on the arrays. At one point, the strongest returns were being picked up by the Lime Kiln array. Shortly thereafter, the hydrophone at Orcasound (nearer to Kellett Bluff on Henry Island) was the stronger signal carrier. Then orcasound faded and Lime Kiln grew stronger again.

    Even more worrisome, if these recording (of which I submitted several) were of naval ships operating out in the Straits, how loud were the pings at the locus of sound? There were multiple reports of transients near and around Race Rocks just 2 hours before the start of operations by the naval ships. It would only have taken the Navy a minute to call Orca Network, The Center for Whale Research, or even just scan the VHF for whale watch vessels talking to each other to discover that whales were in the area. Not to mention all the porpoises, gray whales, and minke whales that are all in the area right now.

    Ships can operate without the use of mid-frequency sonar. Contrary to what Nonya states, the use of sonar is not required to safely operate a submarine. With today’s modern technology, military ships can fix their locations within a few feet. And no, mid-frequency is not just an annoyance–It kills. It’s not just loud. Try 250db loud. Enough to burst eardrums, and in a cetacean, that leads to disorientation and death. Those of us listening into the hydrophones had the ability to turn down the volume when the pinging started. The whales and other cetaceans don’t have that ability.

    I have the utmost of respect for those who serve and put their lives on the line to protect my freedoms. But this was another example of an avoidable mistake on the part of the Navy operating in a sensitive marine ecosystem. Next time Navy–make the call before you start blasting your sonar.

  10. The fact the sonar was taking place in the Strait of Juan de Fuca rather than Haro Strait is even more disturbing because 1) that is where the reports of Transients, a minke, & 2 gray whales were; & 2) if the sonar was happening in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, & it was being picked up so loudly at Lime Kiln & NW San Juan Island, then it must have been much louder closer to the source in the Strait…

  11. Okay, lets take a few things into consideration as I attempt to answer some of your questions Mr. Johnny B. I dont know of any descrepancies noted within the array recordings. The fact that the stronger signal shifted to different arrays doesnt mean anything. you can attribute that to a number of things such as beam width, direction, signal strength transmitted, water salinity and density..

    Sonar IS REQUIRED for safe operation of a Submarine. Surface ships have the ability to fix their position within a few feet however Submarines can only do that when they are on the surface and recieving GPS. Sonar’s primary function is not to Navigate on anyways, its to ensure that you dont run into anything bad (Such as the many container ships that utilize the straits or small pleasure craft).

    I am not arguing the fact that it CAN do damage… anything can. Be it in the water or your neighbors kids car. The point is that if you have 2 risks; one to possibly injure a whale… one to possibly injure 160 men who put their lives on the line every day to protect our freedoms: Which one do you think we should chose? Clearly neither is acceptable… but you HAVE to chose one… You cant just say.. Oh, no more Sonar. It doesnt yet work that way. Come up with a viable solution and people will listen instead of calling foul and jumping up and down.

    The Navy shouldnt (And does not) require citizens permission to utilize sonar for legitimate purposes. In this case, the testing of a freshly repaired Submarine is more than a just reason. Look up the USS San Fancisco history… look at the pictures and see what could have been avoided had they been using this active sonar that you so greatly despise.

    No one likes the possiblity that marine life COULD be harmed. We could just as easily (Probably with about the same percentage of occurance I would be willing to bet) accidently RAM into a whale, but I dont hear anyone saying “Dont patrol our waters because you might slam into a living creature”. Its a calculated risk assesment and when it comes to Human life verses Animal life, animals lose.

    We should focus our attention on developing new technology and or methods that benefit both sides of the argument instead of watching the Navy and waiting to cry foul. Just my 2 cents.

  12. Nonya, I will agree with you on one point–there has to be better technology that will allow submarines to do what they do without causing harm to marine life.

    But let’s make a few things clear—active sonar is NOT required for safe navigation by submarines. Ballistic submarines for example don’t even have active sonar! Submarines have several ways to determine location without the use of any sonar–they can get a GPS fix prior to submerging, they can rely on their inertial guidance systems, and when entering/exiting ports, many times submarines will rely on pilot vessels to guide them through. When submerged, submarines can use their gyrocompasses to get a location fix. In the case of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where water depth is more than adequate to avoid any surface ships, they can also utilize bottom contour mapping using hydrographic data.

    In this particular case, a surface vessel was in attendance with the submarine. So the use of active sonar to detect any vessels in the area was not required. The submarine was in regular contact with the surface vessel as evidenced by the communications picked up between the two vessels.

    The important point to take from all the uproar about this is simple–the Navy has the ability to easily confirm the presence of marine mammals, whether they be harbor porpoise, minke whales, gray whales, transient orcas, or the recently listed Southern Resident Orca Whale (on the Endangered Species list). Yet the Navy hasn’t had the best record of behavior in this regard. 2003, the USS Shoup repeatedly used mid-frequency sonar with whales in view of their vessel. In 2005, a Naval helicopter hovered so low over a group of orcas for a photo op with a guest on their helicopter that the rotors were creating a mini-storm on the water.

  13. Do you people really think these Sailors don’t care about marine mammals? Do you really believe they want to negatively impact this environment that they share with you, AND their family and friends? Do you really think they are unfeeling robots, the same people willing to risk their lives unconditionally, day in and day out for ALL of us- no questions asked? We would all love to live in a world where there was no greed, and we all got along. I’m disappointed that some of you feel the risks already taken for us aren’t enough. You have the rights you do, because these men and women protect those rights. Any military person reading this, THANK YOU for all you do for me and my family and friends.

  14. Johnny B., obviously, your knowledge of submarines is limited:

    “But let’s make a few things clear—active sonar is NOT required for safe navigation by submarines. Ballistic submarines for example don’t even have active sonar! Submarines have several ways to determine location without the use of any sonar–they can get a GPS fix prior to submerging, they can rely on their inertial guidance systems, and when entering/exiting ports, many times submarines will rely on pilot vessels to guide them through. When submerged, submarines can use their gyrocompasses to get a location fix. In the case of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where water depth is more than adequate to avoid any surface ships, they can also utilize bottom contour mapping using hydrographic data.”

    Just some clarification from someone who actually understands and has practiced submarine navigation:

    – All submarines, including the Ohio class, do have a piece of active sonar. It is called the fathometer.

    – Submarines do not use “pilot vessels” to exit/enter the Strait.

    – Gyrocompasses do not fix a submarines posistion.

    – Bottom contour mapping requires the use of a fathometer as well as updated chart information, which is aquired best by using side-scan sonar from survey vessels.

    – the area that submarines conduct post overhaul sea trials is not so deep and avoidance of surface vessels in that area as well as the entire Strait is paramount.

    – This area has been used by submarines for many, many decades. The first time I used it was in 1983.

  15. Jim C, thank you! Johnny B I wish you had a better understanding of how sumbarines really work. I get the impression that your experience of Navigation at sea is very limited. ALL submarines do have active sonar. As I stated before in a previous post (which you seemed to have missed time and time again) Sonar’s primary purpose is NOT for navigation. Its to prevent the submarine from running into anything unexpected.

    A GPS fix is only good for as long as you are recieveing the signal. Once you submerge you must rely on your Gyro and your Dead Reckoning to Navigate. Now neither of those will tell you when you are too close to a foriegn object… only Sonar can do that. Quit confusing the reason the Navy uses sonar.

  16. I think the most important point Johhny B is trying to make is that there were whales nearby which DO get hurt by mid-range sonar pings in close proximity. The Navy could easily have found out there were several cetaceans close by, but they CHOSE not to.

    This test could have been rescheduled or moved to a place or time that would allow for the San Fran to test her new sonar without blasting out the eardrums of the whales.

    It’s not a question of sailors vs. whales; we all want our brave servicemembers to be safe as they do their jobs. It’s a question of when the powers that be in the Navy are going to start respecting the sea life in the waters they patrol.

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