Tag Archives: Navy sonar

‘Sonic Sea’ movie takes us to the underwater world of sound

“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.

Michael Jasny
Michael Jasny

“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.”

Ken Balcomb
Ken Balcomb

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.”

Chris Clark
Chris Clark

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 greater degree.

“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.

‘War of the Whales’ : A discussion with author Joshua Horwitz

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.”

Joshua Horwitz
Joshua Horwitz

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 into perspective.

“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 said.

“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 ranges.”

As recently as April, a mass stranding of beaked whales was observed during a training exercise involving the U.S., Greek and Israeli navies. Check out a report by Greek Reporter and a blog post by Michael Jasny of Natural Resources Defense Council.


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 said.

“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 marine mammals.

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.

“War of the Whales” can be ordered from the Center for Whale Research, which gets a share of the proceeds, or visit the book’s webpage, “War of the Whales.”

‘War of the Whales’ :
My take on the book by Joshua Horwitz

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 world.


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 whales.

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 describes it.

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 success.

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.

Joel Reynolds, left, and Ken Balcomb at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, September 2013. Photo by Joshua Horwitz
Joel Reynolds, left, and Ken Balcomb at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, September 2013.
Photo by Joshua Horwitz

“Ken was such an extraordinary character,” Horwitz told me in a telephone interview. “He was a reluctant activist. Activism wasn’t Ken’s thing.”

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 whales.”

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 life.

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 the book.

“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 retired officers.

“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 life.

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 book can be ordered from the Center for Whale Research, which gets a share of the proceeds, or visit the book’s webpage, “War of the Whales.”

Environmental groups will boycott Navy meetings

A dozen environmental groups say they will boycott the nine “scoping meetings” the Navy is holding to kick off a new round of studies regarding testing and training activities in the Northwest.

In a letter dated March 13 (PDF 16 kb), the groups said the format of the meetings is not designed to encourage public discussion or even allow public comment. In addition, the Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have ignored ongoing calls for the Navy to better protect marine wildlife and the environment along the Washington Coast and other biologically important areas, they say.

Navy's Northwest testing and training ranges. Click to enlarge.
Map by U.S. Navy

The Navy will seek a new permit from NOAA for the incidental harassment of marine mammals during testing and training activities. Most of the activities are identical to what is taking place now, but some new activities are added — including the testing of sonar from ships docked at piers.

Between now and 2015, Navy officials will describe and study the effects of various activities on marine life and update existing mitigation with new research findings. See my initial story in the Kitsap Sun, Feb. 27, and a related post in Water Ways, March 6. Also, you may review the official notice in the Federal Register.

Back to the letter, which states in part:

“As you know, the scoping process is the best time to identify issues and provide recommendations to agencies on what should be analyzed in the EIS. However, a process developed for activities with controversial impacts, like those at issue here, that does not provide opportunity for the public to testify or speak to a broader audience, or to hear answers to questions raised by others, and that fails to engage major population centers is not designed to help citizens and organizations effectively participate in agencies’ environmental reviews.”

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Navy sonar use stirs commotion among whale advocates

Concerns about the Navy’s use of sonar Tuesday night in the Strait of Juan de Fuca are reverberating among environmental groups, whale advocates and researchers.

USS San Francisco leaves Bremerton Tuesday // Kitsap Sun photo
USS San Francisco leaves Bremerton Tuesday // Kitsap Sun photo

Many are wondering whether killer whales and other marine mammals may have been injured by the intense sounds — including human voices —emanating from the recently repaired fast-attack submarine USS San Francisco.

From what I gather, there is talk about calling for an official investigation into the Navy’s activity, perhaps with input the National Marine Fisheries Service. More discussion is expected tonight at a public forum called by whale advocates concerned about an expansion of Navy training activities. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. at Port Townsend Community Center, 620 Tyler St.

Meanwhile, Val Veirs, professor emeritus of physics at Colorado College, has calculated that the highest levels of sound received at Lime Kiln Lighthouse on San Juan Island was about 140 decibels, according to a press release issued this afternoon by The Whale Museum. Veirs is president of the board for The Whale Museum.

“The received levels of the signals at Lime Kiln Lighthouse were about the most intense sounds that the hydrophones there have recorded in the past several years of continuous operation,” Veirs said a written statement.

The sonar pings were about as intense as those recorded in May 2003, when the Navy’s guided missile destroyer USS Shoup moved through Haro Strait, Veirs said.

Biologists observing killer whales at that time believe that the animals responded to the sound by moving away at a rapid pace. As a result of that incident, the Navy changed its protocols on the use of sonar.

I have requested additional information from the Navy about operations by the USS San Francisco, including general mitigation measures that the Navy takes when using sonar around marine mammals. Navy officials have indicated that the crew took the normal precautions to protect marine mammals.

For those still wondering about the strange human voice emanating through the water, you can start finding answers with this brief entry in Wikipedia:

The underwater telephone also known as UQC or Gertrude was developed by the U.S. Navy after World War II, the UQC underwater telephone is used on all manned submersibles in operation. Voices communicated through the UQC are heterodyned to a high pitch for acoustic transmission through water.

Based upon the Navy’s acknowledgment that crews were operating sonar in the Strait of Juan de Fuca but not Haro Strait, Veirs made additional calculations of the sound energy that must have emanated from the sub.

“We estimate that the distance between our hydrophone at Lime Kiln Lighthouse and the submarine was in the neighborhood of 10 nautical miles,” Veirs said. “For our hydrophones to pick up the strong signals that they did, the submarine was emitting sound with source level in the range of 174 to 226 dB re 1 microPa@1m.”

I’ll look to others to report on definitive studies and tell me whether these sound levels can cause injury under the circumstances we find in Puget Sound. But I seem to recall the levels reported by Veirs are worthy of concern. See “NOAA Technical Memorandum: Sound Exposure and Southern Resident Killer Whales (PDF 884 kb).”

While The Whale Museum has received no reports of stranded or injured marine mammals, the organization wants the public to be on alert and contact the San Juan County Marine Mammal Stranding Network, (800) 562-8832, if unusual behavior is seen.

Howard Garrett of Orca Network offered this response to a comment related to the previous entry about the sonar incident.

“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…”

Obviously, this discussion will continue.

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, cdunagan@kitsapsun.com.

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.