Earlier this month reports of mass strandings of pilot whales in the Everglades were particularly heartbreaking. Eleven whales died and dozens more were trapped in shallow waters. After days of trying to help the whales, rescue crews showed up one morning and couldn’t find them, which suggests that they may have found a way to return to open waters (either that or they were beamed up by aliens). At least for me, there aren’t many images as heartbreaking as ones of these majestic creatures flopping around in the shallows. These strandings are more common than they used to be, at least in part, scientists think, due to the military’s use of sonar. Despite that, the U.S. Navy has announced plans to step up their sonar testing over the next five years.
Some species of whales, such as beaked whales and blue whales, are extremely sensitive to sonar. Studies conducted in Southern California noted that these whale species, both of which are endangered, stop feeding and flee when they hear recordings that mimic sonar. Scientists were surprised to learn that blue whales are so sensitive to sonar — given their enormous size, scientists figured that high-pitched sounds wouldn’t affect them, but that’s not the case. Given that whales and dolphins communicate via sonar, it makes sense that they’d be able to pick up all kinds of frequencies.
Recent research involved the painstaking locating and tagging of whales (particularly the beaked whales, which are notoriously shy). Biologists from Stanford used sonar levels that aren’t as strong as the Navy’s, and they generated pretty definitive results. The frantic fleeing from the sounds drives some whales (and dolphins) into shallow and/or unknown water where they may become disoriented or beached. Further research suggests that sonar causes long-term stressed in marine mammals that affects their eating, swimming, and communication patterns, possibly because the intensity of the sonar deafens the animals.
Even though the Navy funded the five-year research project to understand the effects of sonar on marine mammals, they have decided to step up their use of sonar, primarily for training purposes. The California Coastal Commission also gave the thumbs-down to the Navy’s plan for increased testing off the Southern California coast, but it can’t actually block Navy drills, and the Navy has ignored their recommendations in the past. The planned activities also involve detonations, which the Navy believes could kill hundreds of whales and dolphins and injure thousands, if not millions, more. The report predicts that up to 27 million instances of behavioral changes might result from the Naval exercises.
Given that the Navy won’t simply terminate these exercises, some scientists think the best solution is to create safe zones, like wildlife sanctuaries. Others think the Navy should move their sonar testing to the desert. While those are absolutely reasonable ideas, I don’t know that the Navy will rethink their strategy until the Kaiju get pissed off enough.