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The Navy Doesn’t Really Want to Kill Whales


The case of the United States Navy Sonar tests vs. exploding and beached whales has managed to hit the Supreme Court! "The whole point of the armed forces," said Justice Stephen Breyer while debating it two weeks ago, "is to hurt the environment." The court is leaning towards overturning the judgments of several district courts, who have previously ruled that the Navy must curtail its mid-frequency sonar tests that blow up the heads of certain species of whales.

The Navy supposedly wants to destroy the environment? Anyone who has looked at the history of the U.S. military and cetaceans knows that whales and dolphins are worth far more to our national security alive than dead. Only years of close military experiments with dolphins and belugas taught us that sonar could be used for human communication. The beautiful, grand songs of humpback whales were first discovered by Navy sonar operators. The rhythmic clicks of sperm whales may function like a complex Morse code that military signal-processing specialists are just beginning to figure out. The subsonic great booms of giant blue and fin whales can travel across entire oceans in less than an hour. Every kind of whale has their own mysterious use of acoustic communication, and the Navy has always funded much of the research to understand how they sing and speak to one another.

After building a giant listening system of underwater microphones, called the SOSUS hydrophone array, the Navy, under a bill introduced by Ted Kennedy and Sam Nunn, turned over years of underwater recordings to a group of whale scientists at led by Chris Clark at Cornell University in 1993. After the end of the Cold War, there wasn't much to listen to deep down except these amazing whale sounds. The legions of Russian submarines never materialized; we realized the Navy had mostly been listening to the sounds of "biologicals" for decades.

Is the Navy's directive really to kill whales? Of course not, as so much has been learned by closely listening to and monitoring these animals, and the military continues to do so today. No smart army will eliminate some of its best sources of information and expertise.

In recent years the Navy has been testing new midrange frequencies that clearly damage certain rare species of beaked whales, by giving them a sometimes fatal form of the bends. Who knows what we might learn from these deep diving, elusive creatures if we study them alive rather than killing them for no reason except an unwillingness to adjust some tests to mitigate some unwanted consequences?

It will be a challenge to figure out how and where to conduct mid-frequency sonar tests in ways that will not continue to kill and disorient whales. These are not incidental casualties of war that can't be avoided, but inadvertent consequences of tests that can be prevented by improving the tests. The Supreme Court should encourage the Navy to work towards a viable solution to this problem, the kind of solutions that all previous courts to hear related cases have agreed to. They ought to uphold the sensible judgments that have previously been handed down on this issue.

Can the highest court in our land really believe that the military exists to destroy what is dear to most Americans: our land, our oceans, all our creatures? We can't learn any sonar secrets from dead whales, only live ones. And Judge Breyer, I thought the point of the armed forces was to safeguard the peace, not to kill off some of our most trusted sources of knowledge, and of beauty.

There is so much more we can learn from whales if we take them seriously. Even some branched of the Navy know that. Strange that the Supreme Court does not.

Image by Michael Dawes, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

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