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The Sound and the Fury: Sonar Testing and Whales

From November 2007 to May 2008, a national tragedy will be played out in the shallow, tranquil blue waters of the Hawaiian Islands. That's when the U.S. Navy will be conducting undersea warfare exercises within the Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary in Hawaii.

These planned sonar exercises are in total disregard of at least four federal environmental laws and come just when endangered humpbacks inhabit waters to give birth and nurse their young.

This high-intensity, mid-frequency active sonar will emit blasts at levels that have already been associated with mass whale strandings, brain hemorrhages, and death. Whales in deep water have reacted by rising to the surface too quickly to escape the piercing sounds, and have died from conditions not unlike "the bends."

Unspeakable Harm

Since the late 1990s, the use of military sonar has been associated with whale strandings. We have already seen its tragic consequences in Hawaii, Greece, the Bahamas, the Canary Islands, the northwest coast of the U.S., and Spain.

Experts agree that there's no doubt that exposure to sonar blasts can cause serious injury or death to whales, caused by hemorrhages or other tissue trauma. Necropsies performed on whales stranded in the Bahamas and the Canary Islands revealed hemorrhaging around the brain and in other organs, most likely due to acoustic trauma from the use of high intensity sonar.

For their Hawaii exercises, the Navy itself has acknowledged that its sonar will reach whales at levels up to 235 dB -- that's a hundred thousand times more intense than the levels at which the whales stranded in the Bahamas.

Watch this video to see how sonar testing affects marine mammals:


What Needs to be Done -- Right Now -- to Protect Them

Earthjustice wants the Navy to stop using sonar until it can avoid serious injury to marine mammals. But short of that, there are still several things the Navy can do to minimize the harm to these magnificent creatures:

  • Impose seasonal & geographical limitations
  • Avoid nursing areas
  • Ramp sonar up slowly
  • Avoid areas that were created specifically to protect endangered marine life
  • Create a 25-mile safe haven distance from shorelines
  • Avoid steep-sloping seamounts that provide important habitat for many marine species
  • Prohibit/restrict testing at night or other times of low visibility
  • Adopt protocols similar to those of other naval forces to minimize the impact on marine wildlife

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