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Marine mammal facts just drops in the bucket


July 1, 1999
Web posted at: 12:33 p.m. EDT (1633 GMT)

In this story:

Effects on humans

The scientific process


Part II of a three-part series

By Stephanie Siegel
CNN Interactive Copy Editor

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is Part II of a special report examining the concerns among scientists and environmentalists that acoustic "pollution" from underwater sonar projects could degrade the habitats of whales and other marine life.


Because the Navy plans to deploy low-frequency active sonar (LFAS) to detect submarines, it will publish a required Environmental Impact Statement soon in the Federal Register showing the results of experiments on the sonar's impact on whales. The public will have 45 to 60 days to comment.

Another sonar project is holding four public meetings this week in Hawaii. The Acoustic Thermometry of Ocean Climate (ATOC) project is asking to extend its two-year permit to operate low-frequency sonar under the water off Kauai another five years.

Some scientists and environmentalists say the environmental impact studies are too small in scale to show possible long-term effects of the sonar. And the whales may be in danger.

Effects on humans

(CNN) -- The Navy has tested its divers' responses to underwater sound. According to a Navy guidebook, one trained Navy diver suffered dizziness, inability to concentrate and other symptoms after 12 minutes in water with 160-decibel sound. Though he got immediate medical attention, he relapsed after an hour and again the next day. A year or more later, he suffered a seizure and was treated with anti-depressant and anti-seizure drugs.


Message Board: Sonar and marine life

Part 1: 
Low-frequency sonar raises whale advocates' hackles

Part 3: 
Is spreading sonar smart science or overkill?

Air cavities in humans have been found to resonate, or vibrate, in the face at frequencies of 100 hertz and in the chest 20 hertz at 160 decibels. The lower they dive, the higher the frequency they resonate to (so at 30 meters below the surface, the lungs would resonate at 40 hertz, the face at 200, according to an ATOC Environmental Impact Statement).

Scuba diver Jay Murray said he felt his lungs vibrating in August 1994, during the Navy's unannounced Magellan Sea Trials of LFA. No ship was in sight; the digital pulsing vibration, which he said he later taped and measured at 38 hertz, came from beyond the horizon. Other Monterey Bay divers also reported "deep, heartbeat-like thumping" at times from July through November.

Ecotourism guide and naturalist Chris Reid said she was injured by LFAS in March 1998. "I intentionally dove down ... to learn what was driving the dolphins to the surface and causing their very erratic behavior." The dolphins and whales, too, "grouped very tightly together" in a typical defensive behavior, she said. "They were closer to shore than we've ever seen them, and extremely vocal -- a cacophony."

The Navy had said people would be safe five miles away from the ship, Reid said. She thought she was far enough because she could not see the ship. Her physician diagnosed post-traumatic reaction. "She could barely talk, had difficulties in expressing and finding words, expressed dizziness and confusion," Dr. Barbara Schmid was quoted as saying in a document filed as evidence against LFAS.

The scientific process

The Navy's environmental impact project manager, Joe Johnson, did not believe Reid because she had protested against LFAS before her alleged injury. In contrast to her statement, "we've got a very controlled, a peer-reviewed academic medical process," he said, referring to the Navy's diver studies.

Protesters try to disrupt the testing in 1998   

Alexandros Frantzis' 1998 Nature article on a Mediterranean whale stranding that coincided with a NATO test of LFAS also was "not a peer-reviewed study" but was a letter to the editor, Johnson said.

The U.S. Navy started building LFA in the 1980s. The Navy asked Dr. Christopher Clark of Cornell University to listen for any abnormalities in tapes of whales recorded during LFA trials in 1993, he said. There wasn't much he could say without knowing where the whales and ships had been, when the sound was on and off, etc., he said.

Starting in 1994, Clark went along on some sea trials of LFAS to monitor mammal behavior, to see whether whales acted differently when the sound was on than when it was off. The Navy filed Environmental Assessments, while the NRDC pushed for the more extensive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

The Navy prepared the 1997 EIS mammal study once it decided it wanted to deploy LFAS, Johnson said.

This time the scientists documented a series of frequencies (from 160 to 500 hertz, according to Clark) and volumes. The loudest broadcast was about 205 decibels at the source, Johnson said. A whale 1,000 yards away from the ship would then hear about 140 up to 155 decibels, he said. The biologists' order was to keep the whales from being exposed to more than 155 decibels.

Observers onboard watched for whales, and Navy sonar listened for them. One weak point in those methods, Clark agreed, is that "just because you don't hear or see an animal doesn't mean it's not there."

The science team chose animals considered sensitive to low-frequency sound but also accessible and previously studied. The deep-water whales, thought to be more dependent on sound, are also too elusive to study. Humpbacks in the Hawaiian humpback sanctuary were a good choice because they are believed to depend on mating calls to reproduce, Johnson said.


  Listen to humback whale sounds:
A lone male humpback sings his courting song
(549 K/27 sec. audio)

A group of humpback whales vocalize
(934 K/43 sec. audio)

(Courtesy of Magical Island Sounds)

Critics said it was irresponsible to risk that.

U.S. Reps. Patsy Mink and Lynn Woolsey wrote to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which granted permits for LFA research, "The National Humpback Whale sanctuary was created to provide a refuge for these whales. These booms violate the very concept of a sanctuary."

"The sanctuary's role is one of preservation," said Allen Tom, the sanctuary's manager. "After all, why have a sanctuary when there are all these types of experimentations that might harm the animals within our boundary? The public was very outraged that this type of thing occurs here."

Permission to set up ATOC in California's Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary was denied in 1995, and the sound source was stationed farther offshore.

To learn how whales respond to sounds, scientists could have studied shipping noise already out there, or correlated whale strandings with naval operations, said sperm whale biologist Dr. Linda Weilgart, a former postdoctoral student of Clark.

Dr. Hal Whitehead, Weilgart's husband and colleague at Canada's Dalhousie University, studied the numbers in Clark's ATOC reports and reached different conclusions, Weilgart said.

"Whales were clearing out of the inner two-thirds of the study area," Weilgart said. "They're discounting this by saying the average distance when the sound was on is the same as when it was off. They're ignoring the geometry of a circle: You go farther away, the area's bigger. They were clearly avoiding the sound source when it was on."

The ATOC research team did find some differences. Its 1997 report concluded, "Initial results indicated that the mean distances between the ATOC source and blue and humpback whale groups were very slightly different during the experimental and control periods." But it cautioned, "Because other factors such as shipping activity and ambient noise level were not incorporated into the analysis, it is not certain if any observed differences are due to an effect of the ATOC transmissions."

Dr. Joseph Mobley of the University of Hawaii, who conducted aerial surveys to count the whales, said ATOC had no major effect on the observed animals, either in Hawaii or in California. "The trend appears to be undisturbed."

Reports from others of odd whale behavior have been discounted because a relationship to the sonar has not been proven. "Many of the 'observations' made by another group were made either when playbacks were not occurring or when the playback was many tens of miles away," Clark said.

Two humpback whales "made a rare appearance" in Oahu's Pearl Harbor during the test period, according to the Navy's LFA Environmental Impact Statement Web page. This variation in whale behavior was not mentioned in the preliminary research report.

 Public hearings

  Dates and locations of remaining public information meetings on ATOC project:

  • Thursday,
       July 1, 1999, 7-9:30 p.m.
       Hawaii Imin International
       Conference Center
       East-West Center, 2nd Floor,
       Pacific Room
       1777 East-West Road
       Honolulu, Hawaii

      A conference on the ATOC project will also be held and is open to the public:

  • Thursday,
       July 1, 1999, 9 a.m.- noon
       Hawaii Imin International
       Conference Center
       East-West Center, 2nd Floor,
       Pacific Room
       1777 East-West Road
       Honolulu, Hawaii

      Send comments about ATOC to:
       Office of Naval Research
       c/o Kathleen Vigness
       Marine Acoustics, Inc.
       901 Stuart Street, Suite 708
       Arlington, VA 22203

  • In the 1997 LFA test, whale calls decreased 50 percent. But the research team didn't know it until they analyzed the data, Johnson said.

    And he still doesn't know whether that figure is biologically significant.

    A summary from Clark and associate Adam Frankel also said there were no results "indicating that any species shows any biologically significant adverse response to ATOC."

    "Biologically significant" means "something would cause enough of a change in reproductive success that it would lead to a measurable change in a population," Clark explained.

    The studies won't find population differences because they weren't designed to, Weilgart charged. "None of that is being studied by the ATOC and LFA scientists; nothing that would tell us whether the species as a whole is being harmed."

    The Sierra Club made a similar criticism of the research design in a letter to its sponsoring agencies (National Marine Fisheries Service and DoD's Advanced Research Projects Agency) in 1994: "We are dismayed at the lack of clarity over what constitutes a significant impact."

    Whales' birth and death and reproduction rates are still unknown, Weilgart said. "Humpbacks are the most studied whales, and no one has even seen them mate. You need a huge amount of baseline work -- many, many years of studying the same population."

    On that most scientists agree: The puzzle of whale behavior is missing most of its pieces.

    "We have no baseline data on normal behavior in wild cetaceans," said MacDonald Hawley of the Cetacean Freedom Network. "They move around too much. They're hard to see. We have no ability to stay with them long enough in their environment to see what they do."

    Sonar and marine life

    Sea life threatened by noise pollution, report says
    June 28, 1999
    Groups fight Navy's low-frequency sonar
    April 16, 1998
    Scientists, environmentalists clash over whale research
    March 31, 1998
    CNN TravelGuide Destinations: Nature exhibits - Sounds of the sea
    March 1999
    Ocean-monitoring system proposed
    May 18, 1999
    Right whales in the wrong place
    March 4, 1999
    Scientists prepare for humpbacks' survival
    February 26, 1999
    Gray whales slow to start winter migration
    December 22, 1998
    Unsafe sanctuaries: Protection varies at America's marine reserves
    November 25, 1998
    Better stewardship urged for humpbacks
    April 4, 1998
    Researchers: Right whales unusually scarce off Southeast Coast
    February 2, 1999

    Acoustic Thermometry of Ocean Climate (ATOC)
    Low-Frequency Active Environmental Impact Statement
    Natural Resources Defense Council
    Quiet Sea Coalition
    Ocean Mammal Institute
    Magical Island Sounds
    Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary
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