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Scientists, environmentalists clash over whale research

Humpback whales
Humpback whales  

Low-frequency sounds beamed at humpbacks in Hawaii

March 31, 1998
Web posted at: 12:41 a.m. EST (0541 GMT)

KONA, Hawaii (CNN) -- Endangered humpback whales wintering in Hawaiian waters are the subject of an experiment that is pitting environmental groups against researchers.

The humpbacks spend the warmer months in the Gulf of Alaska, but return to Hawaii in the winter where they calve, sing, and play in the warm Hawaiian waters.

Although the whales are a tourist attraction, the island waters are a marine sanctuary and whale-watching boats are required to keep their distance.

Scientists are studying the effects of low-frequency sounds on whales  

The researchers are transmitting low-frequency sounds underwater in the direction of the whales and studying the reactions as recorded on research instruments.

"There's no doubt that at some level sound is harmful," says testing director Joseph Johnson. "The question is, what is that level, and that's part of what we're trying to do here is study the lowest order of behavioral effects of low-frequency sound on marine mammals."

But several environmental groups have tried to stop the experiments in court, and to disrupt them in the water.

Both sides agree whales are highly sensitive to sound, but when it comes to whether the low-frequency transmissions are harmful to them, the two sides are oceans apart.

Researchers say no harm done

CNN's Jim Hill reports from Hawaii
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"The references exist in scientific journals showing that whales avoid these kinds of sounds," says Marsha Green of the Ocean Mammal Institute. "We already have evidence whales can be killed, perhaps, by 195 decibels."

The Navy is paying for the research because it wants to use low-frequency sound to detect submarines, and the researchers say they are taking every precaution not to harm the whales.

"I would never propose an experiment of any kind that I thought could possibly harm a whale," says professor Chris Clark of Cornell University.

Protesters try to disrupt the testing  

Scientists say that early results show that no apparent harm is being done, and that the whales typically sing right through the sounds.

But protesters say the sounds have driven whales away and caused strange behavior.

"It seems as though the whales are much more engaged in surface activity," says Chris Reid, one of the protesters.

"We'll look very carefully at these data and see if there is any statistical difference between their behavior when we're transmitting," says professor Kurt Fristrup of Cornell. "But at the moment there's no obvious feature that stands out."

Correspondent Jim Hill contributed to this report.

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