Whale Stranding in N.C. Followed Navy Sonar Use

Military Says Connection to Death of 37 Animals Is 'Unlikely'

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2005; Page A03

At least 37 whales beached themselves and died along the North Carolina
shore earlier this month soon after Navy vessels on a deep-water training
mission off the coast used powerful sonar as part of the exercise.

Although the Navy says any connection between the strandings and its active
sonar is "unlikely" -- because the underwater detection system was used
more than 200 miles from where the whales beached themselves -- it is
cooperating with other federal agencies probing a possible link. Government
fisheries officials, as well as activists for whales, say the fact that
three species of whales died in the incident suggests that sonar may have
been the cause.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists "are looking at
all the possible causes of this stranding, which was a significant one,"
spokeswoman Connie Barclay said. Although the number of whales that came
ashore is far from a record for mass strandings, Barclay said that "it's
very curious to have three different kinds of whales strand, and a number
of possible causes are being examined. Sonar is certainly one of them."

The possible connection between naval sonar and the deaths of whales and
other marine mammals has become an increasingly controversial issue since
the Navy acknowledged that the loud blasts of its sonar helped cause a mass
stranding of whales in the Bahamas in 2000. Since then, critics have
accused the Navy of involvement in numerous mass strandings in U.S. and
international waters, and federal environmental officials have concluded in
some instances that the loud pulses from active sonar cannot be ruled out
as a cause.

The North Carolina strandings could be especially problematic for the Navy
because it hopes to establish a 500-square-nautical-mile underwater sonar
testing range off that coast. The Navy says a draft environmental impact
statement is near completion, and officials have said the range is a high

Most of the animals that died in the latest incident were pilot whales,
which stranded around the Oregon Inlet of the Outer Banks on Jan. 15. One
newborn minke whale also beached at Corolla that day, and two dwarf sperm
whales came ashore at Buxton on Jan. 16, locations about 60 miles north and
south of the inlet. Six of the pilot whales were pregnant when they died,
Barclay said.

None of the three whale species is considered endangered, though NOAA
officials say their populations are relatively small and little understood
in the Atlantic. But other endangered marine animals -- including right and
humpback whales and numerous species of sea turtles -- regularly migrate
through the waters off North Carolina.

Navy officials said that the USS Kearsarge Expeditionary Strike Group,
based in Norfolk, was conducting an anti-submarine exercise about 240
nautical miles from the Oregon Inlet on Jan. 14 and 15.

In e-mailed answers to questions, the Navy said a review of activities
after following the strandings concluded that "no Navy ships were using
active sonar within 50 nautical miles radius" of the inlet on Jan. 15 or
the four days preceding -- although one ship not associated with the strike
group did use sonar for seven minutes about 90 nautical miles
south-southeast of Oregon Inlet. The strike group was on its way to a
deployment after the training exercise, the Navy said.

Sonar acts as the underwater eyes and ears of the Navy, and intermittent
bursts are often used in transit to detect potential enemies and other
dangers. In addition, Navy officials increasingly believe that inexpensive
quiet submarines from hostile nations pose a potential threat and want to
upgrade sonar tracking systems to protect against intrusions into U.S.
coastal waters. The Navy now uses mid-frequency sonar for its tracking but
wants to deploy a new generation of low-frequency sonar that travels much
farther underwater and is more powerful.

The Navy has sometimes been slow to acknowledge that its ships were in an
area where strandings occurred and has accepted responsibility only in the
Bahamas event. Environmental activists said that track record makes them
skeptical of the Navy's statements about the North Carolina strandings.

"The circumstances are troubling," said Michael Jasny, a lawyer for the
Natural Resources Defense Council, which has sued the Navy on other
sonar-related issues. "After so many whale deaths caused by sonar, these
latest strandings are a red flag. . . . Unfortunately, the Navy has a long
history of denial."

The Outer Banks area is close to the Norfolk base and on the general course
to where the exercises were held.

Most of the stranded whales were dead when they were found, and NOAA
scientists are conducting necropsies of many of the animals to try to
determine a cause of death. Although pilot whales travel in herds and are
prone to strandings, the other two whale species are not, officials said.

Pilot and dwarf sperm whales are both deep-diving animals that feed off the
ocean floor and slopes of the continental shelf. The other whale strandings
linked to sonar use have also involved deep-diving species, such as the
beaked whale. Researchers have theorized that the loud sounds of sonar can
damage the whales' sensitive hearing system and cause them to surface too
quickly from fright. After another stranding off the Canary Islands in
2002, researchers found unusual gas bubbles in some whale organs -- leading
them to conclude that the animals suffered from a form of decompression
sickness similar to the bends.

The Navy's plan for an East Coast underwater sonar testing range was first
announced in 1996. Since then, the plan has been discussed internally and
work on an environmental impact statement has proceeded, with some input
from NOAA.

A Navy spokesman said last year that a final decision had not been made on
where to locate the test site. But in April, the Atlantic Division of the
Naval Facilities Engineering Command said in a statement: "The Navy's
preferred site for the range is in the Cherry Point Operating Area located
in Onslow Bay, southeast of New River, North Carolina, and approximately
105 km (57 nautical miles) from the North Carolina shoreline."

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