Thursday, March 12, 1998

The sound and the fury

The Navy's testing of sonar on
humpback whales off the Big Island
has prompted an outcry

By Rod Thompson

AT SEA OFF WAIKOLOA, Hawaii -- Humpback whales typically don't react at all when subjected to loud underwater sounds during studies of a new Navy sonar system in west Hawaii waters, says Cornell University biologist Christine Gabriele.

She described the behavior of a particular male whale that was "singing" as the research vessel Cory Chouest sailed by at a distance of a third of a mile while playing the sounds.

"What did the whale do? It kept on singing," she said.

Some environmental groups, including Greenpeace Hawaii, have criticized the studies, which began at the end of last month and continue through this month.

They say the studies pose unacceptable dangers for the whales.

A federal judge in Honolulu has declined to stop the experiment, as sought by environmentalists, saying the Navy's need to develop antisubmarine technology outweighs the need to halt the tests involving whales.

The Navy and Cornell scientists opened their research ship to a tour yesterday to demonstrate that they are being environmentally responsible.

"If we don't conduct experiments like this, we'll be ignorant," said Cornell biologist Kurt Fristrup. "I don't think ignorance serves the environment."

"None of us in the science team would be here if we thought there was any serious chance of environmental damage," he said.

Cornell scientists proposed the studies to see if the Navy's new low-frequency active sonar is safe for whales.

The sonar will use a sound that is about 200 decibels when measured one yard from its source. Officials spent much of yesterday's tour explaining what that number means.

For one thing, no whale would get within just one yard of the underwater speakers. Scientists spend four hours every morning with listening devices trailing as much as two miles behind the ship. They pinpoint where whales are before any tests start, Gabriele said.

Spotters with binoculars watch on deck for any whales that slip past the listening devices.

When the whales are known to be at a safe distance, scientists slowly "ramp up" the sounds, Gabriele said.

No animal is exposed to more than 155 decibels, said Joe Johnson, program manager for the sonar project.

That's about equivalent to the noise of a car on a highway, according to his chart, which converts underwater sound levels to on-land levels. If a whale comes close, the experiment is shut down.

Gabriele said the sounds made by the researchers are similar to the songs male whales sing.

And the whales sing them as loud as 170 decibels, about as loud as an air compressor, according to Johnson's chart.

Most of the time, the humpbacks don't show any reaction to the man-made sounds. "No change is the typical response," Gabriele said.

Occasionally there is a different response, such as the whale that stopped singing and swam off to join another group, Fristrup said. But the whale may have been done with his song and wanted to socialize, he said.

And in some cases, the whales have moved closer to the ship when the sounds are played.

Some environmentalists have said there is no need for the current studies, because studies done in California waters in 1985 showed that gray whales there avoided loud sounds.

But rather than a stampede for open waters, Johnson said, the movements of the whales then were so subtle that only computer analysis later showed the avoidance.

Data are still being interpreted from new studies with louder sounds done off California two months ago.

"There's nothing we saw there that gave us any hesitation about doing the experiment here," Johnson said.

The Navy has a Web site devoted to the testing at:

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