Imagine this. You’re sitting in your house, enjoying a lovely and well deserved meal at your table with your friends and family when all of a sudden you’re overcome by a noise so deafening that you have no other choice but to run. Your head is pounding, you feel dizzy, your body is aching and all you can think of is getting out of there as quick as you can even though you have no idea where you’re going. When you finally escape you find yourself in an unfamiliar place without any of your friends, your family or your food. You’re lost, alone and in agony.
You are a whale and you are one of thousands facing this ordeal every year due to the use of military sonar and explosives around the world.
In September 2015, the U.S Navy and the National Resources Defence Council came to a federal agreement placing restrictions on the use of military training exercises in primary marine mammal habited environments. The culmination of a 20 year long battle, until it expires in 2018 the new agreement means that the Navy must limit their use of sonar and explosive detonation off the coasts of Southern California and Hawaii; places renowned for their rich diversity of marine wildlife. Whereas in the past, they had the freedom to conduct training exercises at any time of the year, they will now have to cease all activity at times when marine populations are at their most vulnerable to ensure that as few are as affected as possible. Blue whales will no longer find themselves deafened as they use the Californian coast as part of their summer migration and Hawaii’s small and critical population of false killer whales won’t have to endure the agonising pain of sonar sound waves thundering towards them. Clearly, it’s a step in the right direction.
It may only be a very small percentage of the world’s oceans but for those animals likely to have suffered, it will make a significant difference. Whales and dolphins hunt, feed, navigate and escape predators using a form of biological sonar called echolocation and if this is disturbed by military sonar, it really does become a fight for survival. Not only are they at risk of being driven from their natural hunting grounds and migration patterns, they are also at risk of devastating physiological injuries as well. Research into the impact of sonar on cetaceans has revealed that, when exposed to high intensity sound waves many are susceptible to severe afflictions including decompression sickness, internal bleeding , ruptured tissues and in some cases even death. Painful, agonising and unnecessary suffering. The impact of sonar training on cetaceans can be catastrophic.
In 2014, between 5 and 8 beaked whales stranded along the coast of Crete and more recently, in March this year 3 beaked whales beached in Southern Guam. In both cases, sonar training has been confirmed to have occurred nearby. The U.S Navy itself has admitted that around 2000 whales and dolphins were likely to be impacted by their training exercises in Southern California and Hawaii. These are devastatingly high numbers in sensitive waters which, prior to the agreement, had been deemed by the judge overseeing the case as making “no sense given the size of the ocean area involved.” There’s a lot more ocean out there without needing to use vulnerable wildlife hotspots, places where the risk of severe casualties can be minimised and hopefully ended completely.
It might just be the start and there’s still a lot more ocean to protect but the fact that the U.S Navy is starting to recognise that cetaceans cannot simply be considered “collateral damage” is a success in itself. Indeed, they have been carrying out their own research into the effect of sonar on marine life and have apparently spent around $160 million in 2015 alone in doing so. Evidently, the Navy does care about it’s impact and whilst it has taken some time, hopefully this new agreement will result in fewer casualties and more understanding that the price of security does not need to come at the cost of the natural world.
Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Stephen W. Rowe (2007)