Researchers Have Identified How Naval Sonar Is Killing And Beaching Whales

We have known for a long time that naval sonar has devastating effects on marine life but just exactly how it leads to sickness and death was a mystery till now.

In new research published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, they discovered that the sound emitted by sonar is so intense that marine mammals will swim hundreds of miles, dive deep into the abyss or even beach themselves to flee from the sounds that are literally unbearable to them.

In particular, beaked whales are one of the marine mammals that are often found beached due to sonar testing. Prior to the 1960s, beaked whale strandings were extremely rare. But once the 60s rolled around, the Navy started to use mid-frequency active sonar (MFAS) to detect submarines.

And from the 60s onwards, whales washing up on beachings became a very common occurrence. The paper recently published is a summary of what was discussed at a 2017 meeting of beaked whale experts in the Canary Islands and revealed that sonar distresses beaked whales so often that the marine mammals ends up with nitrogen bubbles in their blood very similar to what divers would call decompression sickness or the bends. The nitrogen can cause hemorrhaging and damage to whales vital organs.

The big question that was brought up was how an animal that lives in the ocean and is adapted to perform deep water dives for hours at a time can obtain decompression sickness? Well simply, the sonar is so powerful, the animals dive deep too quickly causing the sickness.

“In the presence of sonar they are stressed and swim vigorously away from the sound source, changing their diving pattern,” lead author Yara Bernaldo de Quiros told AFP.

“The stress response, in other words, overrides the diving response, which makes the animals accumulate nitrogen. It’s like an adrenalin shot.”

The conclusions are drawn from autopsies of dead whales, although a handful of animals were killed by other threats inflicted by humans, such as collisions with ships or entanglement in fishing nets, as well as disease.

The authors note that to mitigate the impacts of sonar on beaked whales, we must ban its use in areas where they’re found. A moratorium on the use of MFAS around the Canary Islands in 2004 shows just how well this works – no atypical strandings have been seen since. The researchers urge other countries where sonar is deployed, such as the US, Greece, Italy, and Japan, to follow suit.

This is not the first time nor the last sonar has been called into question. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has successfully challenged the government failure to protect marine wildlife from sonar three times with the most recent time coming in 2016.

The case was brought forward by the NRDC to the court system claiming that the National Marine fisheries Service (NMFS) had illegally approved a permit authorizing the Navy to use its high-intensity long-range sonar, called low-frequency active sonar (or LFA), in more than 70 percent of the world’s oceans. 

In its decision, the three-judge panel found that the Fisheries Service had unlawfully ignored reasonable safeguards recommended by the government’s own scientists to reduce or prevent harm from the sonar system, resulting in a “systematic underprotection of marine mammals” throughout “most of the oceans of the world.” Experts had recommended that the Fisheries Service protect the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument off of Hawaii, Challenger Bank off of Bermuda, and other areas around the world important to whales, dolphins, seals, and other marine mammals. But the Fisheries Service went ahead and gave the Navy the greenlight to operate its intense sonar in the vast majority of these areas.

Among other things, the court also found that:

  • Protecting marine mammal habitat from Navy sonar is “of paramount importance” under the law.
  • The Fisheries Service has an independent responsibility to ensure the “least practicable impact on marine mammals” (i.e., the lowest possible level of harm)before giving the Navy – or anyone else – permission to harm these protected species; and that the Fisheries Service must err on the side of overprotection rather than underprotection.
  • The Fisheries Service had given “mere lip service” to the requirement to minimize impacts during Navy sonar training.
  • The law requires the Fisheries Service to mitigate harm to individual marine mammals and their habitat, rather than ignore its statutory responsibility until species as a whole are threatened.

26 Comments on “Researchers Have Identified How Naval Sonar Is Killing And Beaching Whales”

  1. And once again…humans are killing off wildlife and marine life, for their own needs. This has to stop…or we will be left w/ only humans on this planet. A sad thought.

    1. We need to understand that humans will never be able to exist on this planet alone – without other mammals, bees and other insects.

    2. We’re well on our way to that happening right now. Species are going extinct — in a global mass extinction — every day. We’re already killing nearly everything! Its devastating — literally!!!

    3. And once again we humans get blamed and it’s not all humans only the ones in charge get your facts straight

  2. “The big question that was brought up was how an animal that lives in the ocean and is adapted to perform deep water dives for hours at a time can obtain decompression sickness? Well simply, the sonar is so powerful, the animals dive deep too quickly causing the sickness. ”

    Seems like the coming up to breathe too quickly after the deep dives would cause the bends, not the dive itself…but same idea. Sad either way.

    1. Not going to get the bends from diving too quickly. Bends would be on the way up, as the absorbed gas converts from liquid back to a gasses form.

      In addition, unlike a human continually breathing new gasses into their lungs, which allows more and more gas absorption into the blood stream, a whale is holding its breath. Because the gas is not replenished, the absorption is going to be less.

    1. Can you read? The beaked whale almost never strands itself.. other whales do sometimes but this article (and the researchers) are discussing beaked whales. They started doing it in droves in the 60s when the Navy began using MFAS (SONAR). In the Canary Islands where they’ve stopped using it, the beaked whales stopped beaching themselves.

    1. Unfortunately that isn’t happening anytime soon. But hopefully we can go a long way in reducing the ridiculously large wasteful budget they have and spend that money in better places. Imagine the advancement of our species if the sciences and education had that kind of funding instead of the MIC. We would be a bright shining light instead of a blight on the world.

    2. here on Whidbey navy jet trash destroys all that was good…their operating code is ..” protecting your freedom by poisoning your environment “…

  3. Again, humans are killing and destroying beautiful and gentle mammals for something that is not necessary or can be done somewhere else. Humans are a very destructive species.

  4. Why are China and Russia not mentioned in the list of countries that use sonar? Are they just waiting around for a submarine to shoot them? (I think not.)

  5. I like the valuable information you provide in your
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  6. Sperm whales migrated through Turks and Caicos Islands annually this has ceased since the 60’s they started beaching themselves this could have been the cause Sonar

  7. Parece mentira que tengamos tantos avances y que no descubran otro sistema de comunicación en lugar de usar algo que destruye a Seres vivos que merecen todo nuestro apoyo y respeto.

  8. Great informative article, but what can we DO? Please post some action we can take. Otherwise you’re just throwing out things that cause people to feel hopeless and powerless and frozen.

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