Ocean Film Fest 2010: It's Not If, But How Military Sonar Kills Whales (Video)

beached whale photo

Photo via Wolfiewolf

Are human-generated noises killing the oceans? This is the question posed by Michael Stocker of the Ocean Conservation Research organization and Volker Barth, creator of Sounds of the Sea, a documentary exploring how military sonar operations are the cause of whale and porpoise strandings and deaths. Not if, but how. In this extraordinary film, researchers reveal the way in which sonar impacts whales’ bodies, how it causes internal bleeding, deaths, and strandings, and why the general public isn’t getting the information that would change the way we look at military sonar use in the oceans. Check out a video clip from the film, and a Q&A session with Michael Stocker that will put you at attention on this issue.

Sounds of the Sea explores how human-generated ocean noise is proving fatal to whales and dolphins, especially vessels that use submarine-detecting Low Frequency Active Sonar. This type of sonar, experts believe, causes lung hemorrhaging and sub-lethal effects like the disruption of the ability of whales to feed, breed, nurse, communicate, and even navigate effectively.

What Happens When Whales and Sonar Collide?

The documentary shows how experts have seen that many whale strandings occur in conjunction with nearby military exercises that utilize sonar, from melonheaded whales in Hawaii to orcas in Alaska. Where there is military sonar exercises occurring, there are whale deaths.

One hypothesis is that when sonar hits the whales, it causes them to panic - in the same way humans respond to distressing sounds - and they surface too quickly, causing the bends. Or, they will try to swim away from the noise to areas where the noises are less painful, which often means at the surface or towards shores. Whale watchers in Alaska witnessed orcas literally writhing in pain at the surface of the ocean during a military sonar exercise yet when notified about the behavior, the military simply stated that they maintained the two mile minimum distance, and they were not going to cease the exercise.

Also, experts have discovered that one whale species’ jaw bone - the part of their body that receives sound information - will vibrate most at the exact frequency of the military sonar, and vibrate less at frequencies above or below. The rapid vibration is too fast for fatty tissue in the jaw to keep up; it then breaks free and the tiny pieces of fat block blood vessels and internal bleeding, then death, follows.

Why Don’t We Hear About This?

If it is so clear that military sonar operations are causing such catastrophic effects in whales, why isn’t anything being done? Three reasons come to light immediately during Sounds of the Sea. First, the US military controls 95% of our marine research funds. Researchers who find evidence that conflicts with military interests risk losing future contracts. Second, because different whale species’ jaws will resonate at different frequencies, it doesn’t much matter if the military changes their sonar frequency to mitigate damage - one species will suffer less while another suffers more. And a third reason is regulations - whales don’t belong to one country, and US military is opposed to any international regulation on this issue. Activists feel this should be addressed under the law of the sea convention, but it’s a long uphill battle.

What You Can Do:

Despite the fact that there is such a struggle to see action taken to change how human-generated noise impacts marine life, change is possible. You can take action through NRDC and Take Part

Here is a short question and answer session with Michael Stocker, Executive Director of Ocean Conservation Research, acoustician and naturalist who has written and spoken about ocean bio-acoustics since 1992:

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