Navy defends sonar amid fight over whale safety

ABOARD THE USS MOMSEN (Reuters) - “Pod of whales bearing zero-zero-zero, range 2,000 meters,” a U.S. sailor shouts to his commander, warning whales have moved in front of the ship as it hunts a submarine off the California coast.

A gray whale's head breaks the water surface in the Laguna San Ignacio on Mexico's Baja California peninsula, February 8, 2006. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

Within minutes, the whales have moved to within 200 meters (yards) of the ship, forcing its commander to turn off the active sonar being used to search for a sub that has eluded the USS Momsen and other ships for three days during a training exercise.

Below deck, the regular ping of the sub-hunting sonar -- which environmental groups claim hurts and even kills whales -- goes quiet and four seamen ease back in their chairs.

They’ve spent hours staring in the dark at green digital lines zigzagging down computer screens, looking for patches of more intense color that could indicate a sub.

“My concern is, I want to get away from the whale but I want to maintain contact with that submarine,” said Cmdr. Michael Sparks, commander of the destroyer.

In this case, he could not do both.

In a real-life scenario, the Navy would keep the active sonar on if it were searching for a sub, particularly the type of quiet submarine it says potential adversaries might use in shallow coastal waters. Navy officials say Iran, for example, could use these diesel-electric subs to try to disrupt oil flows through the Strait of Hormuz, which handles 17 million barrels per day or two-fifths of the world’s traded oil.

But in training, worries about the impact of sonar blasts on marine mammals have led the military to impose rules that force ships to first reduce the power of their active sonar and then halt it altogether as whales approach.

Now, environmental groups and a U.S. district court judge are pressing the Navy to adopt more stringent protections to extend the whale-protection zone around ships and require commanders shut down sonar sooner.

Environmental groups have documented cases of mass whale strandings and deaths around the world that they say are associated with sonar blasts thought to disorient marine mammals and sometimes cause bleeding from the eyes and ears.

Despite this potential, although still disputed, threat to whales from military sonar, the Navy is arguing against those additional limits on its training. Officers say such curbs could leave sailors unprepared to find and defeat a submarine in battle or one lurking in shallow waters trying to block sea lanes and disrupt oil flows.

“Anti-submarine warfare is an art. It takes a lot of effort to learn how to do it,” said Capt. James Loeblein, commander of a squadron of destroyers, including the Momsen.


A U.S. court imposed stricter measures on military sonar use in training exercises in January. It required the Navy to switch off its mid-frequency active sonar if marine mammals were spotted within 2,200 yards of sonar vessels, compared with a full shut-down at 219 yards under current Navy rules.

But President George W. Bush intervened, citing the national security necessity of this month’s Navy training off the California coast, and exempted the Navy from the environmental laws at the heart of the legal challenge.

The court is still reviewing the case and Bush’s action, but the exercises went forward.

The USS Momsen, the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and other ships are part of a strike group scheduled to deploy to the Gulf if they successfully complete the current training, which runs through Friday.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, which filed the lawsuit against the Navy, says the Navy can both train its sailors in sonar use and protect whales simultaneously.

“Our goal in all of these cases has been not to stop the sonar training but to ensure that the Navy does so in an environmentally responsible way,” said Joel Reynolds, director of the group’s Marine Mammal Protection Project.

“Scientists agree that these mitigation measures like shutdown zones around the sonar device and buffers around marine sanctuaries, avoidance of areas where endangered whales are known to congregate -- these are measures which collectively can reduce significantly the risk of harm.”

The Navy, which will spend $18 million on marine mammal research in 2008, disagrees. It says researchers are still unable to identify the cause of whale strandings.

Active sonar emits pulses of sound that travel through the water, bounce off objects and return as an echo to an underwater receiver on a ship. The waves reflected back are converted into electric signals that, when analyzed, can tell the direction and distance of an object.

Without more definitive evidence of a link between active sonar and whale injury, additional protection measures sought by environmental groups only hurt sailors’ training, said Vice Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of the Navy’s Third Fleet, responsible for Pacific operations.

“It looks to me like a feel-good mechanism rather than something that is really going to benefit the mammals,” he said aboard the USS Lincoln.

Editing by Cynthia Osterman