The sound and fury off the coast of Hawaii signifies everything
environmentalists and the United States Navy.
To the Navy, a sonar system designed to detect quiet submarines
is a crucial link in America's protection against submarine-
missiles. To environmentalists, however, the high-volume low-
frequency sound waves that travel for long distances are a
potentially deadly acoustic assault on sensitive marine animals.
It's an ecological donnybrook that pits whales' tolerance for
noises against America's national defense. But it is only the latest
chapter in an ongoing battle between environmental activists and
researchers and the military over the effects of man-made ocean
noises on marine life. What concerns environmentalists about new
projects like this one is that they would create constant underwater
noise - a barrage activists say will have disastrous long-term
effects on animals that rely on their sense of hearing for
from locating food to finding prospective mates.
The battle lines were first drawn in 1994 when scientists from
the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, Calif.,
a plan to broadcast loud sounds at regular intervals from speakers
off the coast of Big Sur, Calif., and the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
The project, called Acoustic Thermometry of Ocean Climate (ATOC),
used sound waves to check ocean temperatures in an effort to track
Since then, the Navy has tested its sonar, known as Low Frequency
Active (LFA) sonar, three times - most recently off Hawaii in
February. (Previous phases tested the sonar's effect on gray whales,
blue whales, and fin whales off the coast of California.)
Designed to study whale reactions to the LFA, the experimental
series drew intense criticism many environmental groups. Several of
them - including Greenpeace, Earth Island Institute, and the Ocean
Mammal Institute - filed a lawsuit to stop the tests, claiming the
Navy needed to file an Environmental Impact Statement and give more
information about the tests. Civilian scientists involved in the
project countered that the tests were designed not to harm whales
and, in fact, would not expose whales to sounds louder than their
US federal courts on several occasions ruled in favor of the Navy,
but protesters succeeded in shortening the experiments when they
hurled themselves into the water near project vessels.
The tests' effect
While the tests are over for now, the effect on the whales is
still unclear. Environmentalists claim that the LFA and ATOC tests
have already had disastrous consequences, including four dead
humpbacks sighted in California and Hawaii during the ATOC tests.
Meanwhile, during the Hawaii LFA tests, Greenpeace Hawaii claimed
humpbacks fled the test area, forcing whalewatching tour boats on
Kona Coast to halt operations. And in a March letter to the
respected science journal Nature, a team of Greek marine scientists
claimed there was a link between whale beachings and LFA tests by
NATO in the Mediterranean in May 1996. …