The Frontal Cortex

Save the Whales

Hendrick Hertzberg takes on the Navy sonar technology which is killing whales:

Whales live in a world of sound. A large part of their brains, which in many species are larger than ours, is devoted to processing sound. We don’t know how they subjectively experience the processed sound, but it is reasonable to speculate that their experience of hearing is comparable in depth, detail, and complexity to our experience of vision. (They may be able, for example, to “see” inside each others’ bodies, giving them an analogue of the nonverbal communication of emotion for which we use gesture and facial expression.)

The wave of sound sent out by a modern sonar is no little “ping”–not if you’re a whale. If you’re a whale, and you’re listening your way through the pitch-black depths where no light penetrates, subtle sounds, including your own built-in sonar, give you a detailed readout of the layers of increasingly cold water, the texture of the sea floor, and the moving flow of seaborne animal and plant life. The sudden sonic invasion of an extremely powerful, unnatural, deafening sonic assault would be a horror–or so we may reasonably conclude from the fact that whales subjected to such onslaughts have in their panic shot up so quickly to the surface that they die of the bends.

The U.S. Navy is currently studying the effects of their sonar technology on marine life, but it’s damn hard to imagine a scenario in which the military gives up a shiny new technology because it’s hurting whales. It’s a sad, sad world.

And here’s an article in the Post about the phenomenon.


  1. #1 Hank Roberts
    October 17, 2007

    Some ago I talked to a Navy officer (who was teaching at VMI at the time) about this. He laughed telling me how, when he was serving in submarines, they handled their sonar — he said they would get tired of hearing whales around them when they were doing exercises trying to listen for submarines or ships, and eventually they would just “crank up their sonar and blast them til they shut up and went away.”

    Clueless. I’ve known far smarter and more thoughtful Navy officers, and usually respect them tremendously. They know a lot more about the state of the world’s oceans than they can talk about, unfortunately. I wish they had better control of their subordinates who think the technology gives them license to do anything they can without thinking.

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