“A story of love and obsession gone bad”: How the U.S. Navy is killing the world’s whales

Author Joshua Horwitz on the epic showdown between marine life and national security

Topics: Whales, U.S. Navy, sonar, marine life, marine conservation, Coral, Editor's Picks, , ,

"A story of love and obsession gone bad": How the U.S. Navy is killing the world's whales (Credit: Tory Kallman via Shutterstock)

“You never truly win a conservation battle,” says Joshua Horwitz. The best you can do is “win the right to fight another day.” That’s certainly true of the 20-year battle between conservationists and the U.S. Navy, over the military’s use of sonar and the deadly effect its equipment has on the oceans’ whales.

It was, in fact, just two conservationists: Ken Balcomb, a whale researcher and himself a Navy veteran, and Joel Reynolds, an environmental lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, who worked to link Navy training exercises to the mass strandings of whales on nearby coastlines — and who took the battle all the way to the Supreme Court. The stakes — the existence of a majestic species versus national security — were massive, passions were high and each small, incremental victory came only with great personal sacrifice. It was, in other words, quite the story — one that took Horwitz nearly seven years to tell.

War of the Whales,” his resulting book, depicts not just the epic story of this ongoing fight, but of the sincere, often underappreciated dedication required of those who choose to take on such battles, and the ways in which such dedication can ultimately pay off. That Balcomb and Reynolds lost their Supreme Court case does little to undermine the progress they made in protecting not just whales, but all marine life, Horwitz argues — and makes it all the more important that the effort continue today.

Salon spoke with Horwitz about what he calls “a story of love and obsession gone bad” on the part of the Navy, and about what Balcomb and Reynolds’ response can teach us about the other high-stakes battles of our time. Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows:

What drew you into this story?



I’m an author as well as a book packager, and like anyone else who works in long-form storytelling, I’m always looking for a great untold story. I stumbled on this really as a headline: “Whales versus Navy,” about the legal case between the NRDC and the U.S. Navy. It was a long-running lawsuit, and it read sort of like a divorce headline, and as I dug deeper into the story I realized it really was in some ways a story of love and obsession gone bad — the Navy’s own obsession with whales and dolphins went back to the beginnings of the Cold War. And so when I realized this was more than just a contemporary environment verse national security story, and there was really a rich history of cultural war between the military, and specifically the Navy — which has been deploying militarized dolphins and whales for 40 years, and has researched and studied them for 50 years — and on the other side you have a “Save the Whales” movement that came of age during that same period, and then it all came to a head in the ’90s and specifically in the last 10 years. It’s just a great story, a genuinely untold story with great characters, and then the whales, which were a wonderful x-factor, which became more and more the draw for me as I got deeper into it.

So did you see a shift between when the Navy was using dolphins and whales to serve their purposes and then later on, when they’re harming them with sonar?

There were always parallel programs. So they started their marine animal training program and their marine animal research programs at the same time in the early ’60s, and the training program was always designed to basically take advantage of their trainability. They worked with small cetaceans — not just dolphins but orcas and beluga whales and even seals — and they would take advantage of the echo-location, or biosonar, capabilities of small whales. They were using them initially to clear mines from harbors in Vietnam and to also patrol harbors from enemy swimmers as well as to retrieve objects from the deep ocean floor that had fallen off of ships. And that continues today. They’re still using the Navy dolphins — or militarized dolphins, whatever you want to call them — in the Persian gulf, because despite the Navy’s efforts to create a dolphin drone that would do the same thing that these animals do, they haven’t really approached their skill level.

So that was one strand, and then the other, their marine science research program, that was really trying to deconstruct and reverse-engineer their biosonar, which is echo-location in the same way that bats echo-locate in the air. The Navy became intrigued by these animals, really obsessed with them, because they could do things that the Navy had been trying to do in terms of lighting up the dark oceans with sound. The thing you have to understand about whales is that they live in a very dark environment. And so they’ve evolved over tens of millions of years to navigate and hunt in the dark and that’s what the Navy has to do. They have to navigate and potentially hunt and track, locate and kill enemy submarines in the total dark. And so they do that acoustically, either by listening for submarines or using active sonar to bounce sound off of them. They’ve been doing this, crudely, since World War I, but compared to what they discovered whales and dolphins have been doing for millions of years, they realized that they were way behind and that these animals have had a huge head start and were just maestros of sound. A whale, a dolphin can tell the difference between a decoy mine and a real mine, they can tell the difference between a disc made out of copper and made out of zinc. They can find objects that are buried 6 feet in the mud of the ocean floor, half a mile down. They can do remarkable things and it’s because they have evolved to use their biosonar in very specialized marine environments over eons.

So that’s a long way of saying that there are two fundamental ironies that grabbed and held me and guide the story. One is that there was no marine mammal research before the Navy got involved — it didn’t even have a name. Once they realized that these animals echo-located and wanted to learn more and train them, and try to reverse-engineer their biosonar, they recruited biologists, veterinarians, anybody they could find who was a bioacoustician. They basically created this whole science and mostly what we know about dolphins comes from Navy-funded research, and this information fed directly into their development of their sonar systems. The other tragic irony of this story is that the Navy came to deploy more and more powerful super sonars, long-distance sonars, if you will, high-intensity sonars, that ended up causing not just mass strandings of certain species of whales but real non-lethal impacts on whales of all species, as well as all marine life. They’ve done studies now that show even coral withers in the presence of intense sound, so they really have just been dumping huge amounts of sound energy into the ocean and we’re only now coming to understand the consequences of that.

So far as the Navy’s use of these marine animals goes, would you characterize it as exploitative?

What other adjective might you assign?

I’m thinking of Sea World and just using them for entertainment value, while this is serving a national security function.

Well, for Sea World that’s serving their commercial value, it’s a commercial driver. And scientists have studied them in captivity (although less and less); you could say the scientists are exploiting them for their own research. And the fact that most of the scientists are funded by the Navy is not an accident.

I mean, look, the “War of the Whales” is a culture clash between the Navy, which cares deeply about the oceans and whales but for totally different reasons than the “Save the Whales” movement or any of the environmental, humane or conservation concerns might be about whales. So they have very opposing agendas and this is what played out in court and eventually in the Supreme Court. I think what’s interesting is, there’s no longer debate that sonar causes stranding: There were just strandings in April, involving U.S. Greek and Israeli navies in war games in the Mediterranean. So this isn’t a situation that’s gone away and the Navy acknowledges that they need to take better steps to prevent mass strandings, but they still happen.

The question was, is it exploitive? Well, I certainly believe that these animals did not join the Navy, they were pressed into service. Let me put it this way: If you’re going to make the decision that you’re going to capture animals in the wild and breed them in captivity, explicitly to train them to clear minefields and do other hazardous work on your behalf for military purposes, the least you can do is take every measure possible not to cause mass strandings of other whales during sonar training exercises — and again, all these lawsuits are around training exercises. Right now there’s an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, named after George H.W. Bush, that’s a vulnerable target. If you’re the Navy, you want to make sure a rogue submarine doesn’t fire a torpedo at it, so obviously they’re using sonar in the Gulf to defend the ship, and no one’s saying that they shouldn’t. What they’re saying is, if you’re doing training exercises don’t do them in known whale habitats when whales are there, they’re seasonally there; do it when they’re not there. I mean, that seems straightforward, right? To me that’s a no-brainer.

Are there a lot of straightforward ways to just keep these exercises from being so destructive? And if it’s that simple, why is the Navy resistant to it?

One thing to do is what are called seasonal and geographic exclusions. To do that, you first have to know where the whales are. The Navy has ranges all up and down the East and West Coasts, Alaska, Hawaii — everywhere we have coastlines — where they do testing and training. And they’ve agreed to do what are called environmental impact statements, which are pretty rigorous. You have to find out what the environmental impact of these missions are going to be before you have permission to do them. That will allow them theoretically to know where the whales typically are in what season, and to stay out of those habitats when the whales are there. They don’t do that in their foreign exercises.

So stay away, at least seasonally, from whale habitats — and that’s basically it. That’s the simple thing they can do. The Air Force has been training its pilots with simulators for decades and so I’m sure the Navy could do a lot of their required training on simulators. They don’t have to be out there in whale habitats training the way they are continuously around the world. I’m not saying all of it, but they could do a lot of it on simulators. So it’s basically that kind of approach: “This matters enough for us to come up with solutions,” as opposed to, “We’ll do the minimum amount possible and deal with the collateral damage as it arrives.”

The heroes of your book are these two people who took a lot of this battle on themselves, and it involves a huge amount of personal sacrifice for them. I was wondering if this has any bigger lessons, for you, about what makes for an effective conservation battle?

Absolutely, I think that’s the takeaway for me from this book. The larger issue environmentally for me, at least, after spending a lot of time on this is the broader issue of noise pollution in the ocean. The major culprits are international shipping — the motors make a tremendous amount of ambient noise  – and of course, oil and gas extraction. So it’s not just military sonar.

But in terms of the big picture, and the reason this book was worth writing — and I hope, reading — is that it’s really, to me, a portrait of two change agents. These people are totally different individuals, personality-wise and in their skill sets. Ken Balcomb is a genuine maverick: He really prefers the company of whales to human beings, he can’t work in groups … he’s a very good whale scientist and field researcher, and a reluctant activist. Joel Reynolds is a lifelong environmental attorney: He can talk to anyone, deal with anyone — celebrities, scientists, judges, NRDC members. He’s very good with people, he’s a very smart lawyer, he’s very pragmatic. But what made them an effective team is the degree to which they worked in tandem, and they both had this commitment to stay and fight as long as they needed to, and that they had the perseverance and tenacity to outlast the Navy on this.

One was a reluctant activist, one was a lifelong committed activist, but they both hung in there. I mean, Ken Balcomb has been protecting this community of orcas up in the Northwest since 1976. That’s almost 40 years. These guys have just refused to go away, and there are antagonists on the other side: The Department of the Navy and the Justice Department and elsewhere have cycled in and out five times in this period, and they’re still there. You don’t ever have any permanent victories in environmental conservation fights; you just win the right to fight another day, and that’s their attitude, and that’s the attitude, I think, of anybody who wants social change. And that’s not just the environment — it can be abortion rights or civil rights. You look at anything going on today, and you’ll see that there’s a pendulum, and unless you’re vigilant to protect your victories, they’ll be snatched back by commercial interests or government interests.

There’s a line in the book: “You never truly win a conservation battle.”

Yeah, well, it’s true. I think that the significance of conservation battles, and it is an important distinction, is that if you’re fighting to preserve an endangered species or you’re fighting to prevent a nuclear power plant from being built in a delicate environment — or, in the case of Baja, the last pristine whale sanctuary — if you lose a fight, and a habitat is turned into a saltworks or a species is allowed to become extinct, then you don’t have a chance to go back and win those. If you lose a court battle over abortion rights, you can go back another day and bring a better case or go to a better judicial panel. But you can’t bring back species or endangered habitats once they’ve been destroyed, so the stakes are somewhat higher, I think.

You mentioned before that everybody agrees on the science of this, that sonar is causing harm, and now the debate is really about what to do about it. It makes me think about the climate change debate, and there are certainly a lot of other examples. What can this teach us about about reaching compromises over these sorts of battles?

What I learned by watching this case history, the NRDC’s 20-year battle, is it’s really Joel Reynolds. I mean, Joel Reynolds has worked inside NRDC, which has a million members, and they certainly have helped fund this work and whatnot, put pressure on people with letter-writing campaigns, but in the end, it was this guy, who back in the ’90s decided this was important enough to take on the biggest, most powerful Navy in the world. He’s a pragmatist. So number one, he doesn’t take on frivolous cases. There are a lot of environmental and social activist lawyers who will just file a lawsuit to get publicity, to draw attention to a problem. And that’s a legitimate thing to do, but I think one of the reasons he’s been so effective in changing the way the Navy operates — and it really has been night and day in terms of how they operated 20 years ago and how they operate now — is that he was willing to settle. He was willing to come up with compromises that make incremental progress and get the Navy to concede to specific mitigation steps. There are a lot of firebrand attorneys or radicals — on both sides, and not just this one — who won’t compromise on whatever issue it is. And I really think his approach has been very effective.

Also, acknowledge that it’s an issue. I think it’s a cultural thing, and the Navy has come a long way. Because interestingly, the Navy is very sensitive about their public image, and they hate being dragged into court as an eco-criminal and found to be violating the law and be told to go fix it. They don’t want to be in court, and they don’t want to have whales washing up on the shores. Believe me, they’re not indifferent to this issue. But if you think about the Navy, it’s one of the biggest institutions in the world, and it’s by its nature secretive and conservative. The Navy was the last service to incorporate women, put women on ships and submarines. It’s been a slow turnaround for them to kind of get up to speed on lots of issues, and they’ve taken 20 years to get where they are now, but they’re getting there. It just takes top-down leadership to say, “This issue matters, and we’ve got to deal with it.”

Lindsay Abrams

Lindsay Abrams is a staff writer at Salon, reporting on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email labrams@salon.com.

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