Navy sonar may have spooked orcas, porpoises
By Elizabeth M. Gillespie
9th May 2003
The Associated Press
Sonar from a Navy guided-missile destroyer apparently agitated a group of killer whales and dozens of porpoises enough to send them fleeing from the waters southwest of San Juan Island.
About 20 whales were feeding and behaving normally Monday morning, when whale-watch operator Tom McMillen lowered an underwater microphone into the water to listen to their calls.
He picked up a sound he had never heard before — a high, shrill whistle that repeated every 25 seconds or so.
"As the sound got louder, the whales gathered up. ... They do this when they rest or if there's a stress," McMillen, owner of Salish Sea Charters, said yesterday.
Soon after, the orcas started swimming away from the noise.
"They moved north and got out of there," McMillen said. "They looked distressed."
As many as 100 porpoises leaped through the water, appearing to distance themselves from the sound.
As the pinging noise grew louder, McMillen said, he spotted what appeared to be a Navy ship about 10 miles away.
Cmdr. Karen Sellers, spokeswoman for Navy Region Northwest, confirmed the 511-foot USS Shoup was using its sonar "briefly" in Haro Strait, a body of water west of San Juan Island, on Monday. The Everett-based ship was headed to the Canadian Forces Maritime Experimental Test Range in Nanoose Bay, B.C.., she said.
"The Navy is looking into the Shoup's transit in Haro Strait on May 5 to determine what occurred that day," Sellers said. She declined to comment further.
Use of Navy sonar has come under intense scrutiny since March 2000, when at least 16 whales and two dolphins beached themselves on an island in the Bahamas. Eight whales died, and scientists found hemorrhaging around their brains and ear bones, injuries consistent with exposure to loud noise.
Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill, sought by the Bush administration, that would exempt the Department of Defense from five federal laws protecting wildlife and the environment.
The bill has rankled environmental activists, who say the measure would allow the Navy to deploy sonar systems wherever it chooses, with little accountability if doing so damages wildlife.
The National Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups filed a lawsuit in August seeking to bar the Navy from using a powerful, low-frequency sonar system, which travels much farther than mid- or high-frequency sonar.
In October, a federal judge in San Francisco temporarily blocked the Navy from deploying low-frequency sonar.
"It is undisputed that marine mammals, many of whom depend on sensitive hearing for essential activities like finding food and mates and avoiding predators, and some of whom are endangered species, will at a minimum be harassed by extremely loud and far-traveling ... sonar," U.S. Magistrate Elizabeth Laporte wrote.