Authorities in Western Australia are at a loss to explain the death last weekend of three beaked whales and the beaching of another four. This rare species died in the vicinity of a US/Australian naval training exercise. Marine biologists will soon examine one of the whales to try to determine the cause of death. Curiously, members of the same species have also died in the Bahamas and the Canary Islands, where the US Navy have been trialling a new sonar system designed to locate enemy submarines. Environmentalists believe the long-range sonar is killing the whales and say they have the evidence to prove it. Nick Lazaredes has more.
REPORTER: Nick Lazaredes
MICHAEL STOCKER, ACOUSTICIAN (Abaco Island, Bahamas - March 15, 2000): These animals that are washing up on the shore are in a sense kind of the martyrs. They're the martyrs that are basically letting us know something's wrong.
JOEL REYNOLDS, NATIONAL RESOURCES DEFENCE COUNCIL: It's a new technology, it's an enormously loud technology, unlike anything that we've ever seen before. And it poses unique risks to the ocean ecosystem.
CONGRESSMAN ED SCHROCK (Canary Islands - September 24th, 2002): I don't want to say anything is expendable, but in the course of doing the operations, some of those mammals could get hurt there's no question about that.
In September last year, as Spanish and other NATO warships conducted training manoeuvres around the Canary Islands off the North African coasts, the first victims were washing ashore.
MAN (Translation): Some are still alive and others are dying. They should try to tow them offshore to see if at least some of the stranded whales can be saved.
WOMAN (Translation): It's a very bad image for us and the tourists. If you love our island, why destroy it like this?
Scientists and concerned environmentalists had put up the red flag years before, in warning that the use of experimental long-range sonar systems was killing whales and dolphins. Finally, here was a very public demonstration of their concerns.
DR MICHEL ANDRE, UNIVERSITY OF LAS PALMAS: The thing is that these took place on a beach very crowded by tourists, so at that time, the press and the tourists were there when the military started these manoeuvres, and so everybody could witness how the whales were actually stranded.
Whales and dolphins are acoustic animals. In the dark depths of the world's oceans, sound, not vision, is the key to survival. Whales, especially deep-diving whales use a highly-evolved sonar system to do everything - from locating food and mating partners, to simply finding their way. But human-generated noise is putting them at risk.
DR MICHEL ANDRE: The more noise we put in the ocean, the more we affect the way to communicate and to orientate in the ocean. And this means that we are compromising their survival. We're compromising the way they look for their food. We're compromising the way they breed.
MICHAEL STOCKER: In the last 25 years, anthropogenic noise levels have increased tenfold.
Michael Stocker is an acoustician, working on everything from audio engineering Hollywood blockbusters to measuring noise levels under the ocean. He's concerned that if the US Navy gets its way, thousands of whales and dolphins could be deafened, leading to more mass beachings.
MICHAEL STOCKER: So the sound that they're proposing using will be throughout 80% of the oceans. (Mixes sound level) It's very much akin to this, and this will go on for hours. They have what they call a ping, which is 100 seconds duration blast of that, but that will be going on for 40 hours a month.
JOEL REYNOLDS: When we first heard about it, it was almost too unbelievable, the idea that we've now developed this technology so powerful that it could literally light up an entire ocean basin with sound.
California-based environmental attorney Joel Reynolds first learned of the US Navy's secret plans nearly a decade ago, when he heard rumours about the use of a new low-frequency active sonar system.
JOEL REYNOLDS: In the summer of 1994, an exercise called Magellan II had been undertaken off the coast of California. Nobody knew anything about it. It wasn't publicly disclosed. It was a top-secret activity of the US Navy. And it involved testing of a very loud new submarine detection system called Low Frequency Active Sonar. So I began to investigate it. There was no information publicly available at that time, but we pulled together what we could.
Soon, the Navy decided to come clean. Joel Reynolds and his team at the National Resources Defence Council had recently taken on the Mexican Government and the Mitsubishi company over whale conservation in a high-profile campaign. Anxious to head off a legal battle, the navy acknowledged that its system existed and agreed to an environmental impact assessment.
US NAVY VIDEO: The US Navy has recently developed a new type of sonar called LFA, or Low Frequency Active Sonar to detect enemy submarines that might affect our national security. This new LFA system can detect very quiet submarines because low-frequency sounds travel farther.
This Internet-quality promotional video is the only officially sanctioned material available to the public. According to the US Navy, a three-phase study of its low frequency active sonar by some of America's leading scientists demonstrated that it's perfectly safe.
US NAVY VIDEO: This is the sound of LFA sonar used by the navy, which is similar in tone to humpback whales.
DR PETER TYACK, WOODS HOLE OCEANOGRAPHIC INSTITUTE: In phase three, when we were studying singing whales in Hawaii, we did find times when playbacks occurred that singing humpbacks stopped singing and moved away from the source vessel. But these reactions tended to stop after 15 to 30 minutes.
DR CHRISTOPHER CLARK, CORNELL UNIVERSITY: At this point, I don't foresee, given the restrictions that have been imposed, self-imposed by the navy in terms of where they would go, when they would use it, that there would ever be any long-term impact.
But in the last couple of years, most scientists have come to believe the opposite.
JOEL REYNOLDS: I don't think anybody disputes the fact that this system, if operated as proposed by the navy would harass and even injure thousands and thousands of marine mammals. That doesn't even address what the potential impact would be for other marine species like fish or sea turtles or whatever else lives in the ocean, or depends on the ocean. The fact is that the navy has conducted tests on its own divers and found that the system is potentially very harmful to divers as well. So there's no question that this system, if deployed, will do harm.
CONGRESSMAN ED SCHROCK: Everything the military does is a great concern to me, especially because I represent more military than any other member of the United States Congress. I have more bases here, more people here.
Congressman Ed Schrock from Norfolk, Virginia, isn't ashamed to admit that his background as a US Navy officer probably helped him into office. It also landed him a seat on the influential Armed Services Committee in the US Congress. He says deployment of the sonar system is a necessary risk.
CONGRESSMAN ED SCHROCK: If we have to send our men and women, put them in uniform and send them into battle somewhere, it's incumbent on us to bring them home. And if some of the environment has to be, or would be impacted to have that happen, I think that's a small price to pay.
These pictures were taken by a whale researcher in the Bahamas on March 15, 2000. A rarely seen beaked whale flounders in distress. Within hours, reports of more beachings along 100-mile stretch of coastline - 16 in all - 13 of the deep-diving beaked whales, two Minke whales, and a dolphin.
JOEL REYNOLDS: Coincidentally, some of these whales stranded literally in the backyard of a marine scientist who understands stranding, understands acoustics and previously had spent many years working as an acoustician with the US Navy.
It was a bizarre beaching with no apparent cause.
But when reports came in of US Navy warships off the Bahamas coast, the quick-thinking researcher started ringing international alarm bells.
JOEL REYNOLDS: And he reacted very, very quickly. Cut off the heads of some of those whales, put them in a freezer at a local restaurant and eventually shipped them off tO Harvard medical school. Tests were conduct and that was definitive connection reached between the use by the US Navy of sonar and the death of these whales. That's the first time that scientists were able to establish definitively to a degree that the US Navy could not deny their involvement that the activity had a connection, had a cause-and-effect relationship to the death of whales.
In its official report into the Bahamas strandings, the US Navy itself was clear in its findings.
EXCERPT FROM BAHAMAS REPORT: "Some type of auditory structural damage was found in four beaked whales examined, specifically bloody effusions or haemorrhage near and around the ears. The investigation tam concludes that tactical mid-range frequency sonars aboard US Navy ships that were in use during the sonar exercise in question were the most plausible source of this acoustic or impulse trauma."
JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: My father was in the navy. I very much like the navy and what it stands for, so it's very hard for me to fight those people, but we cannot have a dialogue. They refuse the dialogue.
Jean-Michel Cousteau is possibly the world's most famous living diver and a well-known friend to whales of all descriptions. He's also a staunch opponent of the use of high-intensity sonar.
JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: Obviously nobody wants to see lives being lost, but I'll have to add any lives. We are not in a situation of urgency here. And if we consider terrorism a big issue, I don't think there's a lot of terrorists who are going to attack any country with submersibles or submarines. To continue is a criminal act, literally not acceptable. And in the face of future generations, we have no rights to do that. Just a few months ago, I picked up a garbage bag at sea and it was one of the major United States aircraft carriers that had dumped the bag overboard, and they didn't even have the good sense of destroying the equipment that was in there. This is how the most powerful nation, the most powerful navy of the world is treating the ocean - like a garbage can.
But in July last year, the US Fishery Service gave the navy the go-ahead to implement the global sonar system in 75% of the world's oceans. Reynolds and his team argued that this violated America's tough environmental protection laws.
JOEL REYNOLDS: We were hoping that there'd be some way to reach an accommodation with the navy, where they would recognise that the potential consequences of deploying a system like this over 75% of the oceans were not worth the risk, that this system simply was not technologically ready for global deployment. Unfortunately, we could not reach a meeting of the minds on that. They decided to go forward, and we really had no alternative but to sue, and that's what we did.
Backed by the National Resources Defence Council, Joel Reynolds, Jean-Michel Cousteau and a handful of concerned environmental groups took the navy to court in August last year, arguing that it was in breach of the Environmental Policy Act. With Reynolds' lawsuit barely lodged, more evidence of the dangers of high-intensity sonar was soon broadcast on news pictures around the world. With NATO naval frigates deployed offshore, this mass stranding on the Spanish-administered Canary Islands offered damning proof that high-intensity military sonar did kill. The victims were the same as in the Bahamas - the rare, shy, deep-diving beaked whales.
MAN (Translation): It's incredible that in this day and age, in Europe, we have to witness the events we're all witnessing. It's incredible that at a moment like this, we have thousands of people wondering what's going on. We see ships from the shore, submarines 600 metres from here and these mammals stranded and dying on the beach.
DR MICHEL ANDRE: In the Canaries, what we have is something happened, and we do think there is some source which produced lesions in the whales present in the area, and the same sores produced the same lesions in all the whales present in the area, which can only be explained by an acoustic source.
Researchers on the University of Las Palmas team knew that this was the first chance to obtain fresh evidence of the cause-and-effect between sonar and whale deaths. Samples from the Bahamas stranding had been frozen, not ideal for definitive results. Responding quickly, heads were cut off seven of the beaked whales, so that their ears could be extracted and studied. It was down to the team vet Eduardo Degollada to get the first results.
DR EDUARDO DEGOLLADA, UNIVERSITY OF BARCELONA: What I can say right now is that, of course, there are some alterations, some pathologies, and I know that this will help to understand the whole problem and what happened.
What Eduardo found was the first conclusive proof that high-intensity sonar had inflicted severe tissue damage to mammals' brains and ears, which caused them to beach themselves.
DR EDUARDO DEGOLLADA: No, it's not normal. No, no.
The Canary Islands are heavily reliant on tourist dollars, including a big whale-watching component - so dead whales are bad news. So seriously did authorities take the matter that at the sign of the first stranded whales, the military exercises were halted and prosecutors opened a criminal investigation. Thousands of miles away, the legal challenge against the US Navy was gearing up in San Francisco. At the end of October, a federal court judge made a decision which sent shockwaves through the Pentagon, and delighted environmentalists, issuing a temporary injunction stopping the navy from proceeding with global deployment. The judge wrote that at the very least, marine mammals would certainly be harassed by the long-distance sonar and that full deployment of the system would be in breach of federal laws. That's paved the way for a major legal battle to take place here later this year, and which environmentalists believe is their best chance of thwarting the US Navy and saving marine mammals from harm.
JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: It's the only chance we have, for the moment anyway, and the encouraging thing is that it has taken a good turn. But we are not done yet.
And the US Navy is not done yet either. If they can't beat the law, they may simply change it. The Pentagon has mounted a campaign to change America's tough environmental regulations. What they're seeking is exemption for the military from all environmental controls. And in the current climate of the war on terror, they may get away with it.
JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: If there's any consistency in the pressure that this administration is putting on Congress, there will be definitely many attempts to relax the environmental laws and go back to the '60s, and it's very scary, very scary, because 20 or 30 years of very hard work on the part of a lot of good people that is being slowly dismantled.
CONGRESSMAN ED SCHROCK: I think the military frankly are the best stewards of the environment of any group I've ever known. It's just amazing some of the things they do, and people don't by and large understand that, but they do. They are not going to go out and intentionally harm it, but we're in a wartime environmental now, which could extend well beyond Iraq. You know, it's in Afghanistan, and if it goes beyond Iraq, and it probably will, all these things need to be taken into consideration. Some easing of regulations might have to be enacted in order to successfully bring this to a conclusion.
MICHAEL STOCKER: The navy uses the phrase "full-spectrum dominance". When I hear that, the idea of not dominating the sea somehow doesn't line up with that - doesn't square with that phrase. So of course, any military, their total desire is to dominate all quarters.
The terms of the injunction mean that the navy can still test its system until the results of the court case later this year. Testing has been confined to one specific area in the northern Marianas section of the Pacific Ocean, where whales and dolphins are scarce. But activists are concerned that even there, marine life is suffering irreparable harm.
MICHAEL STOCKER: They chose that area because it wasn't particularly productive in terms of whales and dolphins, but there are a lot of other sea animals that live there. There's a good probability right now that that program is deafening unbelievable amounts of life in the deep, deep sea. We're talking about 35,000 feet deep in some cases, and we will never know.
CONGRESSMAN ED SCHROCK: You can restore the environment in many cases, but you can never bring back somebody's son or daughter. And you don't want to have a lot of body bags coming home, as we had in Vietnam, and we did. Of course, you can imagine they tore the daylights out of the environment in Vietnam. But we don't want to do that if we can avoid it. But I think the safety of our men and women in uniform has to be paramount.
MARK DAVIS: Today, the US navy declined to confirm or deny the use of sonar in their recent exercises off the West Australian coast.
To learn more about the US Navy's development of Low Frequency Active Sonar, go to: www.surtass-lfa-eis.com
To find out more about the NRDC and their legal campaign to stop the deployment of the US Navy sonar system, go to: www.nrdc.org
More information can be found about the work of Jean-Michel Cousteau and his concerns about high-intensity sonar at:
See the official report into the mass stranding of marine mammals** in the Bahamas at:
**If you experience difficulty - CLICK here to download from an alternative site
And to discover more about the work of the whale research team on the Canary Islands, see: www.edmaktub.com
Please note that Dateline takes no responsibility for the content of these sites. The links are provided as reference only.