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Dolphins swim along with USNS Alan Shepard. Image: US Navy

The Navy Is Still Making Dolphins Deaf, Despite What You May Have Heard

Melissa Cronin

Melissa Cronin

Whales are still not safe from a deafening barrage of noise created by the US Navy. And chances are, it’s happening right off your back porch.

Dolphins swim along with USNS Alan Shepard. Image: US Navy

Whales are still not safe from a deafening barrage of noise created by the US Navy. And chances are, it's happening right off your back porch.

Conservationists are celebrating this week after the Navy agreed to limit its use of sonar and other harmful training activities in critical habitats for marine mammals like whales and dolphins. The move comes after a lawsuit was brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and other groups that argued that the underwater noise was deafening and killing marine animals.

But the areas covered in the ruling—ranges around the Hawaiian Islands and the southern coast of California—are only a small slice in the (very loud) pie. The Navy conducts an astonishingly high number of sonar tests off the country's coasts, filling its waters with a barrage of noise.

"If you saw a map of Navy sonar ranges, you'd very likely find your own coast included on it," said Michael Jasny, the senior policy analyst at NRDC who led the lawsuit against the Navy. (I checked for my own home, Brooklyn, and he was right. The Narragansett Bay Range Complex lies just off the coast of New York.) "That comes as a surprise to most people."

Sonar technicians at work. Image: US Navy

Since scientists first realized that this noise was harming whales, the phrase "a deaf whale is a dead whale" has come to symbolize the campaign against military sonar. In the darkness of the ocean, whales and dolphins use sound to do virtually everything — communicate, reproduce, find food. Without sound, scientists say, marine mammals can't survive.

On the East coast, three large offshore Navy sonar ranges lie adjacent to one another, from Virginia to Jacksonville, Florida. In the Gulf of Mexico, the government allows the Navy to cause millions of "incidents of harm," meaning any harmful event, from temporary deafness to mortality, to marine mammals from sonar. In the Pacific Northwest from Sonoma County north to the Canadian border, which is home of one of the most threatened populations of orca whales, the Navy is currently ramping up its sonar campaigns. In the Gulf of Alaska, habitat for the last living 50 North Pacific right whales, the Navy is planning a huge expansion.

"It raises enormous concerns," said Jasny, adding that in Alaska, little is known about how the population will react. "It's like closing your eyes and tossing dynamite behind your shoulder and seeing what happens."

US Navy testing range complexes in the continental United States. Further detail is available in this PDF. Image: US Navy

Since the middle of the last century, the Navy has relied on active sonar as a tool during training missions, arguing that it needs to train sailors to detect silent nuclear and diesel-electric submarines that could pose a threat in times of war. At frequencies as loud as that of a rocket launch, noise in the form of a "ping" is blasted into the water, and its reflection is picked up by a receiver. One diver who was caught underwater during a sonar test in British Columbia said that it "felt like you were being poked in the eardrum right through." There was no permanent damage, though several other divers have been hospitalized after being exposed to sonar in the past.

It's not that sonar itself is necessary a bad thing. But critics say that the Navy is unnecessarily using sonar in areas that serve as critical habitat for threatened marine mammals. When a underwater blast is emitted into the ocean, a whale may swim away from the noise, sometimes straight onto a beach to escape it. Some whales have shown symptoms including bleeding in the brain, ears and other tissues. Many whales who've been hit by blasts of sonar have large bubbles and symptoms are akin to that of a SCUBA diver surfacing too quickly and getting "the bends." Some will die quickly from the blast while others, deafened and unable to find food, will starve to death.

The Navy has already acknowledged that sonar harms marine mammals. By its own count, it estimates that sonar will cause 10 million harmful incidents during the next five years off the US coast. And despite the new ruling, the ocean is only getting louder. In 2013, the Navy announced a five-year plan to increase military sonar use, ignoring recommendations from marine mammal scientists.

But Jasny hopes that the ruling will become a watershed, paving the way for other protections to be put in place like it. And with the added pressures of high-energy seismic testing for proposed oil and gas drilling in many similar areas where sonar is used, he hopes it happens soon.

"The next step is to try to extend the same principles of habitat protection to other ranges," he said. "The window of opportunity has been opened."