What we’re doing to the whales

A recent New York Times article by Charles Siebert deserves to be read by anyone who cares about human impacts on other creatures who share this Earth home. In this case the impact is noise.

Mass beachings in 2002 of beaked whales in Mexico and the Canary Islands shared a disturbing feature: autopsies showed the whales died of “the bends,” or surfacing from deep water too rapidly for the body to accommodate. Why would deep-sea creatures make that deadly mistake? The two beachings shared one thing in common: noisy boats in the area, one a naval vessel carrying out exercises, the other a research ship setting off underwater air guns. Siebert says,

It might sound like something out of a bad sci-fi film: whales sent into suicidal dashes toward the ocean’s surface to escape the madness-inducing echo chamber that we humans have made of their sound-sensitive habitat. But since the Canary Islands stranding in 2002, similar necropsy results have turned up with a number of beached whales, and the deleterious effects of sonar and other human-generated sounds on ocean ecosystems have been firmly established.

Our own industrially noisy culture ignores the effects of sound on humans, let alone on other creatures. The reasoning, if it were conscious, would go something like this: We humans have adapted just fine to the roaring commotion of engines, the buzz and whir of motors and machinery, and so the rest of the creatures can too.

Except for one important thing: the rest of the creatures have developed strategies for surviving that may use the senses in radically different ways than do humans. To disregard those differences is to impose a human-centered system on the rest of the world. It is, in effect, to colonize the world and force it to fit human needs.

Such an anthropocentric arrogance comes across loud and clear in the fall 2008 Supreme Court ruling in a case widely known as “the navy vs. the whales.” In a case brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council against the U.S. Navy, the court voted to lift restrictions that lower courts had placed, in deference to the whales, on the navy’s military exercises. Chief Justice Roberts with a dismissive tone brushed off the harm done to oceangoing life:

For the plaintiffs, the most serious possible injury would be harm to an unknown number of the marine animals that they study and observe.

The imperatives of national defense, he wrote, require deferring instead to military commanders. He faulted the lower courts for failing to

properly to defer to senior Navy officers’ specific, predictive judgments.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg, in the dissenting opinion, cited the mounting scientific evidence of harm and even death to marine wildlife and especially whales through the sonar disruptions of the sea:

In my view, this likely harm . . . cannot be lightly dismissed, even in the face of an alleged risk to the effectiveness of the Navy’s 14 training exercises.

The case was settled by the navy agreeing to do more studies while pursuing its sonar exercises unrestricted.

Sonar can kill whales. It appears to be that simple. Whales rely on sound for hunting, for socializing, for organizing their societies. Disruptions of sound strike at the heart of whale society. Not only are whale-to-whale communications disrupted, but sonar affects whale physiology in ways we can only imagine–though I, for one, being fairly sound sensitive, can easily imagine physical pain as a first, overwhelming, effect.

The world’s premier expert on sperm whales, Hal Whitehead, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, has studied the whales for twenty years. Sperm whales organize their mother-led families into clans of whales, with click-dialects differing from clan to clan. He says,

It’s like they’re living in these massive, multicultural, undersea societies. It’s sort of strange. Really the closest analogy we have for it would be ourselves.

Says Charles Siebert,

Somehow the more we learn about whales, the more we’re coming to appreciate the sublimely discomfiting reality that a kind of parallel “us” has long been out there roaming the oceans’ depths, succumbing to our assaults.

While Siebert’s article mentions the sonar issue, the bulk of it is devoted to the fascinating possibility that whales are watching us even as we watch them. As marine mammal behavioralist Toni Frohoff says,

There’s something very potent occurring here from a behavioral and a biological perspective. I mean, I’d put my career on the line and challenge anybody to say that these whales are not actively soliciting and engaging in a form of communication with humans, both through eye contact and tactile interaction and perhaps acoustically in ways that we have not yet determined.

The YouTube video below comes from the Oceania Project of Australia, dedicated to conserving and protecting whales, dolphins, and the ocean.

For more information: Charles Siebert is a New York Times magazine writer focusing on animal issues. Check out this interview with him on the Animal Inventory blog.

Update 7/14/09: Fresh Air with Terry Gross yesterday (the day of this post) aired interviews with Charles Siebert and Toni Frohoff. Check out this page to access the audio interview as well as an excerpt of Siebert’s recent book, The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals.


4 Responses to What we’re doing to the whales

  1. Jen Iams-McGuire says:July 13, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    Thank you for your attention to this. So important. What kills me is having heard about this when I was a child and having been completely puzzled why humans wouldn’t immediately stop any oceanic noise pollution immediately upon learning of even its potential harm. And yet here it is some 35 years later and we’re still so obscenely human-centric. What’s with that!

  2. Jody Berman says:July 15, 2009 at 7:37 am

    Thanks for raising awareness about this sad and complex issue, Priscilla. Whales are magnificent. How can we live in harmony with these beautiful creatures?

  3. Melanie Mulhall says:July 16, 2009 at 10:38 am


    This is very disturbing. I have written about this human shortcoming of anthropocentrism, myself, but this example of it is troubling. Thank you for bringing this issue (and others) to our attention. I believe that there are legions of rational humans (not zealots) who understand that behavior such as this threatens all of us (humans, the animal world, the plant people–everyone). But we must know the issues before we can take whatever action seems appropriate–and that is a highly individual thing. So thank you for this important blog piece.


  4. Puny Human says:July 17, 2009 at 11:34 am

    An important issue. I remember in the 50s and 60s we talked about noise pollution, but the protest was buried, and the children who grew up in our hyper-noisy environment became acclimated adults who knew no other reality. The kids I teach in school automatically block out the ambient noise of machinery, tvs, loudspeakers with ads, and other human-made noise, but I know it is stimulating their nervous systems to their detriment.

    The shocking harm we are doing to the whales is only one example of the noise damage to our animal friends. I read in a recent Discover (?) article about frogs, birds, and other animals that can’t communicate because of human noise and so have trouble mating.

    Hey, thanks for visiting my blog. I have no prejudice against academics who dance in the woods and write about whales!