Whales beware

Naval exercises like RIMPAC cause clear harm and distress to marine life including dolphins, fish and especially whales.

Manjari Fergusson

Hawaiʻi has long been a hot spot for military exercises. Along with the large, permanent military presence in the state, every two years the Rim of the Pacific military exercises (RIMPAC) are held in our waters. Among other things, the two-week long training exercise includes practice with sonar waves and underwater explosions.

On July 31, local news outlets reported a whale showing suspicious activity in Kailua Bay, swimming on its side as if in distress; people were warned to stay out of the water in case the whale attracted sharks close to shore.

The next morning, the melon-headed whale beached itself and died, with no obvious signs of injury or illness.

The same day the whale in Kailua died, RIMPAC 2014 was completed. The RIMPAC exercise this year included twenty-two nations, 49 surface ships, 6 submarines, over 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel.

A week earlier, on July 26, a pilot whale washed up in Hanalei Bay, Kauaʻi and died.

According to the Navy’s website, “RIMPAC is a unique training opportunity that helps participants foster and sustain the cooperative relationships that are critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and security on the world’s oceans.”

The training involves the use of mid-frequency sonar, a technology that disperses sound waves underwater to detect foreign submarines. In the process, marine animals like whales, dolphins and fish—which rely on sound waves to navigate and, ultimately, survive—can be temporarily or permanently injured.

RIMPAC or other military activities as they correlate with unusual marine animal behavior

August 1, 2014: Melon-headed whale washes up and dies in Kailua Bay.

July 26, 2014: Pilot whale washes up in Hanalei Bay, Kauaʻi. Autopsy did not point to a significant reason for cause of death, and the Navy said it would be preemptive to say it was due to RIMPAC activities, however the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said RIMPAC could be a possible reason for its death. Full autopsy results won’t be revealed for several weeks.

April 1, 2014: Five beaked whales beached themselves on the coast of Crete while nearby U.S., Greek and Israeli navies were engaging in a joint military exercise, Operation Noble Dina, which included using military sonar. The whales were given autopsies that showed hemorrhaging of their internal organs, bleeding and evidence of sickness that occurs in whales when they ascend too quickly from their deep dives.

July 28, 2008: A beaked whale beaches itself and dies on Molokaʻi. Beaked whales are among the deepest-diving animals in the world, very sensitive to sonar waves and rarely seen. While there was no way to directly attribute the death to navy sonar, the death did occur during the 2008 RIMPAC.

January 2006: Four beaked whales strand themselves and die in the Gulf of Almeria, Spain.

January 2005: 34 whales beach themselves in North Carolina, while Navy sonar training happened offshore.

July 2004: Over 150 melon-headed whales wound up in Hanalei Bay, Kauaʻi. They stayed for most of the day, distressed and agitated. They were herded back out to sea the next day, after NOAA organized a rescue, leaving behind only one calf that died. NOAA later concluded that this was a result of the RIMPAC sonar activities nearby.

“Sound propagation models suggest that sonar transmissions were likely detectable over a large area around Kauaʻi for many hours on the day prior to the stranding, as well as within Hanalei Bay when the animals were there,” said Brandon Southall, NOAA Fisheries Service’s Acoustics Program Director. “Active sonar transmissions on the 2nd and 3rd of July are a plausible, if not likely, contributing factor to the animals entering and remaining in the bay.”

December 2001: The U.S. Navy admitted its sonar activities near the Bahamas resulted in the deaths of at least six whales; the whole incident resulted in 17 whales and dolphins stranding themselves. An investigation was launched after the government realized the stranding and deaths happened less than 24 hours after the Navy training exercise.

What the reports say

The Garden Island newspaper on Kauaʻi quoted Capt. Bruce Hay, the commander of the Kauaʻi’s Pacific Missile Range Facility, saying the navy had committed $160 million over 5 years to research the links between marine mammal’s and sound in the water.

According to Hay, environmental impact studies that are done before big events such as RIMPAC take place allow for a certain number of “takes.”

“Some people see a large number associated with that and assume a ‘take’ to be the worst-case scenario of a marine mammal death or injury, but the definition of a ‘take’ includes any temporary change in behavioral responses, such as foraging, feeding or migration pattern,” Hay said.

According to a CNN report in 2012, government estimates showed there would be about 2 million instances of temporary hearing loss among marine mammals from 2014 to 2019, along with 200 deaths and 1,600 injuries every year.

The death and injuries figures are “worst case scenario” only, according to the Navy, and would be from explosives or accidently hitting the animals with the ships.

Earlier this year, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) was sued after the Navy announced its intention to step up its sonar and live-fire training programs in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

Environmental organizations brought the lawsuit after a study by the Navy found that its naval plan would kill or injure 2,200 marine mammals, and would bring nearly 10 million instances of minor harassment to marine life. The organizations hope to persuade NMFS to stop the Navy from moving its plans forward.

The training programs will produce 60,000 hours of the powerful mid-frequency sonar, 50,000 hours of other sonar, along with the use of over 260,000 explosives. The zone the navy intends to operate in includes the eastern Pacific Ocean, larger than all 50 states combined, between Hawaiʻi and southern California.