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Blog: Sonar is lethal to dolphins and whales

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Posted: Friday, September 13, 2013 10:00 am

Our oceans are ailing, and when dolphins and whales wash ashore they are sounding the alarm bells. But is anyone listening? Our dirty oil addiction is killing these extraordinary top marine predators. And we cannot exist on this planet without oceans flourishing with dolphins and whales.

In the Spring of 2012 over 900 long-beaked common dolphins and black porpoises washed up in a mass mortality event on Peruvian shores. Government officials stating that the dolphins died of natural causes (i.e. morbillivirus) did not convince my colleagues and me.

The conservation group Orca Peru undertook 30 necropsies from three separate expeditions. What they discovered was indeed disturbing and contrary to the Peruvian Production Minister Gladys Triveno's claim on Radio Programas del Peru that "the death of the dolphins were not caused by any human activity."

In fact, oil production from BPZ Energy's Corvina and Albacora field off the coast of Peru conducted a series of powerful seismic tests during the first half of 2012.

Orca Peru scientists found that the dolphins and porpoises they examined exhibited bleeding in their middle ears as well as fractured skulls. In addition, lungs, livers, stomachs, bladders, skin, spleens and blubber all displayed gas bubbles. Those bubbles caused a mass destruction of tissues. In scientific parlance they revealed acute pulmonary emphysema or what scuba divers know and fear as decompression sickness or the bends. There was no evidence whatsoever of morbillivirus in any of the 30 necropsies.

What happened to those magnificent Peruvian beasts appears to have occurred last week again, but this time along the West African coast near Ghana. This much we do know: oil and gas seismic surveys destroy the hearing and navigational abilities of both whales and dolphins, and they perish.

High tech marine airguns are used offshore for seismic oil and gas exploration. They produce high levels of low frequency sound by releasing high-pressure air into the water creating oscillating bubbles within the bandwidth of 70-140 Hertz. They are deployed as an array to maximize the power and focus the potent low frequency sonar.

In 2009, an environmental study found that 18 different species of dolphins and other small-toothed whales were at risk within the Ghana Jubilee offshore oilfield, which produces 110,000 barrels a day.

The Ghana environmental group Friends of the Nation told the press that one dead whale washes ashore every five years. So when 16 washed ashore last week they sounded the alarm. In the face of their concern, Ghana's Environmental Protection Agency immediately countered that "there's no link between the oil industry and the 16 beached whales."

Very recently, my colleagues released a study showing that blue whales, the largest creature to ever inhabit Earth, react to sonar by changing their behavior. They forgo high-quality prey, which could make them weak and decimate their numbers through starvation. Sonar disrupts marine mammals' feeding habitat and results in them getting lost.

This is deeply concerning as starting in 2014, the Navy will begin training exercises, including deepsea explosions and sonar testing, along the East Coast, Gulf of Mexico, Southern California and Hawaii, and continue until 2019.

The Navy announced that computer models predicted hundreds of whales and dolphins would die whilst thousands will suffer serious injuries, and millions will temporarily loose their hearing and suffer major behavioral changes including getting lost.

The Natural Resources Defense Council asserts the Navy is underestimating the effects on all marine mammals. The very thought of killing or maiming more whales, to perfect killing of our own race, after our species has massacred over 5 million whales, is absolutely utter madness.

We know that both baleen (or filter feeding) and toothed whales are of paramount importance to help maintain Earth's beleaguered marine ecosystems. Since the 1986 Moratorium on Whaling, Japan, Iceland, Norway and Faroe Islanders have slaughtered almost 32,000 of these exquisite creatures.

Please reach out to your local lawmakers and say "No" to the inhumane forthcoming naval exercises that will senselessly annihilate dolphins and whales. We are knowingly leaving our children impoverished oceans, and as Captain Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society rightfully says: "If the whales die, we die!"

Earth Dr. Reese Halter is a broadcaster, conservation biologist, educator and co-author of "Life, The Wonder of it All".

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