War of the Whales by Joshua Horwitz

An unusually large whale stranding event in the Bahamas on March 15, 2000, set into motion a clash between environmental activists and the US Navy. War of the Whales, part detective and part history novel, by Joshua Horwitz covers every nuance of this battle, while also providing some really cool marine animals facts throughout. As someone who toyed with becoming a marine biologist, until realizing that a fear of open water and studying marine animals don’t really mix, this book was right up my alley. Right off the bat, you get to learn that beaked whales are the only predator that regularly dive one mile deep; with one dive even being recorded at two miles deep for just over two hours. Even if you don’t have a lot of background knowledge on these topics, this book is super easy to read, largely due to Horwitz’s writing style. War of the Whales skillfully avoids being a dry listing of facts thanks to its well-written and compelling narrative that spans across a decade or so of back-and-forth between activists and the US Navy, along with brief ‘flashbacks’ to give the historical context that led up to the current events. So, for anyone who is even mildly interested in the ocean or the interplay between ocean conservation and military policy/practices, this book a great choice.

On the morning of March 15, 2000, whale researchers Ken Balcomb and Diane Claridge, along with volunteers, tried to save a couple of beaked whales that had stranded onto the beach of Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas. Throughout the day they got calls from other islands reporting more stranded whales. What was so shocking to them at the time, was the sheer number of whales and the variety of species that had beached; something that had never been seen in this area before. Despite the best efforts to get the animals back to the ocean, most were dead or dying by the time they were discovered. The researchers decided they needed to preserve specimens for an eventual investigation into the cause of the highly unusual beaching event. During a survey of the islands to find all the beached animals, Balcomb noticed navy warships/carriers in the area. For Balcomb, who unbeknownst to most had served in the Navy as a sonar specialist during the Cold War, the ships presence in the area raised a red flag. Beaked whales, and other marine animals, are particularly sensitive to sound which they use to navigate, communicate, and find food. Since sonar is just sound waves, it can affect all of these, especially when particularly loud.

To truly understand the perfect storm that happened in March 2000, we also need to understand the history about military use of sonar and the history of whale conservation. The Navy heavily used sonar during the Cold War; both coasts of the Unites States were “wiretapped” with high-tech underwater microphones to listen for Soviet submarines. While the Navy funded marine research during this time, it was largely studies that in the end would benefit the military — training dolphins to detect mines and retrieve objects from the ocean floor, studying whale sounds to better remove them from the background noise of submarine monitoring, investigating ocean warming since temperature affects how sonar/sounds travels, etc. This time was also at the tail-end of the commercial whaling practice, which was responsible for the extinction and severe depletion of countless whale species. Commercial whaling was finally banned in 1986, and part of that decision was a result of Ken Balcomb’s research on the Pacific Northwest Orcas and their population depletion as a result of commercial capture for marine parks like SeaWorld. The general public was becoming more aware of the dire situation with the world’s whales and the subtle balance that existed between them and the ever-changing environment they live in. But in order to work towards preserving the well-being of the whales, scientists and non-profit organizations would have to challenge the ever-secretive Navy that heralded itself as the steward and protector of the ocean.

The Bahamas stranding eventually caught the attention of Joel Reynolds, a lawyer at the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who had had one prior confrontation with the Navy regarding its detonation practices near marine mammals. But this new mass stranding event pushed him to challenge the Navy head-on. Reynolds’ biggest battle came with trying to hold the Navy accountable to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which in part required that the Navy make sure it wouldn’t bring undue or excess harm to marine mammals. However, the organization meant to oversee the Navy’s compliance with this act (the National Marine Fisheries Services) would often conclude and report a “Finding of No Significant Impact” when Navy permits for detonations or sonar tests were submitted. Even for requests involving 280 detonations over the course of 5 years in a marine environment home to endangered animals, or for sonar tests involving 235 decibel level sounds (185-200 decibels can kill a person). In the first 5–7 years that Reynolds fought the Navy on this and other cases, he and the NRDC managed to hold the Navy much more accountable than it had in the past; particularly when it came to proving that there would be a significant impact on marine life.

And now 20 years since the fight for the ocean began, Reynolds, with Balcomb’s unique perspective as both a marine biologist and former Navy sonar specialist, has continued to make progress when it comes to protecting marine species. Negotiations between conservationists and the Navy, while not perfect, have upheld more protections for marine mammals than were present in 2000. Whale stranding events are still happening as a result of sonar, but thanks to the dogged work of NRDC, more people are aware of this being a possible cause and are willing to speak up about it. Throughout the book, Horwitz doesn’t shy away from holding the Navy responsible for the March 2000 event, or for others prior to and since that event, but he does end the book with a more hopeful tone that attitudes within the Navy could be changed in future years. New naval recruits and even some of the more senior officers are coming around to the idea that the Navy does in fact need look out for the ocean and its animals as it has so often claimed it did.