Whale Stranding in N.C. Followed Navy Sonar Use

At least 37 whales beached themselves and died along the North Carolina shore earlier this month soon after Navy vessels on a deep-water training mission off the coast used powerful sonar as part of the exercise.

Although the Navy says any connection between the strandings and its active sonar is “unlikely” — because the underwater detection system was used more than 200 miles from where the whales beached themselves — it is cooperating with other federal agencies probing a possible link. Government fisheries officials, as well as activists for whales, say the fact that three species of whales died in the incident suggests that sonar may have been the cause.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists “are looking at all the possible causes of this stranding, which was a significant one,” spokeswoman Connie Barclay said. Although the number of whales that came ashore is far from a record for mass strandings, Barclay said that “it’s very curious to have three different kinds of whales strand, and a number of possible causes are being examined. Sonar is certainly one of them.”

The possible connection between naval sonar and the deaths of whales and other marine mammals has become an increasingly controversial issue since the Navy acknowledged that the loud blasts of its sonar helped cause a mass stranding of whales in the Bahamas in 2000. Since then, critics have accused the Navy of involvement in numerous mass strandings in U.S. and international waters, and federal environmental officials have concluded in some instances that the loud pulses from active sonar cannot be ruled out as a cause.

Image: US Coast Guard