Ken Balcomb had been studying whales for decades by March 15, 2000, work that often involved encounters with their strandings.
But that morning a Cuvier’s beaked whale beached itself alive just 100 yards from his home and research station on Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas. A deep-water denizen, the species is rarely observed and even more rarely stranded.
As Joshua Horwitz writes in his engrossing new book, “War of the Whales: A True Story,” Balcomb was both intrigued and concerned — but that whale was just the beginning. All that day, phone calls and radio messages streamed in from four Bahamian islands, reporting strandings of other Cuvier’s as well as Blainville’s beaked whales, minke whales and an Atlantic spotted dolphin, some alive and others dying or dead.
Balcomb soon realized he was in the middle of what turned out to be “the largest multispecies whale stranding ever recorded.”
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Like any scientist, he burned to understand why it had happened. The next day, he was on a reconnaissance flight in a small plane above the 3-mile-deep, 140-mile-long Grand Bahama Canyon, around which the islands where the strandings occurred cluster. The underwater abyss, home to colonies of beaked whales that have lived there for millennia, was where he conducted much of his research, and he knew that “something had gone horribly wrong inside the canyon.”
From the plane, Balcomb saw a U.S. Navy destroyer. “He knew that destroyers rarely sailed alone, that they usually ran escort for a full battle group. So where were the other ships?”
Maybe one person in many millions would grasp what that destroyer’s presence might mean. But Balcomb was that one: Decades before, he had served in the Navy in a top-secret project, the “Sound Surveillance System, a radical innovation in antisubmarine warfare that enabled the U.S. Navy to maintain a critical advantage over the Soviets for 25 years,” Horwitz wrote.
During World War II, U.S. geophysicist Maurice Ewing discovered an underwater “deep sound channel” where sound waves can be transmitted for thousands of miles. The military perfected methods for tracking submarines using those channels to transmit low-frequency active sonar.
Among the species that rely most on biosonar are beaked whales and other deep-diving whale species, who use it to navigate and hunt prey in the dark ocean depths.
Balcomb came to suspect that the Navy’s extremely high-decibel sonar tests, which had already been blamed for harming marine mammals elsewhere, had caused the disaster in the canyon.
Proving that cause and effect, and making the Navy take responsibility for it, took years.
Among those joining Balcomb in that effort was the book’s other main character, Joel Reynolds. A crusading lawyer for the National Resources Defense Council, he had protected the calving grounds of gray whales in the Sea of Cortez.
Fascinating but also carefully balanced, this book is not a simplistic whales good/military evil recounting. Horwitz draws the reader into the history of submarine warfare, adeptly explains the scientific and technological details involved and skillfully paints vivid portraits of a large cast of characters.
There’s oceanographer Walter Munk,“a playful pixie of a man with an incalculably high IQ,” whose resume includes making weather predictions that ensured the success of the D-Day invasion and being one of the first scientists to gather evidence of global climate change.
And there’s Diane Ketten, the “whale coroner,” whom Horwitz describes leaving a New Year’s Eve party on Cape Cod when a sperm whale strands nearby. Still wearing her velvet party dress, she climbs inside its head to collect samples. Among the first on the scene in the Bahamas, she’ll find in the stranded whales’ ear bones, a particular scientific passion of hers, essential evidence.
“War of the Whales” is a ripping real-life yarn well told, but it’s also meant to raise our awareness of a larger problem. The Grand Bahama Canyon incident was hardly an isolated one.
On July 18, despite objections by environmental groups, Washington announced its approval for the use of sonic cannons by energy companies, as the entire Eastern Seaboard is opened to oil and gas exploration.
“Environmental campaigns,” Horwitz writes, “have a lot in common with the Napoleonic Wars. They’re prolonged and punishing offenses fought on multiple fronts, with success often determined by the strategic alliances you forge and the foot soldiers you mobilize. And they cost a lot of money.”
Ocean noise pollution has doubled in each of the past six decades, and military exercises are just one source, along with commercial shipping, oil and gas exploration and recreational boating — all of them imperiling cetaceans and other marine creatures in ways we are far from fully understanding.
War of the Whales: A True Story, by Joshua Horwitz (426 pages; Simon & Schuster; $28)