Book Review: War of the Whales

Joshua Horwitz Tells of Military Sonar’s Mortal Threat to Marine Mammals

The world’s oceans are full of noise caused by huge container ships ferrying goods from distant ports, oil and gas exploration platforms, commercial fishing boats, cruise ships, and jet skis. Another source of noise, albeit less well known, is military sonar, used by navies as a primary tool in anti-submarine warfare. Not surprisingly, the United States Navy leads the world in the deployment and use of sonar.

The problem with high-intensity military sonar is that it can pose a mortal threat to marine mammals like whales and dolphins, disrupting their ability to hunt, mate, and navigate. Nearly a decade and a half ago, on March 15, 2000, more than a dozen whales beached themselves on Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas. The whales were a species of deep-diving beaked whales that live in the dark depths of Great Bahama Canyon. Miracles of evolution, beaked whales are known to descend to depths of more than 5,000 feet and remain submerged for more than an hour.

What caused these whales to strand themselves in the shallows is the key question in War of the Whales by Joshua Horwitz. The explanation takes the reader on a page-turning ride from the Bahamas to the Pentagon and the highest echelons of the United States Navy, through a concise history of sonar and how it was used to track Soviet submarines during the Cold War, into marine research labs (many funded by the navy), through the halls and conference rooms of government agencies tasked with protecting marine mammals, and finally to the Supreme Court of the United States and a David-versus-Goliath battle between the National Resources Defense Council and the United States Navy.

Deftly weaving these elements together — along with portraits of the two men at the heart of the story, marine biologist Ken Balcomb and environmental lawyer Joel Reynolds — Horwitz tells a taut, energetic story that feels immediate, even though the events are nearly a decade old. War of the Whales is a reminder — and a warning — that our technological, industrial, and military prowess produces unintended consequences for other species with which we share this fragile planet.

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