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Whale Killing War Games

Enviro groups slam Canada's sonar in naval mock-up.

Ivan Bulic 11 Apr

Ivan Bulic lives on Vancouver Island where he writes about environmental and defence issues.

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Humpback whales in Hawaiian waters.

Every two years, Canadian warships spend a month cruising Hawai'i, where they fire missiles and track "hostile" submarines on their ships' mid-frequency sonar. The enemy subs in these high sea battles aren't actually enemies at all: they are vessels from other friendly nations come to take part of the U.S. navy's biennial Rim of the Pacific Exercises (RIMPAC) war games.

As in other years, last July Canada sent a delegation; this time, the Esquimalt-based frigates HMCS Algonquin, Vancouver and Regina, escorted by six CF-18 fighter jets from Bagotville, Quebec and two Aurora patrol aircraft from Comox took their turn in the waters off the 50th state.

Already by the late 1990s, the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), a U.S. non-profit organization composed of scientists and lawyers, began sounding the alarm about what naval sonar was doing to whales and other marine mammals.

Joined by other groups, and mounting evidence, the NRDC says naval sonar kills whales and dolphins, and they're trying to get the U.S. courts to stop American and Canadian warships from holding the next RIMPAC in 2008.

'Jackhammers' underwater

Whales and dolphins use sound to hunt for food, avoid predators, find mates and navigate the sea. But over the past century the ocean's acoustic landscape has been transformed by human noise, especially intense sonar and the ever-increasing traffic of commercial ships.

Exactly how sonar affects whales and dolphins is not fully understood, but biologists think sonar signals cause bubbles in the animals' tissue, in much the same way as divers suffer decompression sickness known as 'the bends.' On hearing sonar, whales dive and rise deeply and rapidly. This causes decompression, resulting in fatal damage to their lungs, brain and ears. Sonar also disrupts feeding and reproductive behaviours.

According to Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, Vancouver Aquarium's senior marine mammal scientist, to a whale, sonar is like "a jackhammer thundering outside your window, night and day." And because sound travels faster in water than in air, the noise can be 50 kilometres away but will still sound nearby.

Troubling legacy

In 2004 the International Whaling Commission's scientific committee warned that naval sonar damages whales, citing the stranding death of 17 whales in the Bahamas in 2000. Five of the animals were Cuvier's Beaked Whales -- which are extremely rare -- and all had experienced acoustic trauma. The strandings coincided with U.S. naval sonar activity in the area that exposed the whales to sounds in the range of 145 decibels, the loudness of a rifle blast. One government report said that "the unusual extended use of Navy midrange tactical sonars operating in the area is the most plausible acoustic source."

Although absolute conclusions are impossible to draw since no beaked whales have been sighted near the Bahamas since.

Mass strandings and deaths associated with sonar exercises by U.S., Canadian and other NATO warships have also occurred near North Carolina, the Canary Islands, Madeira, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Greece.

In 2003, the American destroyer USS Shoup deployed sonar near a pod of Orca whales in Haro Strait, off Washington State's San Juan Islands. Whale watchers reported seeing distressed behaviour from the whales. Two dead porpoises were later found on local beaches, but local scientists said at the time that many more might have been affected, but escaped detection.

During the 2004 RIMPAC war games off Hawai'i, 200 melon-headed whales stranded in shallow waters. One of the animals died. U.S. wildlife officials said sonar was a "plausible, if not likely, contributing factor."

Tip of the iceberg

Dr. Lindy Weilgart, a leading Canadian whale scientist, says these strandings may be just the tip of the iceberg.

Weilgart studies whale behaviour and biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax and spends part of each summer on the open Atlantic observing whales from the deck of a tiny 40-foot research vessel.

"How many strandings are we missing?" she asks. "Since we don't know where all military exercises are taking place -- the navy is not always forthcoming in telling us what they are doing -- many strandings may go unobserved."

"We do know that since the 1960s, and the introduction of mid-frequency naval sonar, there has been increased incidence of whale strandings, particularly among beaked whales."

A RIMPAC riposte

"The Navy's position," according to a Pentagon statement, "is that continued training with active sonar is absolutely essential in protecting the lives of our sailors and defending the nation."

The navy insists sonar is key in detecting increasingly quiet diesel-electric submarines such as those used by Iran, Russia, North Korea and China. The RIMPAC war games is where the Navy conducts some of its most important sonar drills.

RIMPAC is in fact the world's largest naval exercise, held every second year in July and August in Hawai'i under the direction of the U.S. Pacific Command. Unique to RIMPAC is the inclusion of ships, submarines and aircraft from across the Pacific Rim.

In 2006, for example, RIMPAC involved 35 ships, six submarines, 160 aircraft and more than 19,000 sailors and aircrew from Canada, Australia, Chile, Japan, Peru, South Korea, Great Britain and the U.S. Even Ecuador, India, Malaysia and Singapore sent observers. Canada has been part of every RIMPAC since it began in 1971.

The U.S. contingent last year was the largest, with two aircraft carrier strike groups, a dozen submarines, 100 aircraft and 12,000 personnel. Canada had the second largest fleet with three ships and 1,000 sailors and aircrew. And for the first time, a Canadian, Commodore Bruce Donaldson, was deputy RIMPAC commander.

According to the U.S. Pacific Command, the purpose of RIMPAC is to deal with "threats of terrorism by Muslim groups in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, threats by communist China to invade democratic Taiwan in the event of the island's declaration of independence, and threats by communist North Korea against the United States, democratic South Korea and Japan."

Canadian games

Although Canadian policy on China, Taiwan and Korea differs from that of the U.S., RIMPAC uses Canadian forces to further an American strategy. But Canada's naval brass see no contradiction between an independent Canadian policy and RIMPAC.

"Our ability to integrate seamlessly in the overall RIMPAC structure is critical as we grasp this extraordinary opportunity, and national responsibility, to provide a Canadian perspective in resolving issues concerning peace and security in the Pacific region," said Commodore Donaldson in a statement last year. "This exercise enhances our ability to work with the forces of other nations and it promotes stability in the Pacific Rim region to the benefit of all."

But RIMPAC is not without its critics. In 1970s RIMPAC exercises, Canadian destroyers stirred up controversy when they steamed off Kahoolawe, the smallest of the eight Hawai'ian islands, and blasted it with thousands of shells, bombs and torpedoes. Kahoolawe had a target range since the U.S. Navy seized the island and evicted native Hawai'ian fishers and farmers after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour.

Hawai'ians, however, wanted their land back. Finally, in the late 1980s, political and legal pressure forced RIMPAC to find another target. But for the Hawai'ians it was an empty victory. So many unexploded shells remain that locals are restricted to a few cleared narrow trails. Kahoolowe may never recover.

New breed of sonar

Since then, RIMPAC has evolved from simple gunnery shoots to complex electronic and sonar warfare exercises. Technology is evolving along with it.

Sonar works by emitting powerful sound signals that bounce back when they hit a submerged object, thereby locating an underwater submarine. The lower the frequency, the further the signal travels. All major warships use sonar.

Canada's patrol frigates and destroyers use medium-frequency active/passive sonar, built by the Virginia-based company General Dynamics, one of the world's largest arms producers, with earnings of more than $21 billion in 2005.

This same company is now working on a more powerful low-frequency active sonar. So far it has only been installed on one American and one British ship, but when operational, it will generate one of the loudest undersea sounds possible for humans to make.

For now, it's the ubiquitous mid-frequency sonar that worries environmentalists, since low-frequency technology is not yet operational. It is, however, scheduled to come online in coming years, and some worry it could be even more harmful to marine life than its predecessor.

In defence of defence

Those same Hawai'ian seas where RIMPAC sonar tests are held are also home to endangered marine mammals such as humpback whales. Last year the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recognized the ecological significance of the region when it designated the area as the Northwestern Hawai'ian Islands Marine National Monument.

At 210,000 square miles, it is now the largest marine conservation area in the world, bigger than all U.S. national parks combined. The U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act applies in this vast stretch of the tropical North Pacific, making it illegal to use sonar to disturb whales and dolphins.

Which is why in October 2005, the NRDC was joined by other prominent organizations in filing suit in the U.S. district court in California alleging the use of mid-frequency sonar during RIMPAC violates the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

"Whales and other marine mammals shouldn't have to die for practise. The navy has more than enough room in the oceans to train effectively without injuring or killing endangered whales and other marine species," said senior NRDC lawyer Joel Reynolds in an interview by phone with The Tyee. "Because the navy trains with this dangerous technology in some of the richest underwater habitat on earth, it is legally obligated to take simple, common sense steps to protect marine life."

Apprehensive of a negative legal decision, U.S. Deputy Defence Secretary Gordon England tried to bypass NRDC's suit. In June 2006, he invoked the National Defence Authorization Act, which allows him to exempt the navy and RIMPAC from laws including the Marine Mammal Protection Act for the duration of RIMPAC's 2006 exercises. The Defence Authorization law is one of the new security measures introduced by President George Bush after the 9-11 attacks.

U.S. navy's 'end run'

But the exemption backfired.

In July 2006, Los Angeles District Court Judge Florence-Marie Cooper challenged the exemption by issuing an order temporarily blocking the use of mid-frequency sonar during RIMPAC and citing the "considerable convincing scientific evidence" brought forward by the NRDC.

Cooper also ordered the navy and NRDC to negotiate mitigation such as adding an extra marine mammal spotter on board ships, reducing sonar power at night, and avoiding areas near whale breeding and feeding areas, and migratory routes. The NRDC welcomed Cooper's decision as an important victory in an ongoing war.

The navy did implement some protective measures during RIMPAC 2006. But the complex legal case continues, and if successful, threatens to scuttle the next RIMPAC in 2008. So on Jan. 27, 2007, Secretary England took pre-emptive action and again exempted the U.S. navy, this time for a full two years.

"The Navy's position is that continued training with active sonar is absolutely essential in protecting the lives of our sailors and defending the nation," explained a Pentagon press release. "Increasingly quiet diesel-electric submarines continue to proliferate throughout the world."

The NRDC's Reynolds says the latest exemption "constitutes clear admission by the U.S. navy that its current operations violate the protective standards for whales, dolphins, and other marine life under the Marine Mammal Protection Act."

Despite this latest legal setback, Reynolds is determined to pursue court action. "The navy has more than enough room in the ocean to train effectively without injuring or killing endangered whales and other marine species. It's not that the navy can't comply with the law; it's that the navy chooses not to."

Follow the leader

Canada's admirals are closely following the RIMPAC case. Even though Canada is not a party in court, the outcome will determine where and how Canadian warships operate. And unlike the U.S., Canada has no marine mammal protection law, and so far no independent agency has investigated the Canadian navy's use of mid-frequency sonar.

"Canadian environmental laws are spineless and weak," said Weilgart, an expert on the impact of sonar on whales and dolphins. "The process in Canada is so much less transparent than in the U.S., and there is less power to hold the Canadian navy's feet to the fire."

According to Weilgart, Canadian warships should not be using sonar in Hawai'i waters.

"The Hawai'ian islands are not a good place to do these sonar exercises. As well as humpback whales, they are home to Monk seals and at least three species of beaked whales. There are other areas where the navy could operate without endangering cetaceans," she said.

"But there is not a hope in hell that the Canadian navy will stay away from the next RIMPAC in 2008. They work very closely with the U.S. navy."

In Canada, responsibility for marine mammals is covered by the Marine Mammal Regulations of the Federal Fisheries Act.

Section 7 of those regulations state: "No person shall disturb a marine mammal."

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