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Originally published Sunday, July 20, 2014 at 6:05 AM

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‘War of the Whales’: the secrets of sonar testing

Joshua Horwitz’s “War of the Whales” documents the fight by whale researchers and advocates, including San Juan Islands researcher Ken Balcomb, to get access to information on sonar testing by the U.S. Navy, suspected of a deleterious and even fatal effect on whales.

Special to The Seattle Times


‘War of the Whales: A True Story’

by Joshua Horwitz

Simon & Schuster, 426 pp., $28

Early on March 15, 2000, a Cuvier’s beaked whale stranded itself on Abaco Island in the Bahamas. Whale researcher Ken Balcomb, who has conducted orca studies in Washington’s San Juan Islands and on other cetaceans in the Bahamas with Earthwatch Institute volunteers, was in the Bahamas with his wife and researcher partner, Diane Claridge. They raced up the beach to see what they could do. Balcomb knew most whales that came ashore died.

Balcomb warned volunteers to stay back and watch for sharks. He freed the whale, but it circled back toward land. Claridge guided the animal 200 feet from shore, where it finally disappeared. But a passing fisherman shouted that another whale had beached a mile away.

As hours passed, more than a dozen strandings were reported. Balcomb, who’d spent decades working with whales, had never seen beaked whales in the shallows. What was going on?

As Joshua Horwitz, co-founder and publisher of Living Planet Books, writes in this highly detailed work seven years in the making, Balcomb was determined to solve the mystery. He called Bob Gisiner at the Office of Naval Research to report the strandings and inquire whether the Navy was conducting sonar tests nearby.

Hesitating, Gisiner said he’d find out. He asked Balcomb to collect and preserve samples for a whale pathologist and forensics expert. In fact, Gisiner would be the first of many to stonewall Balcomb in what became years of power struggles, secrecy, lies and litigation linking whale deaths and naval sonar.

In his acknowledgments, Horwitz says that he might never have written the book if he’d known “the depth of my ignorance concerning whales, submarines, the Navy, the ocean, and the law ...” Nevertheless, he has assembled this complex puzzle and portrayed its numerous players — sometimes, as with Balcomb’s biography and interspecies communication, at unnecessary length — by delving into Cold War history, and national security versus environmental policy.

Balcomb and Gisiner had been graduate students together in marine mammalogy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Horwitz notes. Balcomb was also a Navy veteran whose specialty had been acoustics, which aroused his curiosity about effects of loud underwater sounds on whales.

Professionally, the men had gone separate ways. While Gisiner climbed the government ladder, Balcomb never finished a doctorate; he lived a more hand-to-mouth existence on research grants and donations.

What the Navy didn’t understand was that Balcomb was the wrong guy to underestimate. He knew quite a bit of classified information from years at sea, was passionate about marine life and had no quit in him.

On a flight over nearby islands the day after the strandings, he saw a destroyer. That ship, he suspected, revealed secret war games. But when he asked Gisiner in another call, his former classmate changed the subject.

From there, “War of the Whales” follows events and sets them in context: After 9/11, the Navy claimed national security to justify sonar tests. It had Bush administration backing. But Balcomb and company had the National Resources Defense Council’s ace lawyer, Joel Reynolds, and his allies.

Horwitz also explains sonar’s role in fleet safety, testing effects of such unnatural signals on sea animals and the gradual scientific acceptance linking excessive noise with strandings.

Suits, appeals and maneuvering all the way to the Supreme Court expose a fascinating but sometimes demoralizing conflict, since the book depicts yet another example of the executive branch of government operating as though it were above the law. That Horwitz persevered and made this important battle public is admirable.

Former Seattleite Irene Wanner lives and writes in New Mexico.

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