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Dead Beaked WhaleWhen 17 beaked whales beached themselves in the North Bahamas, Ken Balcomb knew something was wrong.

Balcomb, as fate would have it, not only lived a few feet from one of the beaches, he was also a beaked whale researcher. Perhaps more significant than either of these facts, Balcomb had also served two tours in the navy doing classified work with submarine sonar systems. He was very likely the most qualified person to understand what had happened to these cetaceans.

Beaked whales are deep-diving champions. They dive deeper (to almost 3 kilometers) and spend more time in the depths than either sperm whales or elephant seals, their closest mammalian competition. It is rare that they venture into shallow waters, and rarer still for so many to beach themselves simultaneously.

After finding the whales, Balcomb had some of them decapitated and their heads sent for zoological autopsies. In the subsequent days, Balcomb photographed navy destroyers in the nearby waters. When he received the results back from the autopsies, he was certain the navy had inadvertently caused these whales’ deaths.

The autopsy reports revealed the whales had all suffered cerebral hemorrhaging, a result of navy sonar being so loud that it burst the blood vessels in the beaked whales’ brains. Balcomb was a navy veteran and had no wish to incriminate an institution he was still fiercely loyal to, but his conscience as a scientist impelled him to action.

Balcomb held a press conference with the Natural Resources Defense Council at the National Press Club, revealed all his evidence, photographs and videotapes, and explained how the navy was responsible. It was broadcast on 60 Minutes and soon forced the navy to conduct an investigation.

This was back in 2000. Since that time, the navy has begun applying for permits when conducting training exercises in areas with high whale concentrations. It is now understood that in places where navy frigates sweep above undersea canyons, the sounds generated by the ships collects in the canyons like water in a bathtub, echoing and rebounding but never escaping. This causes major stress and even death in whales.

Today, the shipping industry in general is also more cognizant of the effect sonar and other noise pollution has on whales. Environmentalists are currently pushing for geographic and seasonal exclusions to shipping and navy routes, though such initiatives are ongoing.

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