Whales at Risk From New U.S. Navy Sonar Range, Activists Say

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
November 3, 2005

The U.S. Navy is moving ahead with plans to build an undersea warfare training range on the U.S. East Coast despite fierce opposition from conservation and animal welfare organizations.

Groups opposed to the military project say endangered North Atlantic right whales, dolphins, and sea turtles could potentially be injured or killed from powerful sonar blasts emitted during training exercises.

"Protecting whales and preserving national security are not mutually exclusive," said Fred O'Regan, president of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

An undersea sonar training range already exists off the coast of Hawaii. But the Navy said another one is needed to train its Atlantic fleet because of the growing threat posed by ultra-quiet diesel submarines.

The Navy has identified three possible new training range sites, each about 50 miles (80 kilometers) off the coasts of North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida.

Last week the Navy published a draft environmental impact report. Officials will hold public hearings about the ranges this month near each of the proposed sites.

A final decision on whether to build the 98-million-U.S.-dollar range and its exact location is scheduled for August 2006.

Noise Pollution?

About 160 six-hour training exercises—some held simultaneously—would take place each year at the new range, said Navy spokesperson Jim Brantley.

The proposed range would encompass about 500 square miles (1,300 square kilometers) of ocean. It would be outfitted with 300 undersea acoustic devices called nodes.

The nodes are connected by cable to each other and to a facility on land where the collected data is used to evaluate training performance.

Mid-frequency sonar used during training exercises can emit continuous sound well above 235 decibels—an intensity roughly comparable to a rocket blastoff, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a conservation nonprofit group.

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