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Are Scientists Hard of Hearing? : Ocean project has whale lovers and environmentalists shouting to be heard

March 25, 1994

A typically modern-day uproar has erupted over a proposal to propagate loud underwater sound waves off the Monterey coast as part of an experiment to measure global climate change. Fearful the sounds would scare off or even deafen whales, hundreds of people have been calling their senators, even as we avert eyes from the human homeless on streets and beaches.

Nonetheless the issue deserves scrutiny. Under a program to divert federal military money to environmental defense, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego proposes to place two six-foot-long, barrel-shaped vibrators 2,800 feet under the ocean--one 25 miles off Point Sur in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the other off the Hawaiian island of Kauai. These deep-sea loudspeakers would issue 20-minute-long low-frequency rumbles several times a day at up to 195 decibels. The sounds would be received thousands of miles away through the new technique of acoustic thermography. The idea is to try to detect any global warning; sound travels faster through warm water than cold water.

Scripps says the sounds would be inaudible to humans on land and would represent only a tiny fraction of the sound energy coming from ship traffic, not to mention earthquakes and marine animals themselves. "The ocean is a noisy place," says David Hyde, project manager, adding that the sound is only a little louder than a blue whale's call.

A challenge has been raised by two sperm whale biologists in Nova Scotia who fear that the noise would disrupt the migration, social communication and feeding of deep-diving whales, highly dependent on sound for survival.

Scripps concedes the whales would hear the sounds but says the plan includes a study of animal behavior: If any harm is detected, Hyde says, the project would be halted or changed immediately. The critics counter that whales are notoriously hard to study and that any damage, such as gradual deafness, may not be recognized until it is too late. They also maintain there are other, less intrusive, means of measuring global warming.

We cannot here adjudicate this scientific dispute. But we urge the National Marine Fisheries Service to move cautiously in the permit procedure. First public notice of the Monterey Bay plan came only seven weeks ago in an obscure item on page 5,177 of the Feb. 3 Federal Register that reported, with a deafening split infinitive, an application "to incidentally harass marine mammals and sea turtles. . . . " After the uproar the service held an unusual public hearing Tuesday and began an environmental assessment. The Monterey Bay sanctuary is an important resource, home to 21 species of whale, dolphin and other mammals. Scripps wants to start this spring. But some delay may be warranted to strengthen safeguards.

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