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Navy Sonar Blamed for Rattling Whales

May 10, 2003|From Associated Press

SEATTLE — Sonar from a Navy guided-missile destroyer apparently agitated a group of killer whales and dozens of porpoises enough to send them fleeing from the waters southwest of San Juan Island, whale watchers said.

About 20 whales were feeding and behaving normally Monday, when Tom McMillen lowered an underwater microphone into the water to listen to their calls.

He picked up a sound he had never heard before -- a high, shrill whistle that repeated every 25 seconds or so.

"As the sound got louder, the whales gathered up.... They do this when they rest or if there's a stress," McMillen, owner of Salish Sea Charters, said Thursday.

Soon after, the orcas started swimming away.

"They moved north and got out of there," McMillen said. "They looked distressed."

As many as 100 porpoises leaped through the water, appearing to distance themselves from the sound.

As the pinging noise grew louder, McMillen said, he and others on his boat spotted what appeared to be a Navy ship about 10 miles away.

Cmdr. Karen Sellers, spokeswoman for Navy Region Northwest, confirmed the 511-foot destroyer Shoup was using its sonar "briefly" Monday in Haro Strait, a body of water just west of San Juan Island. The ship, based in Everett, Wash., was headed to the Canadian Forces Maritime Experimental Test Range in Nanoose Bay, British Columbia, she said.

The use of Navy sonar has come under intense scrutiny since March 2000, when at least 16 whales and two dolphins beached themselves on an island in the Bahamas.

Eight whales died, and scientists found hemorrhaging around their brains and ear bones, injuries consistent with exposure to loud noise.

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