Sonar Systems Are Killing Whales On 'Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know'

When humans began traversing the great wide oceans, we relied heavily on the stars to navigate – leaving us vulnerable to objects, animals, land masses, and enemy ships that couldn’t be detected visually. So we borrowed from nature. Mammals like bats, dolphins, and whales use echolocation to get around, sending sound waves out and listening for how the waves interact. The shallower the water, or the closer an object or animal was, the more quickly the sound would return. Using this naturally occurring phenomenon, we created sonar to navigate the oceans, map the sea floors, detect icebergs, shipwrecks, and other ocean vessels, and many more applications. But as it turns out, this sonar is harming the very creatures that inspired it. On this episode of Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know, Ben Bowlin, Noel Brown, and Matt Frederick tell us about how sonar damages marine mammals and their habitats, and how the military fought to keep using it anyway.

To illustrate how our sonar affects underwater wildlife, Ben asks us to imagine that we’re all sitting together at an Applebee’s enjoying ourselves when suddenly a guy bursts in and starts playing music so loudly that it leaves us with permanent damage in our eardrums. In this metaphor, the ocean is the Applebee’s, marine life is us, and we are the guy ruining everyone’s nice time. The music? Our low- to mid-range frequency sonar systems. And it messes with whales and other marine life in numerous ways. Not only does our noise disrupt their communications, we’ve actually used it against them: Whalers discovered that frequencies of 3,000 hertz would make whales to go into panic mode, causing them to surface more frequently – which gave them more opportunities to shoot them. 

To be fair, the U.S. Navy didn’t set out to harm marine life like these whalers did, but it’s undeniable that harm occurred. In 1996, twelve whales beached themselves alive on the coast of Greece, and it was proven that they did it as a direct result of a naval exercise involving low frequency sonar. Since then, a lot of research has been done about “atypical mass strandings” like this one, and concluded that nearly every single one coincided with military sonar tests and exercises. But the military lobbied to keep sonar active, arguing that it was “for the greater good” of national security, and that we needed it to stay in step with other countries. Obviously, whales couldn't take the Navy to court – but environmentalists did. Listen to learn more about whales, their extraordinary echolocation abilities, and what we’ve done to harm – and protect – them, on Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know

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