Whale Activists Try to Sink Sound-Wave Study

Scientists deny it is secret military project, judge prepares final ruling

CONTROVERSIAL scientific research that would send sound waves through the Pacific Ocean to measure temperatures is poised to go forward.

Two years ago the plan drew criticism from environmental groups, which said the underwater boomboxes might harm marine mammals. So the proposal was modified: The noise would be weaker and emanate from 3,000-foot depths.

But not all the critics have been satisfied.

The Great Whales Foundation, based in San Francisco, is waging a last-ditch legal fight to pull the plug on the experiments.

In allegations that seem like a blend of James Bond and Sea Quest, the group says the climate research not only may hurt whales but also is really a cover for secret Pentagon research into areas such as communications and acoustic mapping. The Defense Department is funding the research as part of post-cold-war efforts to use military investments - in this case underwater listening devices - for civilian uses.

''The military does a lot of work through contractors and there's always 'plausible deniability','' says Francis Jeffrey, a spokesman for the Great Whales Foundation. Without the civilian-use project, the Defense Department's listening devices would likely be shut down to save money.

Oceanographers at the University of California's Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who are conducting the research, acknowledge that their experiments could have implications beyond climate study. But they say allegations of a hidden agenda belong in the fiction category right alongside Agent 007.

''It's absolutely untrue,'' says Peter Worcester, one of the Scripps researchers in La Jolla, Calif.

''It just seems implausible to me,'' adds John Calambokidis, a marine biologist in Olympia, Wash., who studies whales.

But the Great Whales Foundation has petitioned the court in hopes of forcing the California Coastal Commission to reverse its decision earlier this year to go ahead with the experiments.

On Sept. 22, a California Superior Court judge refused to hear the foundation's petition. But the foundation was given a month to amend the petition to try to make its case stick. Victory in court appears to be a long shot, but the group could win if public opinion turned against the project.

Mr. Worcester says the earth's heat-trapping oceans play a critical but poorly understood role in climate patterns. By testing the time it takes for sounds to travel thousands of miles, researchers can obtain a clear picture of average ocean temperatures in large regions.

If initial tests along the California coast are effective, the project could gradually be expanded to include transmissions from other sites around the world. The sounds initially will consist of 20-minute-long signals.

The Great Whales Foundation suggests that the climate research be conducted using regular thermometers. Mr. Jeffrey sees the project as just another example of humans encroaching on ocean mammals, intelligent creatures that ''rely primarily on sound for imaging their environment. Who are we to intrude?'' he asks.

Mr. Calambokidis sees it another way. He says that large ships are ''already in the ocean generating low-frequency sounds as loud and in some cases louder than the proposed ATOC project.'' ATOC, the plan's formal name, stands for Acoustic Thermometry of Ocean Climate.

The project will fund ''the first real comprehensive assessment of the impacts these types of sounds may be having on marine mammals,'' says Calambokidis, one of the scientists involved in the study.

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