Out around the Hawaiian Islands this month, 41 warships from eight Pacific Rim nations are practicing naval warfare. Among other things, they're looking for "enemy" submarines lurking in shallow waters where they're harder to find.
But ships' officers and crew will be scanning the ocean just as closely for something else: whales and dolphins that may be harmed by the active sonar used to find enemy subs.
This is after a flurry of legal activity over the RIMPAC ("Rim of the Pacific") naval exercises under way near Hawaii came to a head Friday, when the National Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups settled a case with the Navy over halting the use of sonar.
Under the settlement, sonar may be used as part of RIMPAC. But the Navy may not use active sonar within 25 miles of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, the nature preserve recently established by President Bush. Aircraft spotters and sailors aboard ship will watch for whales as well as listen for them using underwater microphones.
"This is a significant step forward in the protection of our oceans," said Richard Kendall, an attorney working with NRDC and representing the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Cetacean Society International, the Ocean Futures Society, and Jean-Michel Cousteau.
After the NRDC sued to stop the use of sonar, the Defense Department argued the exercises were important to national security, and granted the Navy a six-month exemption from restrictions under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.
But citing "considerable convincing scientific evidence demonstrating that the Navy's use of ... sonar can kill, injure and disturb many marine species," federal Judge Florence-Marie Cooper in Los Angeles issued a temporary restraining order blocking the Navy's sonar exercises.
Indeed, for years there's been a debate on sonar's impact on marine mammals.
Environmentalists and many marine biologists believe that active sonar, which involves "pinging" a target miles away with high-intensity sound and then trying to identify the return echo, can interfere with the ability of intelligent marine mammals to find food, avoid predators, navigate, and communicate. At higher intensities, experts believe, sonar (an acronym for "sound navigation and ranging") can damage ears, brains, and other organs, causing animals to rush for shallower waters.
Several times in recent years, whales have stranded themselves and died on beaches near naval exercises that included the use of active sonar.
During naval exercises two years ago, 150 melon-headed whales became temporarily stranded in the shallow waters of Hanalei Bay off the Hawaiian island of Kauai. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials concluded that the most likely cause was Navy sonar.
Though the cold war has ended, and Russian submarines are not a threat, the Navy says at least 40 countries, including Iran, North Korea, and China, now have the quieter diesel-electric subs that are cheaper to build and harder to detect.
The concern, described in a Navy document, is that an attack on, say, a supertanker in a choke point such as the Strait of Malacca linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans could shut down an avenue of commerce – including the daily passage of 11 million barrels of Middle East oil.
Such threats are part of military planning today, especially since terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda have shown that they can attack civilian targets virtually anywhere in the world. Osama bin Laden reportedly has as many as 20 sea-going freighters at his disposal.
"Many submarines are commercially available and can be easily found on the Internet, ostensibly for the purpose of tourism," states the Navy. "It is not a broad stretch to imagine one in the hands of a fanatical terrorist organization."
For this reason, Rear Adm. James Symonds, director of environmental readiness for the Navy, said when the settlement was reached, "It is critically important that we have been able to turn active sonar on for the rest of the RIMPAC exercise."