Drowning in Sound

Sonar can kill whales. But could other noises be just as deadly

14 min read
Opening photo for this feature article.
Photo: Wayne Levin/Getty Images

It was a haunting sight. On a cold, gray day in January 2005, along a remote stretch of beach on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, dozens of pilot whales began to run themselves onto the sand. Eventually 34 of the jet-black, two-ton animals lay dead. The following day, three more whales—a newborn Minke whale and two dwarf sperm whales—washed up nearby.

Although whales can strand for various reasons, including sickness and disorientation, public speculation over the North Carolina stranding quickly zeroed in on a single culprit: military sonar. The U.S. Navy had been conducting a training exercise in the area around the time of the event, and an initial report by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which investigates strandings, listed sonar as a possible cause for the incident (the final report on the stranding was due out as this issue went to press). The Navy stated that the exercise took place about 100 kilometers from where the whales beached, too far to have had any effect. More than a year after the stranding, though, doubts still linger.

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