World-renowned orca expert Ken Balcomb, who is the executive director of the Center for Whale Research and was the recipient of the Seattle Aquarium’s 2006 Conservation Research Award, is a principal player in “War of the Whales,” a gripping new book by Joshua Horwitz.
Reading more like an intrigue novel than a factual account, the book tells the true story of the struggle to balance the needs—and the very survival—of whales in our world’s ocean against the needs of the government to protect its citizenry. At the center of the story are environmental attorney Joel Reynolds, Ken Balcomb and, of course, the majestic whales themselves.
Ken recently agreed to answer a few questions for us about the book and what has become his life’s work—studying and working to protect whales.
Q: Who should read “War of the Whales” and why?
A: Anyone concerned with the welfare of wildlife should read “War of the Whales” because the story is essentially about national defense versus environmental defense. Perhaps there is no clearer example of societal momentum having paid too little attention to environmental degradation, with the result that even a clear choice is now extremely difficult because of unknown and/or unforeseen potential consequences. The reader is shown all angles on this important subject that has not heretofore had much public concern.
Q: The book details the effects of sonar—a technique that uses sound to navigate, communicate or detect objects underwater—on whales. What happens to a whale when it’s exposed to sonar?
A: It is the sudden onset of fast rise high amplitude sound waves that is most alarming to a whale, and then it keeps on happening—like if you were inches away from a fire alarm when it intermittently sounded. You might have instantaneous hearing damage if the alarm sound was loud enough and you would naturally try to move away; but in water the sound is transmitted very efficiently at high amplitude for long distances, causing a large area known as “the zone of injury.” Whales will naturally try to move away and escape from this zone, but they cannot move as fast as the sound waves. The precise mechanism of the injuries seen in whales that die in or near this zone is debated; but, it is no longer debated whether significant numbers of whales die, many of them far beyond the zone. Whales that frantically get as far away as possible from the zone may swim into shallow water and onto beaches, leading to death by other causes such as overheating, gas bubble trauma and shark attacks. Nonetheless, the cause of these deaths can be reasonably attributed to sonar.
Q: Are all whale species affected similarly by sonar?
A: Different species of whale respond differently, partly depending upon their hearing frequency specialization, partly depending upon their natural behavior repertoire—such as shy species, inquisitive species or fearless species—and partly depending upon their personal experience. It also depends upon the amplitude of the sonar in the vicinity of the whale.
Q: Are there other forms of underwater noise that are as damaging to whales as sonar?
A: Other underwater “noise” events that can be as damaging as sonar to whales include underwater explosions such as bombs; air guns used for undersea oil exploration and seismic research; earthquakes; and lightning strikes. Explosives and air guns have zones of mortality and injury that have been well-studied. Earthquakes and lightning strikes can produce extremely loud broadband noise events underwater, but these are usually transient episodes with lots of low frequency energy in the environment in which marine mammals evolved.
Q: What other marine animals are impacted by sonar and/or underwater noise?
A: More studies are required to create a complete list of marine animals that are affected by sonar and/or underwater noise, but essentially all mammals and hearing-capable vertebrates are liable to be affected, depending upon “exposure” levels and frequencies. All creatures can be affected by explosions, and the injury/mortality data is available for both in-air and underwater for many laboratory species.
Q: How frequently are the Southern Resident orcas impacted by sonar/other forms of underwater noise?
A: In the inland marine waters of Washington State, the Southern Residents are rarely exposed to sonar nowadays, but they have suffered some very high exposures in the not-too-distant past from both the U.S. and Canada.
Q: What can people do to help?
A: The public should learn about this subject and generally be suspicious of “spin-doctoring” the story to favor a particular “side” to the discussion. I think the book is very balanced, and the reviews from all sides have been favorable-to-humbling from the point of view of this protagonist. Of course, contributions to our nonprofit Center for Whale Research help me recruit and train the next generation of dedicated whale researchers; and contributions to the Seattle Aquarium help educate the people about these amazing animals.
We thank Ken for his insightful responses to our questions! “War of the Whales” is available for sale at the Seattle Aquarium gift shop.