Defending the Silence of the Seas By BRUCE JOFFE News Analysis

Special to the Planet
Friday March 04, 2005

Imagine you are walking downtown with the two kids in tow. It’s Saturday afternoon. The streets are bustling with people. Suddenly, The Noise, louder than anything you’ve ever heard, blasts your attention. It sounds like the pulsing pressure of a motorcycle, grating like a car alarm, with the intensity of a foghorn blasting right into your ears. What the? It’s so LOUD! Gotta get away. Where is it coming from? People on the street are running every which way, hands glued to their ears, eyes squinting with pain. Not that way. Not there. Try inside the building. Where’s Susie? You look down at her terrified face. Blood is trickling from her ears. Her eyes are about to explode. You can’t bend down to carry her because your hands are locked over your ears. It doesn’t help. The Noise is blaring inside your head. You head into the building. The pulsing. The grating. Machine guns are shooting into your ears. People are falling over each other. You can’t hear their screams. You only feel the pulsing pain. And the warm blood running down your neck. 

A horror something like this happens to the intelligent animals that live in the sea, whales and dolphins, when the U.S. Navy activates its hyper-loud, under-water sound blaster called Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System (SURTASS) Low Frequency Active (LFA) sonar. The Navy’s LFA sonar blasts The Noise so loudly that whale ear drums break, their sinuses explode, blood hemorrhages in their brains and lungs. In March, 2000, immediately after a Navy LFA sonar test in the Bahamas, fourteen whales  

ended up “stranded”; their dead bodies washed up on the sand. Biologists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute examined them and observed the tissue damage. The Navy’s test blared The Noise at 195 decibels (dB). LFA sonar’s full operating volume of 240 dB is 20,000 times LOUDER. 

Under the sea, sunlight dims quickly. Deeper than 100 ft., little can be seen. Whales and dolphins use sound to find food, to evade danger, to watch over their young, to communicate with their mates, and to keep their group together as they swim on their migrations. Their sense of hearing is highly developed and very sensitive. They can hear much better than humans, and like bats, they use sound echoes to locate prey and each other. While we use sight to orient ourselves, to know where we are and to communicate, whales and dolphins use hearing. Caught within the radius of The Noise, sea mammals get disoriented. They can’t hear, they can’t see, they don’t know where they are, or which way is up. They loose their young. Those not killed from tissue damage starve from deafness. 

As sound travels outward from its source, it attenuates. Yet, even at distances between 100 to 200 miles from the LFA, where the 240 dB Noise diminishes to “only” 160 dB, severe tissue damage still occurs in sea mammals. Deafness, disorientation, and other dysfunctions occur wherever The Noise is louder than 120 dB, more than 1,000 miles from the LFA source. 

Why is the Navy sound-blasting the silent seas? Navy documents claim they need loud, “active” sonar to detect enemy submarines over long distances. But Rear Admiral Malcom Fages has pointed out that passive (silent) listening systems are more effective. Former Director of the U.S. Naval Weapons Lab, Dr. Charles Bernard, says that active sonar identifies the source vessel and highlights our own submarines as well as enemy subs, thereby placing our own personnel in jeopardy. LFA would alert an enemy to our intention to track them. It would give them warning to take evasive action. 

Others have said that the Navy needs active sonar to communicate with our deep-water nuclear subs. Normally, these fully-loaded behemoths deploy large, floating antennas to pick up low-frequency radio waves in order to know whether to launch their nukes and go to war. But when they are in “stealth” mode, deep under water where radio waves don’t penetrate, only sound messages travel through the dark ocean’s depths. So, to control our nuclear arsenal, the Navy must send sound signals to its subs. The LFA hyper-loud speakers are being deployed to reach them wherever they may be, The death and injury of thousands of creatures is considered unfortunate, unavoidable, collateral damage. 

A strange thing happens to sound deep under the sea. Within the first 400 to 500 feet, wave action and warming from the sun keep the water turbulent. Below the turbulent surface area lies a stable layer of deep water called the isothermal sound channel, capable of conveying sound over thousands of miles with little attenuation. Eons ago, whales discovered this and use it for navigation and long distance communication. When the Navy’s LFA sonar is fully deployed, 80 percent of the world’s ocean could be polluted with sound. Sound so loud, according to the Marine Mammal  

Commission’s 1997 report to Congress, that uncountable numbers of living creatures will die. What will happen to the ecology of the ocean? What will happen to our source of seafood? What will happen to us, if we allow such pain and suffering to be unleashed upon other feeling beings? Will we still be able to call ourselves human? Or will we become “golem,” soul-less creatures in human shape? 

“National security”, “homeland security”, “protection from terrorists,” these are the magic mantras that fuel the Navy’s single-minded quest to wire up the seas like a huge loudspeaker. So focused are they on this one technology that their response to thousands of objections to the Navy’s Environmental Impact Statement on deploying SURTASS-LFA has been to seek exemption from the environmental review process. Undeterred that the LFA technology is not as effective, and also more dangerous, than passive sonar, the Navy has not seriously looked at alternative technologies. There are other ways to communicate with our hidden nuclear submarines. Effective methods exist that would not damage and possibly destroy nearly all sound-sensitive sea creatures. 

One such alternative is the use of Local Acoustic Transducers (LATs). These are relatively inexpensive, floating devices that contain radio receivers and low-level acoustic transducers (speakers). When the Navy needs to communicate with a particular sub, a coded message could be sent via satellite to the floating radio buoys. Only the buoys nearest the specific sub would activate its sonar transducers. Being closer to the sub, its sound would not need to be as loud as the LFA sonar. Being specifically activated, the total amount of noise in the sea would be greatly reduced,  

and the sea animals and fish would be spared suffering a horrible death. Inexpensive buoys could be anchored to the sea floor, and be regularly replaced if they were dislodged. Highly sensitive microphones on the subs would enable them to receive communications within a range of several hundred miles from each floating LAT. Enough LATs could be deployed so that each sub would be within range of two or three LATs to assure accurate communication. 

Perhaps even better technologies are possible as well. But none will be explored unless the Navy is stopped from deploying SURTASS-LFA sonar. Funds for this deadly program (over $ 350 million has already been spent) should be reassigned to other methods. Our Senators and Congress representatives need to know that we are concerned and opposed to the Navy’s sonic blasters. Gordon England, Secretary of the Navy, and Donna Weiting, Chief of the National Marine Fisheries Service, as well as President Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld need to know that destruction of the silent sea and most of the ocean’s life is not a viable option for living on Earth. 


Bruce Joffe is the founding principal of GIS Consultants in Oakland, which provides geographic information planning, management, and public policy services to public agencies.