Sonar threat to world's whales

Secret naval exercises lead to deaths of thousands of giant mammals worldwide. Stricken whale in Thames dies after dramatic attempt to return it to the ocean

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Secret sonar from naval ships is killing thousands of whales around the world and could have disoriented the two-ton mammal that died last night after becoming stranded in the Thames, an investigation by The Independent on Sunday has established.

The northern bottlenose whale died despite dramatic attempts at a rescue witnessed by thousands of people on the banks of the river, and millions on television. The whale was lifted on to a barge and carried down the river, in the hope that it could be taken to the open sea. But its condition deteriorated, it began to suffer muscle spasms, and it died before anything further could be done.

Experts believe that the whale's senses could have been damaged by military sonar. Some 30 strandings and deaths of whales around the world - from Tasmania to North America - have been linked to its use. The United Nations and other international bodies have warned that it is a major threat to the animals.

The investigation has also revealed that - in a separate, but deeply embarrassing development - the Government faces being hauled before the European Court for failing to take enough care of the whales and dolphins around Britain's shores.

Professor Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University in Canada - acknowledged to be the world's leading expert on northern bottlenose whales - said yesterday that he had never known the deep-ocean species to wander so far from its habitat.

"It would be unusual, and cause concern, for one to be found in the North Sea or English Channel, let alone a long way up a pretty shallow river," he said. "Its nearest habitat would be south-west of Cornwall. We know that beaked whales - the group of species to which the northern bottlenose whale belongs - are particularly sensitive to underwater noise. There has been a lot of seismic activity off northern Scotland and in the North Sea, and I understand that the Royal Navy exercises frequently."

Many strandings and deaths of whales and dolphins have been linked to sonar surveys in recent years (see table). In March 2000, for example, whales of four species beached themselves in the Bahamas after a battle group from the US navy used sonar nearby. A US government investigation established that they had been affected by the sonar. Since then, the area's population of Cuvier's beaked whales has virtually disappeared; investigators conclude that they have either abandoned the area or died at sea.

The Washington-based National Resources Defence Council says that more than 30 such incidents have been linked to sonar use around the world.

Last week, a US court discovered that the US government had cut references to the effects of naval sonar from a report on the stranding of 37 whales in North Carolina a year ago, shortly after military manoeuvres.

Strandings in Britain have more than doubled in the past decade, from 360 in 1994 to 782 in 2004, and vets believe that the number of whales that wash up on shore are only one-tenth of those that die, suggesting that there are thousands of casualties.

Meanwhile, the European Commission has started legal proceedings against Britain for failing adequately to monitor the health of whales and dolphins in its seas.

Strandings: Sonar takes a deadly toll

JAPAN 1990: Six whales die after US Navy tests sonar

GREECE MAY 1996: Twelve Cuvier's beaked whales stranded on the west coast of Greece as Nato sweep the area with sonar.

CANARY ISLANDS JULY 2004: Fourteen whales beach during Nato exercises involving sonar. Strandings in 1985, 1988, 1989, 1991 and 2002 all coincide with naval exercises.

AUSTRALIA NOV 2004: Seventeen whales die in Bass Strait; 50 get stranded 300 miles away; 165 whales and dolphins later found dying. All coincide with sonar activities and seismic surveys.

US JAN 2005: Thirty-nine whales die after US Navy uses sonar in waters off North Carolina.

US March 2005 : Eighty dolphins beach as US Navy sub trails sonar off Florida Keys; 30 die.

TASMANIA OCT 2005: More than 110 pilot whales die; Australian Navy admits to using sonar.

NEW ZEALAND DECEMBER 2005: About 120 pilot whales die in the country's largest beaching for 12 years.

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