Royal Navy ‘making whales deaf’ while blowing up unexploded bombs, activists say

Ministry of Defence must switch to less noisy methods, campaigners argue

Tim Wyatt
Monday 05 July 2021 11:43 BST
The Royal Navy regularly detonates unexploded World War Two bombs lying on the sea floor
The Royal Navy regularly detonates unexploded World War Two bombs lying on the sea floor (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

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Campaigners have accused the Royal Navy of continuing to damage the hearing of whales and dolphins when blowing up Second World War bombs undersea, despite having bought technology which could dispose of unexploded munitions more safely.

In a written answer to a parliamentary question, the defence procurement minister Jeremy Quin said the Royal Navy’s specialist divers had carried out 107 underwater detonations in British waters in the past decade.

Most of these are German bombs which fell into the oceans during raids in the Second World War, but must be removed when they pose a hazard or are in the way of offshore construction schemes.

Traditionally, divers attach a small charge to the 70-year-old explosives and detonate them remotely, setting off a huge underwater blast.

Although the Royal Navy says it checks no marine wildlife is in the area before setting off the explosion, campaigners argue this ignores the damage caused to the hearing of mammals such as dolphins and whales.

A bomb going off underwater can cause a huge sound wave affecting creatures as far as 30km away and some experts believe as many as 60 animals go deaf for every bomb the Royal Navy detonate.

However, Mr Quin also revealed in his written answer the Ministry of Defence has purchased more than 600 systems which can clear unexploded ordnance without causing a destructive underwater explosion.

Despite this, the Royal Navy has not used this more environmentally-friendly “low order deflagration” method once in the past decade.

The low order deflagration method uses a specialist shaped charge to rapidly burn through the casing of the bomb before igniting the explosives inside.

A study by the National Physical Laboratory published last year found using low order deflagration methods to dispose of unexploded bombs caused much less underwater noise.

Using low order methods offers a “substantial reduction in acoustic output over traditional high-order methods, with the peak sound pressure level and sound exposure level observed being typically more than 20 dB lower”, the scientists concluded.

Campaigners said it was vital the MoD switched to less destructive and noisy methods to dispose of unexploded bombs.

The hearing of marine mammals is as vital to everyday life as sight was to humans, said Danny Groves, from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) charity.

Whales or dolphins which lose their hearing struggle to navigate around the oceans, communicate with fellow animals and effectively find food, putting their survival at risk.

“We support the use of less damaging methods of ordnance clearance and the MoD should be no exception. As our allies in the fight against climate change, we should be looking to protect whales not destroy them,” Mr Groves told The Times.

The actress Joanna Lumley has also been leading a campaign called Stop Sea Blasts, calling on the government to use low order deflagration techniques wherever possible.

The campaign’s spokesperson said: “The Ministry of Defence has the capability to clear munitions in a way that better protects the marine environment, but isn’t doing so. They have no excuse.

“The government should be protecting marine habitats, not dragging its feet. They should ensure the Royal Navy immediately starts using low order deflagration wherever possible.”

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “The Royal Navy [recognises] the impact of underwater noise on marine life when unexploded ordnance is cleared. Prior to any mine clearance activity, safety checks and environmental risk assessments are carried out to minimise the risk to marine life.”

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