Wildlife Report: What’s Wrong in the Kingdom of the Blue Whales?

Text by Ryan Bradley; Photograph courtesy of the National Geographic Channel


September on the California coast is particularly lovely, except when there are dead blue whales washing up on shore. That’s what happened two years ago: The largest animal ever to exist on Earth, three of them, dead and bloated and stinky, floated to the beach near Ventura. No one knew what had killed them. One theory suggested that they were struck by the large container ships, and another claimed they became disoriented by Navy sonar tests. Neither was proven, but both seemed partially right. Blue whales are remarkably agile for there size, certainly agile enough to scoop gargantuan amounts of krill, and avoid a big ship—is it possible they became disoriented and were struck? 

It certainly seems possible. A study published in the October 2003 issue of Nature argued that naval sonar exercises could have killed beaked whales in the Canary Islands, located off northwest Africa, by forcing them to surface too quickly, causing decompression sickness, or the bends. In another instance, 14 whales became beached on the same day that U.S. Navy destroyers where engaged in a sonar exercise near the Bahamas. CAT scans of two heads collected from six whales that died confirmed later that the whales experienced hemorrhaging around the brain and ears. 

But last November, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Navy conducting sonar training exercises off Southern California’s coast. The Bush administration argued that, in 40 years, there has been no documented case of sonar-related injury to marine mammals off Southern California. Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the opinion, said the overall public interest in the case tipped strongly in favor of the Navy, according to Reuters.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, who brought the case against the Navy, disagrees. “Scientists have proven that military sonar can injure and even kill whales,” their website asserts (read more). Even though the Navy has won the case, public interest in blue whales is sure to change—to say nothing of the change within the White House since November. 

Learn more about these remarkable, mysterious animals by watching "Kingdom of the Blue Whale" on the National Geographic Channel Sunday night at 8 p.m. (watch video, see photos, learn more). 

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