It made them crazy, drove them mad – that sound, that unholy cacophony. Twice as loud as a jet engine, louder than artillery – louder than any naturally occurring oceanic noise. Emitted by a low frequency underwater sonar array used by our US Navy to detect submarines. Testing of this sonar drove a pod of 50 frantic pilot whales ashore the evening of July 16th on the coast of St Simons Island, Georgia – USA.
To be honest, I cannot confirm the sonar drove the whales ashore. But I can confirm the presence of nearby undersea naval exercises at the time of the stranding. There is much research linking sonar pulses to whale strandings. And, to me, the circumstantial evidence is adequate and undeniable.
Pilot whales – like all dolphins – see sound. They use clicks, whistles and grunts to create a 3D sono-image of their surroundings.
“To enter into the perceptual world of whales and dolphins, you would have to change your primary sense from sight to sound. Your brain would process, synthesize, and store sound pictures rather than visual images. Individuals and other creatures would be recognized either by the sounds they made, or by the echoes they returned from the sounds you made. Your sense of neighborhood, of where you are and who you are with, would be a sound sense.” // Excerpt from “Mind in the Waters” by Joan McIntrye
When whales are blasted by industrial-military grade noise – it doesn’t just rupture eardrums and cause headaches – it blinds and disorients them. Imagine if every time you opened your eyes all you could see was the painful, white-hot, light of the sun – the bright, intense light burns your retinas – and that was all you saw. It would be torture. These whales were tortured.
On July 16th, the navy began submarine exercises off the coast of Georgia where the continental shelf drops deep. A grand pod of pilot whales – fifty animals strong – also patrolled the edge of the shelf. Toward shore, the ocean is only 25 or 30 feet deep – 2 miles further offshore it is 700 feet deep. Both the Navy and the whales are drawn to this submarine escarpment – the Navy to test equipment, the whales to feed.
The whales moved slow, inhaled deep, oxygenated their blood for the chase to come. They detected giant squid far below and their clicks came faster, excited. The squid were huge – hundreds of pounds and twenty feet long. With a graceful curve and powerful tail flick the whales dove fast and deep in a colossal headlong rush down the face of the shelf. 50 whales, the smallest 10 feet long, the largest 25 feet long – launched head first over the edge of the underwater cliff, clicking and grunting to each other. They dropped away from the sparkling sun-lit surface into the dark, cold depths. They were ecstatic – thrilled by the hunt – they closed with the big squid at 20 knots through the blackness. Each whale sent out clicks and whistles – almost buzzing – to detect the squid in the dark. Suddenly, a low, loud BRRAAAATTTTTT – then another and another – filled their heads with searing pain, flashes of sound-light that sent them reeling to the surface. Disoriented, they gathered close to each other for security – blinded and bewildered. The noise was unnatural, human. The old ones led the shattered pod west – swimming fast away from the sound – to the only place they knew humans gathered. On the way, whenever they submerged, the god-awful noise drove them back to the surface.
Ashore, it was a quiet evening, mid to high tide, no storms in the vicinity, hot but not much hotter than it had been for weeks, sea temperature in the mid-80’s. The sun was just starting its slide over the western horizon and the light on the beach, palms and houses was magnificent. No reason to expect horror or calamity. Off the southeast tip of St Simons Island – from the pier past the lighthouse all the way to East Beach, black fins appeared in the chop and light swell. No dolphins or sharks these, under each fin swashed a broad back and the whales blew tall spouts of water with their swoosh exhale. Surfers, fishermen , lifeguards and holiday makers turned to see the pod approach the beaches – mystified. The whales rode the waves ashore, thrashed in the surf – blew and squirmed, struggled, frantic. Their 1000 pound bodies – designed to chase squid in the cool black depths off the continental shelf – now stuck helpless on the hard unforgiving sand of St Simons. Squeaking, clicking and grunting they tried to get the humans to listen. The people did not understand. They were stunned, shocked – they had never seen anything like this.
The whales came to the beach for help, they came to the beach with a message. They came to the only crowded beach for 50 miles in either direction. Ten miles south or north of St Simons the beaches were empty. On them, there was nobody to help, nobody to tell. The whales knew where to find us. They knew we caused the noise. They knew we could stop it. They threaded their way thru four miles of shoals and sand to reach the only beach where thousands of people surf, wade, fish and stroll. They came to beg us for mercy. They came to beg us to silence our noise.
They did find mercy. Surfers, fishermen, sunburnt tourists and islanders jumped into the waves to push and drag the big whales back out to deep water. There were opportunistic sharks and three of the whales succumbed – but most of them got back to deep water thanks to the heroic efforts of people on the beach. The watermen shook their heads and said there must be something very wrong out there driving the whales ashore.
The people on the beach helped the whales that day, but didnt hear the deeper message. We raced to rescue the stranded ones – it was an emergency, and we are good with emergencies – they get our attention and empathy. But we still blast the ocean with noise, litter it with plastic, violate it with sewage, spew our toxins into it. We do not see any link between our actions and whales stranding. Mother Ocean comes ashore suicidal – weeping and helpless – begging us for wisdom and understanding. Blinded by our own cleverness and arrogance, we can’t hear her.
Listen to me now, children – the whales have a message. When we decide throwing thermonuclear fireballs at each other is murder, not heroism – when submarines are rust piles on the bottom of the ocean, their toxic heart snuffed – when military is forgotten and tanks and bombs are useless – when money is forgotten and its glass and steel towers collapse in rust and ruin – when sharks and mackerel swim in a quiet ocean around silent rigs and derricks – when flowers and grass take over parking lots and interstates – when the only entertainment is a good fire. Then a free and wild people will inhabit the ruins, sail the seas, wander the deserts, amble the mountains and valleys. We’ll fish a clean and sacred ocean. We’ll hunt the wild and holy plains. We’ll tend our gardens and teach our children peace and awe. We’ll pray our thanks to all the gods of creation. We’ll gather and feast and dance our joy around spectacular bonfires to wild music played on strange, enchanted, immaculate wooden instruments. We will come home to our place among wild things.
So say the whales……