Video: Orca and Navy Sonar

Duration: 04:31
Usage Note: This video is intended for use as B-Roll footage for reporters and editors.

Navy sonar harms whales and dolphins. Watch this video shot by the Center for Whale Research in Washington State. Hear what the sonar sounds like and see what it does to these marine mammals. Earthjustice is working to get the Navy to use their sonar in places where it won’t harm whales and dolphins.

The incident recorded in this video occurred in Puget Sound in May 2003. (Watch narrated video.) It was investigated by the National Marine Fisheries Service, Office of Protected Resources, who filed a report in 2005: Assessment of Acoustic Exposures on Marine Mammals in Conjunction with USS Shoup Active Sonar Transmissions in the Eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca and Haro Strait, Washington. (Note: This assessment has been taken down from the NOAA website. A similar study can be found here. What appears to be a revision of the original assessment appears here: This document might also be informative: 4-13-2020 update: Just found the original pdf document on the Internet Archive! We’ve uploaded it to our own site for safekeeping. The original ink in the first sentence of this paragraph has been updated.

For a general overview of NOAAs Marine Acoustics programs and links to further information, visit:

And here is a search engine results page which includes many pages and files on various agency websites.

About This Incident: Navy Sonar in Puget Sound

In May 2003, a group of about 20 killer whales and dozens of porpoises were forced to flee the waters near the San Juan Islands in Washington state, after a Navy ship passed by with its active sonar blasting.

The incident was captured by whale researchers from the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. Ken Balcomb, executive director of the Center for Whale Research, narrates this video:

Background Information

A whale’s keen sense of hearing is vital in every aspect of its life history, including foraging for food, finding mates, bonding with offspring, communicating with other members of their species, navigating through lightless waters and avoiding predators.

Experts agree that exposure to sonar blasts can cause serious injury or death from hemorrhages or other tissue trauma. Whales can also suffer from temporary and permanent hearing loss, displacement from preferred habitat, and disruption of feeding, breeding, communication and other behaviors essential to survival.

The use of military sonar has been associated with whale strandings in Greece (1996), the Bahamas (2000), Madeira (2000), Vieques (1998, 2002), the Canary Islands (2002, 2004), the northwest coast of the U.S. (2003), Kauaʻi (2004) and Spain (2006).


Related Earthjustice Litigation

Reducing Harm to Marine Mammals from Navy Sonar in the Pacific: Earthjustice is representing Conservation Council for Hawaiʻi, the Animal Welfare Institute, Center for Biological Diversity and Ocean Mammal Institute in a lawsuit challenging the National Marine Fisheries Service’s approval of a 5-year plan by the U.S. Navy for testing and training activities off Hawaiʻi and Southern California. The Navy and Fisheries Service estimate this training will cause 9.6 million instances of harm to whales, dolphins and other marine mammals. The operations will include active sonar and explosives, which are known to cause permanent injuries and deaths to marine mammals. (Read more about the case.)

Navy Sonar and Marine Mammals: On January 26, 2012, a coalition of conservation and American Indian groups sued the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to protect thousands of whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, and sea lions from U.S. Navy warfare training exercises along the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington. In late 2010, NMFS gave the Navy a permit for five years of expanded naval activity that will harm or “take” marine mammals and other sealife. The permit allows the Navy to conduct increased training exercises that can harm marine mammals and disrupt their migration, nursing, breeding, or feeding, primarily as a result of harassment through exposure to the use of sonar. (Read more about the case.)

North Atlantic Right Whales: In 2010, conservation groups challenged the U.S. Navy’s decision to build a $100 million Undersea Warfare Training Range 50 miles east of Jacksonville, FL, next to the only known calving ground for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. The warfare training grounds would include a system of approximately 300 underwater “sonar nodes” connected by cable to a landside facility some 50 nautical miles away. Scientists believe that the loss of even one right whale from non-natural causes could jeopardize the future of the species.

Navy Sonar and Hawaiian Humpback Whales: In 2008, Hawaiʻi federal district Judge David A. Ezra found that the Navy violated federal law and enjoined it from carrying out its undersea warfare exercises in Hawaiʻi’s waters without adhering to additional mitigation measures to protect marine mammals. Earthjustice had filed suit on behalf of the Ocean Mammal Institute, the Animal Welfare Institute, KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Surfrider Foundation’s Kauaʻi Chapter.

Endangered Species Protections for Southern Residents: In 2005, Earthjustice successfully argued that the Southern Resident orcas in Washington State’s Puget Sound deserve protection under the Endangered Species Act, resulting in new safeguards for the orcas, including the creation of a binding recovery plan, protection for the whales’ critical habitat, and assurances that all federal projects will protect the whales before the projects can proceed.



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