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Doing right by the right whales

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POSTED: October 25, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Any day now, pregnant right whales will arrive in the shallow waters off the coast of southern Georgia and northern Florida, their calving grounds. Between 20 and 35 females and juveniles make the journey south each fall.
Even though most of us don’t get to see them, the endangered whales spend the winter in their nursery, right off our coast, communicating with each other through sound.
About 12 births occur each year. Last year, 18 babies were born. By mid-April the whales return north, toward the Bay of Fundy, with their calves.
Only about 400 right whales are left. Between 1804 and 1876, U.S. whalers killed 193,000 right whales.
When only 400 of a species are left in the world, you have to do everything possible to avoid further injury.
One thing that harms whales is sonar.
In 2000, a mass stranding of whales on the beaches of the Bahamas was linked to U.S. Navy exercises using mid-frequency sonar. Many of the beached whales died. Some were bleeding from the ears and brain.
Sonar produces intense sound waves that probe the ocean to reveal underwater objects. The waves spread tens and even hundreds of miles.
They create ear-splitting noises as loud as rocket blasts. Navy sonar, in fact, reaches 235 decibels. By comparison, a power saw is 110. The Saturn V rocket launch registered 220.
Low-frequency sonar affects whale behavior, and mid-frequency sonar is lethal.
Still, the U.S. Navy proposes to construct a sonar range off Jacksonville, an undersea warfare training area, to be used for submarine war games. The site is 625 square miles. The Navy says the range will be used 480 times a year, up to six hours at a time.
The western edge of the range will be about 50 miles offshore, and the whales tend to cling closer to the coastline. However, sonar can be heard for enormous distances.
Imagine giving birth during a rocket launch.
If you, like me, are proud of the fact that right whales calve in our Georgia waters, and if you, like me, are worried about the fate of these whales, please let the Navy know. Ask them to protect whales from sonar. From now until Oct. 27, you may submit your comments to:
Naval Facilities Engineering Command, Atlantic
6506 Hampton Boulevard
Norfolk, VA 23508-1278.
Send it Attention: Code EV22LL (USWTR Code EV22SA (Cherry Point).

Author and naturalist Ray is a founding board member of Altamaha Riverkeeper and is on the faculty of Chatham University.
 

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