I have been fighting this fight since arriving in the United States five years ago. I, and others, have written articles, emails, speeches and pleas until our hands and hearts ache – to no avail.

The waters of Coastal Georgia are a wonderland of thriving and diverse life. Teeming with the creatures of the sea and the air, our marsh-and-ocean cradle offers an unparalleled opportunity for those who seek to observe the intricacy and magnificence of the natural world. Dolphins, manatee, crabs, loggerhead sea turtles, fish (from the miniscule to the awe-inspiring), sea birds and countless others create an ever-changing dreamscape of birth, death, renewal and endurance.

But it is the North Atlantic right whale – the official State Mammal of Georgia – that most intrigues and enthralls. It is here that, from November to April of each year, our area plays (most honored) host to the right whales as they perform their annual pilgrimage from the far northern waters to their ancient calving grounds. Unheard by human ears, unseen (for the most part), this vast, but infinitely fragile creature, travels through the oceanic depths with single-minded purpose: the survival of its own species.

During mid-summer and into the fall months, large numbers of right whales migrate to Canadian waters, where they are frequently observed in the Bay of Fundy and the western Scotian Shelf. Here they feed and gain strength while fully protected. They then travel the timeworn, oceanic paths to the calving grounds of offshore Jacksonville, Florida. It is a redeeming cycle of ancient mystery and beauty.

Majestic animals of uncommon intelligence, their fate rests in the precarious balance between conservation and human development as these regal and peaceful behemoths traverse the miles between their feeding territory and the calving-home. It is a journey that is fraught with peril, for these are some of the most densely congested shipping areas of our oceans – but the biological imperative will not be denied or altered by mere human interference. And so the circle remains, though ragged and endangered, unbroken.

Approximately 350 right whales are thought to be alive today, according to the number of whales recently photographed and individually identified. 350 – and scientists believe that the worldwide population prior to 1700 (the start of commercial whaling) was, roughly, 300,000 individuals. (Yes, “individuals”, for each whale is unique in appearance, mannerisms, voice and essence). Right whales were given protection in 1935 when researchers estimated that there were only about 100 right whales left in the North Atlantic Ocean. Many feared that the northern right whale would become extinct – and their predictions are perilously close to being realized.

Right whales were so named because early whalers considered them the “right” whale to hunt. In the early centuries of shore-based whaling, right whales were, virtually, the only large whales the whalers were able to catch. Often found very close to shore where they could be spotted by lookouts, they were hunted from beach-based whaleboats. Man benefitted from the gentle presence of these creatures and, is often the case, did not count the eventual loss.

Though the sheer size of the right whale can beggar the imagination, try to envision them now. Right whales can grow up to 60 ft long (pace your own home to see this) and weigh up to 100 tons. Their rotund bodies are primarily black, with distinctive callosities (roughened patches of skin) on their heads, a broad back without a dorsal fin, and a long arching mouth that begins above the eye.

Right whales are baleen whales. (Baleen refers to a fringed, mustache-like material found in their mouths). These whales have no teeth but draw in the food contained in massive quantities of water. (The food is trapped behind the baleen when the excess water is expelled). They are seasonal feeders that filter feed plankton and tiny crustaceans such as copepods, krill, pteropods and so forth.

Females reach sexual maturity at 6–12 years and breed every 3–5 years with both reproduction and calving taking place during the winter months. Calves are approximately 1 ton in weight and 13–20 ft in length at birth following a gestation period of 1 year. The right whale grows rapidly in its first 12 months of life, typically doubling in length. Weaning occurs after eight months to one year and the growth rate in later years is not well understood – it may be highly dependent on whether a calf stays with its mother for a second year.

The strongest long-term bond in right whale society is that between mother and calf. This is also this increasingly threatened species’ most fragile link for, in the presence of ocean-going vessels, sonar “noise” and other human interference, the calf may wander from its mother and become disoriented and lost. Thus the chain is tragically broken.

Very little is known about the life span of right whales for they are so scarce that scientists cannot fully study them. One of the few pieces of evidence is the case of a mother North Atlantic right whale that was photographed with her baby in 1935, then photographed again in 1959, 1980, 1985 and 1992 (callosity patterns were used to ensure that it was the same animal). Finally, she was photographed in 1995. She was approximately 70 years of age the time of her death – and this was caused by a ship-strike, not “natural-cause”.

Vocalizations made by right whales are not elaborate compared to those made by other whale species. The whales make “groans, pops and belches” that are typically around 500 Hz. The purpose of the vocalizations is not known but is thought to be a form of communication between whales within the same group. When danger is present, a group of right whales “call out” to one another rapidly and then come together in a circle, with their tails pointing outwards, to deter a predator. A report published in December 2003 found that right whales responded immediately upon hearing tones that were similar to police sirens: tones of much higher frequency than those made by whales. On hearing the sounds the whales moved quickly to the surface thus placing themselves in a position of extreme vulnerability.

Researchers speculate that this information may be useful in attempts to reduce the number of ship-whale collisions during their migration through the congested shipping lane routes from Canada to Florida/Georgia. Reaction to man-made noise (sonar, explosives, etc.) is of vital concern, for the alteration of behavior, the disorientation, the sudden extreme and damaging depth-change and the increasing occurances of mass strandings of whales further reduces this magnificent and fragile species chance of survival.

Now – despite the protest of environmental organization and citizens, on-going law-suits and common sense – the US Navy is planning to construct a massive (625 sq. mile) sonar training range in the middle of the right whales only known calving grounds (listed as a Critical Habitat).

While the Navy insists that there has been no documented “direct injuries” to whales due to sonar, it estimates that the proposed offshore Jacksonville sonar testing would cause “in excess of 170,000 disruptions of marine mammal behavior.” This conclusion appears to have been pulled from thin air for the Navy offered no comprehensive environmental impact evidence with which to bolster their claim. They have been given the go-ahead to build the $100 million range – and then to seek environmental approval. Let us not fool ourselves: there is no way that this kind of money will be spent and then the Navy told that they can’t “use” the range. It is an egregious breeching of environmental law – and a fait accompli.

Any disruption of migratory patterns spells the end of the right whales. Noise is far more detrimental to marine mammals than to terrestrial creatures, for hearing is their primary sense – and because sound travels so well in water, the noise could be 50 kilometres away but still seem like it is just around the corner.

Marine noise is not a new phenomenon, of course: natural noises occur in the oceans constantly, including earthquakes, storms and singing baleen whales. However, it is the man-made noises that are causing problems – in particular, military sonar and the use of seismic testing for oil and gas exploration.

The Navy uses sonar to detect enemy submarines: the sounds are emitted across the ocean and bounce back when they hit an object. The lower the frequency of the sounds, the further they travel. At present, mid-frequency active sonar (MFA) is in widespread use and low frequency active sonar (LFA) is being developed for use by the US and its allies. LFA sonar can generate one of the loudest sounds that it is possible for humans to make.

Mid-frequency sonar can cause whales to make a dramatic change in behavior. On hearing sonar, whales may dive or rise deeply and rapidly. This can cause a form of decompression sickness, also known as ‘the bends’, resulting in sometimes-fatal damage to the lungs, brain and ears. Thus the much-documented “Cetacean Brain-bleed Phenomenon” witnessed and duly documented in the presence of naval sonar.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) recently released a report that backs up previous claims of the harm that sonar can do. The report adamantly states that the noise produced by the military is damaging to cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) and in particular, rare beaked and right whales. The report cites recent cases, such as the unusual behavior in Hawaii of 200 melon-headed whales (Peponocephala electra) in July 2004. These typically deep-water whales were observed swimming in a tight circle in shallow water just 100 feet from shore, showing clear signs of distress. One of the whales was later found to have died.

This bizarre and near-stranding behavior coincided with a U.S.-Japanese naval training exercise. A previous case documented the mass stranding of 17 cetaceans in the Bahamas in March 2000. Six of the dead animals, which included five Cuvier’s beaked whales and one Blainville’s beaked whale, were found to have experienced acoustic or impulse trauma that led to their stranding and subsequent death. The strandings also coincided with ongoing Naval activity using MFA sonar in the area.

When other sonar exercises have taken place, mass strandings and whale mortalities have occurred. These include cases in the Haro Strait off the coast of Washington State, the Canary Islands, Madeira, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and in Greece…to name but a few tragedies.

Despite numerous scientific studies and reports proving the damaging effects of sonar, the US Congress and others still insist that the effects of sonar testing upon cetaceans are “unproved” – thus the passing of the bill in November, 2008, that allows the Secretary of Defense to permit the Navy to use sonar wherever and whenever they “need” to.

Should the Jacksonville Sonar Testing Site be created as planned, we shall be left with only the photographic images of the magnificent right whale…and the responsibility of bearing the shame of having stood idly by while a species was eradicated in the name of “military progress.” Is this, then the legacy that we leave to our children – the ghostly echoes of glorious creatures that we have knowingly doomed to extinction?

Alex Kearns

Alex Kearns

Alex writes for a variety of national and international publications. A relative newcomer to the United States, she co-founded her town's first environmental organization (The St. Marys EarthKeepers, Inc.). In turns bemused, confused, entranced, frustrated and delighted, she enjoys unravelling the eternal enigma that is the Deep South.