Joshua Horwitz: Protecting the Whales from the U.S. Navy

July 21, 2014

On March 15, 2000, over a dozen whales beached themselves in the Bahamas in one of the largest multi-species strandings in history. Suspicion turned to U.S. Navy sonar, but at first there was no proof. This revelation brings us into the detective story told in War of the Whales: A True StoryPoint of Inquiry welcomes the author, Joshua Horwitz.

We discuss the history of the U.S. Navy’s use of high-intensity active sonar; the cover-up of sonar in the Bahamas; and the titanic struggle between the Navy and an unlikely team of conservationists: marine biologist and ex-Navy sonar man Ken Balcomb, and environmental lawyer Joel Reynolds of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Host, Lindsay Beyerstein and Horwitz also delve into the history of sonar, the militarization of dolphins, and the sordid history of whales in captivity.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Monday, July 21st, 2014. 

Hello and welcome to Point of Inquiry. A production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein. And my guest today is Joshua Horowitz, author of the new book War of the Whales, published by Simon and Schuster. The book is a scientific detective story, crime scene investigation for Whales and Dolphins in March of 2000. Sixteen whales and a dolphin beached themselves in a single day in the Bahamas, a calamity unheard of in the area. As an environmental lawyer, Joel Reynolds had been trying to prove for years that U.S. Navy sonar was harming marine mammals, but he had no smoking gun. His luck changed that day when a whale beached itself in the front yard of the one man who could crack the case. A marine biologist who also happened to be a retired naval officer with expertize in sonar. The two men joined forces to prove that sonar was behind the deaths of the dolphins and hold the Navy accountable for its actions. Joshua, welcome to the program. 

So what was so unusual about the stranding? 

Well, what was unusual, for starters, was this species of whales or our beaked whales, and they rarely, if ever, strand alive. 

Occasionally, a dead one was washed ashore during a storm. 

But unlike other species like pilot whales, for instance, which frequently strand, these are deep diving whales who live in a canyon or offshore. And they are never seen near the shore and they’ve never had not been seen to strand certainly in en masse as they did. 

And why would people concerned that sonar might be playing a role? 

Well, it’s because it really what was remarkable about this story and why I really thought there was a book here is that it was just one of those freakish occurrences where the one person who happened to be there literally 100 yards from where the mass stranding began was probably the only person in the world who would have had the wherewithal to understand what was going on or what might be going on and what to do about it. This was a guy who had a Navy history with sonar back in his youth. But he had been a Navy man for seven years doing center operations. And he he had been spending 10 years in this as a field researcher studying this population of whales which live in the deepest underwater canyon in the world. And so the day they started coming ashore, you know, immediately that this was something big and unusual was happening. And he also knew that it could conceivably be an acoustic event, some kind of acoustic trauma. Could’ve been an underground explosion or something. Not sonar. But he knew that this was there was something going on in the canyon and he knew who to call it the Navy to find out if the fleet was having operations down there and to get support for an investigation for a forensic team to come support him and collecting specimens and finding out that this wasn’t the first time that people had thought there might be a link between sonar and whale standings. 

Why had it been so hard up until now to prove that that was what was going on? 

Well, there had been a few scientists, but really most specifically, this environmental attorney, Joel Reynolds, who is not a scientist, but who had been trying to connect the dots between isolated reports or speculation by scientists that there seemed to be some of these atypical strand things, meaning species that don’t typically strand in the presence of the naval exercises initially in Europe. And there was a major stranding in 1996. But as usually happens, these animals stranded in the tropics or in the sun and their bodies and organs deteriorate very quickly on a beach or as the case was. And in Greece, it was the middle of the tourist season. Then the locals were in a hurry to bury them under the sand or cart them off. So there had been rumors and there had been in 1996, there was an investigation by a tribe pathologist not connected to the Navy who was Greek and then ran a veterinary school there. Alexandrov Francis. And he published in Nature his findings, but they were not definitive because of the cave, the specimen. So what was remarkable here is the dolphin was right on top of it, and he had the presence of mind to not only not only take the heads, which is the organ of interest of most interest, but to get them into a deep freeze immediately after the animals died. 

Many people don’t realize how much research on whales and dolphins is funded by the U.S. Navy. Why are they so interested in these creatures? 

Well, this was one of the great ironies of the story that just made it such a rich story beyond all of the important history involved. But the the Navy, it turns out, back in the 1940s and 50s, were just about the only people other than whalers who cared about whales. 

There was no Save the Whales movement that’s been going on. 

And the Navy was sensitive because they had heard about that echo location, which had only been confirmed in 1941, and they believe in a basement laboratory at Harvard University by a biologist. Who’ve figured out that bats can go locate and hunt in the dark. Using found so he and they have to have ultrasonic sound, which is why it took so long to figure out. But he speculated that scientists at the Navy immediately started sponsoring speculated that other mammals who navigate can hunt in the dark, might use sound and what’s called bio sonar. And in fact, the Navy was able to send its scientists down to marine land in Florida. The first marine park where there were captive dolphins. And then we’re able to confirm that, in fact, often Stu echolocate. And not only that, but the echolocate with tremendous precision, much more so than the Navy has ever been able to achieve. So the Navy took an immediate interest in these animals. And again, dolphins are just small whales, but they were looking at beluga whales and training and studying beluga whales, orcas, seals and sea lions as well as dolphin was a two track research and training program. One was to train these animals to basically as allies in the combat zone to clear mines using bio sonar or to interdict enemy swimmers by patrolling the mouth of a harbor or to retrieve deep objects from the ocean floor. So that was sort of the training part. And these animals were deployed in Vietnam and subsequently in the Persian Gulf. But there was a whole nother research avenue that went on, which was essentially to reverse engineer this biotechnology that the whales had evolved over tens of millions of years. 

So their goal was to figure out how the whales were doing, what they were doing, which was, you know, being able to find objects very tense in the mud below on the floor of the ocean or be able to distinguish between my newly different objects or decoy minds from real mines in the mine field or potentially how to how to find enemy submarines in the dark oceans, which was, of course, the Navy’s primary concern during the Cold War. 

So this went on for decades and they have developed what are essentially dolphin drones, which are, you know, about that autonomous underwater vehicle that’s currently sweeping the South Indian Ocean, looking for the downed Malaysian jetliner. That’s a direct descendant of that awesome search and the Navy vessels that were created to be these dolphin drones. Unfortunately, for better or for worse, they can’t do it. Dolphins do a very crude approximation. So they still deploy dolphins in the Persian Gulf for special missions. 

Are there any military like dolphins working today that you know of? 

Oh, absolutely. And them. And the Navy. What’s interesting is this program kept going back and forth from being one that the Navy liked to promote. In fact, the very beginning of the marine mammal program. They were promoting it because they thought it was a feel good story, not the combat part, but they were training them to be couriers for Sea Lab, which was an underwater experimental science station. And they and they were talking about it. But then in 1967, they got wind of it. Dolphin program in the Soviet Union and they were afraid of a gold dolphin gap developing. 

So they went back to Congress, got a lot more funding. Everything went dark in terms of black ops and nothing was declassified again until after the end of the Cold War. But when they were deployed there, about a hundred, give or take there, about 100 trained military dolphins that are mostly housed in San Diego. Point lomo at a facility that’s been there for decades. And as needed, they are mostly deployed in the Persian Gulf. 

They’ve been deployed elsewhere on the coast of the United States at bases, but they tend to attract a lot of protests. They don’t do that. 

What was the U.S. Navy doing in the Bahamas on the day of the mass stranding back in 2000? 

Well, it’s an interesting story. I mean, I had to do some digging to find out what they were doing there because they had never trained there before. It was a test training, if you will. They were trying out. They were doing war games there for the first time, at least on this scale. These kinds of antisubmarine warfare games, because these are Bahamian waters, after all. But they had recently they had previously been training and doing these war game training. In the decades, which is an island in in Puerto Rico. And they had recently essentially been kicked out of the acase. The local had occupied the island. Protesters occupied the island for almost a year because they had destroyed the island then and destroyed the reef around it. And the fishermen were up in arms and there was cancer cluster, etcetera. So so they had to abandon the caves. And we’re looking for an training ground. They thought, well, this is a good deepwater environment. Maybe we will or we can train here. 

And unfortunately, they didn’t really do any advanced research about what marine mammals live there. And that in the Great Bahama Canyon, which is the deepest underwater canyon world, and they certainly didn’t alert any of the locals to what was going on. Campbell could be heard about it. It certainly would have told them. Stay away because there was a large colony of the whales there in the canyon that had been there for tens of millions of years that you’ve been studying for the past decade. But instead, they came and did midnight exercises from midnight to dawn and nobody knew they were there until the whale started washing ashore the next day. 

The book is basically like CSI of cetaceans. I love that part of it. Can you describe how the scientists went about capturing, preserving and analyzing the evidence to prove? 

Well, this is the gift to me as a storyteller and as a writer, because you can’t make this stuff up. It’s to know. 

But the first part of the book is sort of follow the heads drama where I mean, the first reaction was, of course, to try to rescue the animals and then push them back out to sea. And unfortunately, most animals who strand by the time most marine mammals, by the time they hit the beach, are already terribly traumatized. They would be on the beach unless they were in deep trouble. And they they rarely survive, even if they’re pushed back out to sea, that they restrained Strand or they are hit by sharks, which are, you know what, with one of the great perils, certainly in the Bahamas of the shallows where they haven’t used to be. And in this case, the day after bite, by the next day, there were a large sampling of dead whales to choose from, unfortunately. And Balcomb went up in the plane and spotted them and took what looked like the freshest samples and what he took for the heads. And, you know, picking a fish head, there’s nothing taking a well-head, a different sort of operation. You have to know how to cut off a whale head, which is not as easy as it sounds because there’s sort of no necked animals. I think they do have that visible anyway. He had to take these ads and get them into a deep, deep freeze before they rotted. And that’s a very time-sensitive thing. And he didn’t have any support except a band of volunteers from Earthwatch who happened to be there on site and his his wife and researcher at the time, Diane Clarridge, one assistant they had. So it was really a skeletal team going around trying to grab heads and getting them into the deep freeze. And then, you know, when the paperwork are clear than the Navy had agreed to, to do an internal investigation any way at that time, he had to get the head. He and his wife, Diane Clarridge, had to actually get to the heads from the deep freezer on this island in the Bahamas to go to a Harvard C.T. scan lab in Cambridge. And it really was a matter of physically carrying these heads inside boxes wrapped in duct tape on commercial airliners, first to Miami and then clearing customs and getting on a plane and doing all of this before the whale has melted and defrosted so that they’d be intact by the time they got to the lab in Boston. 

And these heads weigh 300 pounds apiece. Right. 

Yeah. And they’re slimy and they’re yeah, they’re very heavy. 

And they’re and they’re, as you can imagine, the size of the box that you have to wrap them in is huge and that, you know, to get through customs and explain what you’re carrying. And, you know, there a lot of supporting paperwork by then. It was it was a real Keystone Cops kind of road race. It was pretty interesting day. And then they get there and spend the night looking at that as watching this expert from Woods Hole and Harvard Medical School who who had developed this technique of scanning, doing C.T. scans of cetacean skulls and looking at their ears, and in this case, the acoustic from inside the brain, which included blood hemorrhaging inside the brain and other clear signs of acoustic trauma. 

Can you give us some sort of breakdown physiologically of what happened inside these whales bodies to to make them strand? 

Well, you have to have what you need to know about these animals to understand this. 

You know why they would flee their ancestral home for the dangers of the shallows, which shark infested as well as, you know, the beach, which is clearly a lethal destination for them. You have to understand, these are extremely sensitive, acoustically sensitive animals, and they have evolved over tens of million years in different Wales’s specialized environments around the world to be acoustic hunters, navigators, communicators. So, you know, the beluga whales underneath the polar ice cap used echolocation to find this the thinnest ice that they can poke their heads and breathe. And these whales that had evolved over millions of years to to hunt squid at depths of up to two miles. So we now know this because we can tag this, tag these animals. Again, most Navy researchers and they’ve tagged these animals and they see what their dove patterns are like. And they they slowly descend, as you have to, to depth and then spend a half hour or 45 minutes hunting squid and then they ascend slowly. So they’re using bio sonar to locate their prey and they’re communicating with their other whales in their pod as they hunt. And so if you imagine this environment sort of like a bathtub, if you will, and then you imagine a battle group with three destroyers, two frigates sweeping through this canyon with sweeping sonar. And I’m directional sonar, very intense, high intensity frequency sonar. And this bathtub, huge canyon filling up with town because the sound has nowhere to escape. And then as the acoustic modeling that the Navy itself, it demonstrated, what happened was that the most intense sound layer is accumulated at the surface where they have a warm layer of water. And and then you had decreasing amounts of sound. But still a lot of sound. But these animals have to surface through these layers of intense sound just to breathe. And so I’m sure that there were some that were trapped below who couldn’t penetrate it and died and sink to the bottom of the canyon. But those who got to the top and then they do these shallow, balanced dives, sluices in the middle of an acoustic storm. 

So it’s not surprising at all that they would flee, do anything they could to get away with that particularly safe. 

The level of noise that we’re talking about, would it be comparable to humans standing near a jet engine or something like that? 

Well, that that that’s an analogy that’s been made. And it’s not a precise one. I don’t use that. The thing is, the sound is it is the extreme sound I’ve heard. And if you go to my Web site of one of the world’s economy, you can hear on the resources tab. 

What underwater sonar sounds like this mid frequency sounds like they stopped, you know, recorded underwater sound operates totally different underwater. It traveled five times faster. It’s more intense actually is what it is. But a jet engine is a terrestrial event. And so it’s an imprecise. It’s hard to come up with an analogy. But if you play if you go in my book, there’s a Web site that’s there. There’s an actual event that was that was later videotaped by Ken Balcomb, totally separate, stranding Zebrahead hydrophones in the water. And you can hear it. And it’s a terrifying sound, whether you’re a whale or a human being. But if it is acoustically sensitive, it’s a whale. It’s intolerable sound. That is why whales fleet. 

So. So it was a fleeing. It wasn’t that their eardrums were blown out by the sound. They were just five yards. 

Yeah. So so. So how they die is the whales that came to the beach and died were not dead when they hit the beach. 

But by the time they hit the beach, the C.T. scan shown that they had had hemorrhages. And basically you have blood vessels in your brain that had hemorrhage. OK. So it’s not the eardrum. They do have ears that are analogous in some ways to human years. But then again, they’re very sensitive. But it was the Assal blunt force of the sound. I mean, you should think of sounds, really. And that’s why a jet engine is not a good analogy. It’s really an impulse. It’s a it’s a high impact pulse wave. Energy wave, OK? That’s what sound is an underwater 265 decibels. It’s a class of force. I mean, it’s really weaponized. S is what it is. So it was it was not just the volume of sound bursting their eardrums sort of thing. It was actually bursting their blood vessels in their brain. Again, that’s not terribly precise. There are theories about about resonance where it resonates in the same, you know, inside the nasal cavity. When you have air pockets. And that’s what causes the damage. But it’s brain damage. 

It’s like having a stroke with the same thing happen to a human being is in the same water. Or something? 

Well, yes, I mean, different animals here at different frequencies and there are different frequencies of of sonar. There is high frequency, low frequency. And this frequency that once it emerges most problematic is what’s called frequency, which is within human hearing range. And there certainly they are not allowed to do it in the presence if they see any humans in the water. They never they never do these, you know, use sonar because it is. Of course, they’ve done exposure experiments with human. Navy divers. And it’s you can’t stay in the water. This thing, if you do, you have problems. So, yes, you would you would flee it. 

Also, if you were in, one of the really interesting threads that runs through the book is a kind of dual role of the Navy where the Navy’s underwriting this incredibly expensive investigation. But then also trying to micromanage public opinion and not wanting to give away any of its secrets. How did that affect how this case ultimately played out? 

Well, it’s not surprising if you think about it. What’s happened is the Navy invented this whole field of research. There were no marine mammal biologists in 1960 when they started their marine mammal research program. 

There were you know, they were on zoologists and biologists and veterinarians and they and they worked with animal trainers from from marine parks. But they created the science and they recruited very smart people and created the first generation of marine mammal biologists. And they supported its institutionalization in graduate schools. And in fact, it wasn’t even named Marine Mammalogy until the late 60s. They had to come up with a name for it. So in any case, they had almost all marine mammal biologists in this country have are funded by the Navy. I mean, nobody else cares enough about the Navy, about whales to fund research. So so you have this built-In conflict of interest where when it became a legal case where Joel Reynolds had to find an expert in whale science to testify to the ill effects of sonar, and they had to find somebody not only who understood it and got it, but who was willing to bite the hand, the Fed. And it’s hard to come by and not to mention the acquisitions when the Navy was doing their own acoustic modeling of the event because they were very interested in knowing what happened. They weren’t interested in publicizing it, but they did want to know what had happened. They don’t want these incidents to happen. And they wanted to find non Navy acousticians to do the acoustic modeling. 

So it’d be unassailable. And there weren’t any. I mean, the person in charge said to the admiral is get me some non Navy acquisitions to do this. They will you know, we have all the good people and we certainly fund all the good people. And so they decided to do two different models. 

One is the National Research Lab here at the Navy Research Lab in Washington, and one of them I.T., which is a heavily Navy funded lab. But any case. 

So that’s that’s that’s the fundamental conflict, is that both the Navy has no interest in publicizing these kinds of events, including the findings and the scientists themselves have a conflict of interest. Of course, some deal with that conflict more with more integrity and others or more courage in the case of Ken Balcomb. And that’s really what the story kind of revolves on. That’s really the fulcrum of the story, is the scientists in the middle. 

And Ken had an interesting personal conflict, too, between his own loyalty to the Navy as an institution and his oath, secrecy about his classified work and then eventually having to criticize the Navy for what it was doing. Can you talk a bit about that? 

Yeah, well, that’s what made him such a fascinating character. I mean, he’s not your typical. 

He was really a reluctant activist and he was 60 years old when this happened, that he did not have a history of activism in the history of field research. And he was a serious field researcher who is also loyal to the Navy. I mean, you know, I think like most Navy veterans, he didn’t have illusions about the Navy being perfect, but he was he had served as a he had enlisted well. He was going to be drafted. He enlisted. He reenlisted. He had a he was a 70 year career. He was an officer. He did an undercover work. All the Navy stuff is classified. But he was actually undercover in his second term. And he had never told anyone about his Navy past, including his wife, because he had taken an oath of secrecy. That’s what you do. And, you know, submarines are known as the the silent service because not enough families know where they are when they’re at sea. And he was he was an antisubmarine warfare, but that’s equally secretive. So he had kept the secret. It’s not that he was involved in a particularly dark ops, but he didn’t know people knew that he had been in the Navy. But he never talks about what he had done. And he’d been trained as a Navy pilot, actually, visually. So he he had a real moment of conscience. And the he his first impulse was to try to work with the Navy to figure out what had happened. And it wasn’t until he had carried, you know, weeks after the. Had he had transported these heads up to Boston and then transferred custody over to a national marine fisheries, but again to Navy scientists who were doing the investigation, he realized that they now considered him expendable to the to the and not only expendable, but a gadfly. And they didn’t they no longer kept him in the loop of the investigation. Said they were going to. And that’s when he realized that there was in all likelihood, they were going to sweep this under the under the rug. So that’s when he decided to step out and appear at a press conference and let 60 Minutes, which had been badgering him to come down and do a segment. 

He said, OK, come down and yes, I’ll share my videotape with you. 

How did you come to write a book on the subject? 

Well, to be honest, I said I fell for the story initially, I mean, I’m like any writer, I’m looking for her great story with great characters and untold, genuinely untold story. I mean, this is there are pieces of this story that been told in niche markets, but no one had ever told this story. And most people don’t know this story. And I just was blown away by by what emerged as soon as I started digging into the Navy’s past with with with whales and dolphins. So there was the story. And then, you know, as I started to hang out with these scientists and field researchers, you know, the whales are very compelling. And really what drives the story, they are individuals like Ken Balcomb, like Joel Reynolds, unlike some Navy scientists who flipped and went the other way. 

Not a generation ahead of Kim Balcom, the people who started the Save the Whales movement, where I think the most instrumental people were Navy funded scientists who decided that captive research was immoral and that they were going to speak out and really give these highly intelligent social mammals the respect and recognition they were due rather than just to exploit them for military purposes. So, you know, I was just there were great things that I, you know, I, for one, have. And then they were really embodied in this one scientist and this one lawyer, one attorney. And, you know, they are totally unlike his character. Very odd bedfellows, if you will. But they share this tenacity and perseverance that just made them fabulous. And I wanted to say heroes, because I don’t want to make this isn’t a story about heroes and villains, but it is about to change agents. And you know what they were willing to do and how long they were willing to stay and fight. 

So what’s the status now of sonar in whales? Has this brought about permanent changes in the way the Navy does business? 

Yeah, I mean, on the positive side, the way the Navy operates now versus during the Cold War or certainly before the lawsuits started 20 years ago. 

I mean, this is one attorney who first was onto the story and then actually went to court and, you know, in the middle of two know he didn’t get into court 2003 until after the Navy finally released its report on this Bahama stranding when they were basically compelled to do so by the outcome holding them. It wasn’t till 2003 you went to court and by then we were at war with Iran and Afghanistan as post 9/11 was a terrible time from an environmental lawyer’s point of view to go to court against the military. And he managed to prevail against the odds, went all the way to the Supreme Court. And, you know, even today, there are ongoing court cases there in the Navy. Got a whole new round of permits in December and NRDC went back to court. I thing is challenged. There are permits and the sued them. The Navy and fisheries over the reins is in California and Hawaii. But but, you know, the big picture is, yes, the Navy does, particularly on the coastal ranges. And the United States has gone a long way to certainly transparency in terms of going through the permitting process and actually acknowledging that there are laws that are accountable to which they didn’t do throughout the Cold War. And so so in that respect, guide, things were a lot better. The problem is that they don’t do that on their foreign ranges, which is where a lot of these exercises. This is all about training and excited about the Navy’s right to use sonar in combat situations. This is about training for combat, which is an important phase. But for instance, there was a stranding increase to Monday in the first week of April of this year during joint exercises among the Greek, Israeli and U.S. navies off of the Gulf Coast of Crete. And it had stranding there before. And once again, there were five V12 stranded. 

And so I think that the Navy’s improved a lot in terms of what it’s doing in the US coastal ranges. There’s plenty of room for improvement. And then foreign range is less so. I think they feel there’s less, fewer people watching. 

The history of killer whales in captivity is a pretty dark one. You got an amazing story in the book about how the first killer whale came to be held in captivity in Vancouver. Can you tell us about that? 

Yeah, it was almost an accidental so. People were terrified of killer whales. 

I mean, they were called killer whales because they had this reputation for being fearsome predators and they were thought prey also on humans. And there weren’t any actual records of anybody being attacked in the wild. 

But they certainly are. You know, they are apex predators in the ocean and they hunted in packs like wolves. So it really hadn’t occurred to anyone to to capture one for display in an aquarium before. But the director of the Vancouver Aquarium wanted a statue of one. So he commissioned a a sculptor, a local sculptor to go basically hunt, you know, kill a an orca and bring it back. And whether he’s Kambala to stuff it or not, but use it as a life model for a for a sculpture and sculptor with a bad shot and only managed to wound this orca and lie. Long story short of towing it all the way back to the Vancouver Aquarium. And lo and behold, it survived. And it and it was friendly. It wasn’t the savage beast and it was very social. It’s like a dolphin, in fact, that workers are at large dolphin, the largest member of that family of whales. And they were huge sensations immediately mean the Vancouver Aquarium was the place to go to see this remarkable orca. And then so very quickly, SeaWorld and other places like it were interested in having their own orcas. 

The Seattle Aquarium, I went out and got his own orca. 

So, you know, that was the beginning of the whole SeaWorld and other places was not the aquarium that made the orca swim back to captivity in a seabourne cage. 

Yeah. That was actually, I believe, the second one, which was the original Shamu or Nemo, rather. 

Semra was the one that was what SeaWorld bought. He didn’t want to give up the trademark, but there was a there was a guy who went up and some fishermen wanted become trapped in some fishermen’s nets and the fisherman auctioned it off to the highest bidder. There was they had the head of the Seattle. Efram had always wanted to compete with the Vancouver Aquarium. So he went up there and basically built a big cage and underwater cage nets and swam it back. And it was not an injured whale like the first one did. So it was less. I mean, the first one they literally towed by the cable attached to the harpoon that shot that whale. It’s incredible to watch. 

I thought it was amazing on it. Like it didn’t kill him to be shot or dragged. But then he died of some kind of horrible infection he picked up at the aquarium. 

Sure. Well, I mean, particularly in the early days. I mean, you know, they live longer in aquariums now because it’s a valuable commodity. They’ve learned how to keep them alive. 

There’s a debate about whether they live longer or shorter, probably shorter in captivity. But in the early days, they didn’t know and they were infections. And typically these I mean, a lot of whales were killed during the capture itself because it was this thick, heard them into inlets and coves with helicopters, seal bombs, horrible things that last doing them by the tail from helicopters and all things outrageous in retrospect. But at the time, it was it was a supply and demand thing. There were aquariums there. Why are these whales? And they weren’t easy to capture. So it was a whole there was a decade, essentially not quite a decade. Yeah. There was a full decade of whale capture in the north in the Puget Sound area. And then finally, there were some really horrific incidents that are recounted actually at the film Blackfish. They’ve actually interviewed some of the people who are involved. But I wouldn’t say that. But in little incident where they were, you know, they they they accidentally killed several adult orca and they tried to cover it up and tried to sink them to the bottom and they came to the surface and created such an uproar. 

They’ve been feature of capturing Puget Sound. So they went to Iceland and started capturing them there. 

What’s the phenomenon of the friendly whales? That’s another really interesting thing. 

Oh, well, I’ve got to say, that was my first encounter with whales. I mean, this this book is full of stories of scientists and other people having transformational encounters. 

But I went to actually the interview Joel Reynolds for the first time. He was he was visiting this whale lagoon in the last pristine whale, abused in way. 

But it’s in Bahia and it’s where the whales go in the winter. The gray whales go to carve their young and suckle them and seen them kind of in the basics before they head out for their six thousand mile migration to the Bering Sea and back and they go feed in the Bering Sea in the summer. In any case, in the winter, for about six weeks, there are great whales there. And Laguna San Ignacio, which is about halfway down the coast of Bahia as it happens to Joel Reynolds and a colleague of his an energy. He had it back in 2000, around the same time in the Bahamas, stranding has succeeded in rescuing this whale, a gift from industrial developments. 

But Mitsubishi and the Mexican government, which were going to build the biggest commercial solar plant in the world, or rather full mines. 

And anyway, it would have destroyed this lagoon and he was able to nonlegal more public campaigning and lobbying and international pressure to to kill that project and preserve this lagoon. So he goes back to review every Winterthur say, well, company near that lagoon and I and my 13 year old daughter with go this place. And what’s remarkable about this place is there’s this phenomenon called the friendly whales where they will you’re only allowed it’s a very well preserved eco location destination. It’s totally unspoiled lagoon. And they have tent camps on the shores. All that’s allowed. And you’re allowed to go out. 

It’s very small boats and groups of six or eight people. 

And you just sit there and the whale mothers will have heard their calves, which hurt themselves 30 feet long up to your little boat, and you can reach out and stroke like their cat or dog. And they’re obviously inviting this contact. So they would be there and they’ll even let you run their hands through the Bailey in there. Now, it’s it’s an extraordinary experience. And to do that with your 13 year old daughter. 

For me, it was pretty remarkable. 

And you never you know, you get you get it. You know, you you can’t you can’t have this. 

It’s Encounter’s. And that’s a unique kind of one. But even people have been whale watching up close. People have swum with dolphins, which is ecologically incorrect, but still a very compelling experience. 

You know, all know what that feels like. 

I had a great experience as a kid. I was very politically incorrect. I was a huge fan of the captive whales at the Vancouver Aquarium, and I’m a beluga whale spitting in my face. And then, like, winking at me, it was, oh, it’s a it’s impossible be around these animals. 

And this is what’s so interesting. The scientists who were really, you know, trained and the rigors of objective scientific method, which is go to jelly around that. That’s that’s that’s a simplistic way to say it. But they it was impossible. 

It’s not like I’ve also done research and work on on chimpanzee and primate researchers, and they have similar experience experiences. They can’t work with these animals that are next of kin and at least neurologically without forming strong attachment bonds and also questioning, you know, who’s in charge here and who should be in charge and why. Whatever you’re doing, you’re doing. And that’s really been the history of the research of these animals. And that’s what’s so fascinating about the story. 

What I love most about the book, frankly. Well, thank you so much for coming on the program. Thanks for having me. It’s been a pleasure. This has been a point of inquiry. You can follow us on Twitter at point of inquiry. Tune in next week. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.