War of the Whales

Joshua Horwitz / Simon & Schuster / 448 pages

In 1994, when I was working at The Humane Society of the United States, I was contacted by Joel Reynolds of the Natural Resources Defense Council. He wanted to know if I would like to participate in a legal action against the US Navy in California, which was proceeding with “ship-shock” trials (combat-condition testing of new ship hull designs, using live ordnance) without adequate environmental assessment. I agreed, and thus began a long and fruitful collaboration with Joel that led to a number of victories on mitigating human-caused marine noise, particularly the use of military sonar, and a few defeats as well.

This story and others related to the impacts of military sonar on marine mammals are recounted in engaging detail by Joshua Horwitz in his upcoming book, War of the Whales, to be published by Simon and Schuster in July 2014. Josh focuses on two “characters” in the book: Ken Balcomb, a killer whale biologist in Washington state, and Joel. Ken has also studied beaked whales in the Bahamas and, through an astonishing set of coincidences, ended up embroiled in the struggle to protect whales from the growing cacophony of sonar, pile driving, shipping, and seismic exploration for oil and gas that is cluttering up their acoustic space below the waves. Unlike people, who rely primarily on vision, whales are acoustic creatures, able to navigate the black ocean depths using their echolocation with a precision that military sonar can only dream of. Thus, they are particularly susceptible to the noise pollution assaulting their habitat.

AWI has also worked on the marine noise issue for many years; Ben White, a tireless activist who worked for AWI for several years before losing a battle with an aggressive cancer in 2005, is also featured in the narrative. Josh spent years researching this book—talking to dozens of people involved in the issue, including many representing the Navy. This gives the book a much-needed balance and tells the story fairly. Josh goes all the way back to the 1960s to put the present-day situation in context.

War of the Whales reads like a novel, but the story it tells is true. Josh took the time necessary to get the technical details right, but also to get to know the people involved, so the story isn’t just a dry non-fiction account of an environmental issue, but a fascinating personal tale. It is available for pre-order online and, if you’ve ever read a media article on a whale stranding caused by military sonar and wanted to know more, you’re going to want to read this book. To read an excerpt from the book, see WaroftheWhales.com.

—Naomi Rose, PhD