War of the Whales by Joshua Horwitz

War of the Whales: A True StoryIt seems this blog was successful in influencing me to branch out to new genres. I ordinarily would never read something so sciencey but I saw this one on a friend’s shelf and thought, why not? And I’m very glad I did.

Joshua Horwitz’s War of the Whales chronicles the mass strandings of various whale subspecies due to the Navy’s use of deep-water sonar and the fight to enact new legislation protecting the oceans against violent intrusion from military activities. In the summer of 2000, Marine photographer and ex-Navy officer Ken Balcomb thought it was just another day of whale-spotting with his Earthwatch volunteers in the Bahamas until he finds a beached Curvier’s beaked whale outside his house. Within 24 hours, numerous other whales are spotted grounded ashore, with many of them unable to survive the experience. Calling on fellow biologists, like Bob Gisner of the Office of Naval Research and Darlene Ketten, a renowned whale hearing expert, as well as the Internet community, he attempts to find the reason behind this strange occurrence.

Coming to find himself stymied by the government and with a suspicious naval destroyer doing highly classified testing in the area, Balcomb’s experience leads him to the conclusion that the Navy’s sonar testing frightened and disoriented the whales by causing their eardrums to hemorrhage so that they headed towards shore accidentally. Similar incidents occurred after NATO naval tests off the coast of Greece and after the Spanish navy conducted exercises by the Canary Islands. Although he felt guilty about betraying his fellow soldiers, Balcomb eventually decides to expose the Navy’s role in multiple instances of whale deaths with the aid of attorney Joel Reynolds from the Natural Resources Defense Council, spurring a halfhearted government investigation and eventual Supreme Court case. (Spoiler: They lose in the court of law but win in the court of public opinion.)

Horwitz excels at making his cast come alive as distinctly human individuals. Although the government and military are meant to be the bad guys, with the Navy being the chief villain and fisheries being their minions, he provides compelling reasons for their actions, primarily in the interests of self-protection and national security that do have to be balanced against environmental protection. Neither Reynolds nor Balcomb are perfect either, see their numerous failed relationships as evidence, but their passion and dogged persistence for their beliefs outweighs other character flaws in this context. I’m sure none of these individuals appreciated seeing their actions (or inactions) dragged into the public eye, but at least Horwitz makes them all understandable to the reader.

He is also incredibly good at clarifying the often murky and complicated scientific and legal facts that are crucial to this story. From the anatomy of a whale’s head to the process of training dolphins to detect bombs to the complexity of filing a Supreme Court case, he manages to explain things clearly and in a way that doesn’t feel like a dry footnote. This book could’ve easily been textbook boring, but instead it is an approachable and engaging read.

Unfortunately the sad part is that despite the recent attention Save the Whales campaigns have received, it’s still hard to enforce what little legislation exists both in the US and worldwide. As Horwitz explained, the premier marine biologists are all dependent on the government and military for funding, so are often reluctant to stand up for the environment. While the awareness of noise pollution in the oceans in greater, there’s still a lot we don’t know about how human activity affects marine life, and how to balance between the two.

However, this book is a perfect launching point for learning and discussing these issues. It was definitely one of the best-written non-fiction books I’ve read, especially on such a timely topic with connections from the documentary “Blackfish” to military power/responsibility in a post-9/11 era.

5 Stars

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