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News | April 16, 2009

Navy Leads, Invests in Marine Mammal Science

By U.S. Fleet Forces Public Affairs U.S. Fleet Forces Command

The Navy has spent $100 million on marine mammal research over the past five years, including $26 million this year. No organization in the world does more to fund marine mammal research.

The Navy's Marine Mammal Program in San Diego is one center for marine mammal research. The sea mammals there are working animals - dolphins are trained to find mines, and sea lions mark and retrieve objects from the ocean depths. The skills of these marine mammals protect the Navy. In turn, the Navy's scientific work protects them.

Clinical research is being done there on the detection, diagnoses and treatment of diseases that can affect marine mammals. Three years into the effort, eleven marine mammal viruses have been identified, including nine that are new. 

Some of that science benefits humans, too. Navy-funded research has led to an increased understanding of similarities between dolphins and people that may lead to new ways to treat debilitating human illnesses, such as diabetes.

Elsewhere, much of the Navy's research has focused on marine mammals' detection, behavior, hearing and response to sound - facets of the ongoing debate over the Navy's use of active sonar, in which sound is introduced into the water to detect underwater objects. 

Science informs steps taken by commanders to avoid harming marine mammals during training events that involve sonar. The data also are used in environmental compliance documents the Navy develops for areas in which it trains.

"The most important thing we as a Navy have to do is determine the effects of our sound sources on living marine resources," says Dr. V. Frank Stone, marine resources project manager for the Chief of Naval Operations, Environmental Readiness Division. "We know this will be a long-term program because, fundamentally, very little is known about marine mammals."

Steadily, that's changing. Studying the effects of sound involves several elements, but a big part of gathering information is tagging. In 1996, after a stranding in Greece was linked to a sonar exercise, the Navy supported scientist's efforts to tag sperm whales and Cuvier's beaked whales. They collected the first known evidence that toothed whales use echolocation while they dive by recording data from two Cuvier's beaked whales and two Blainville's beaked whales. This success led to a study of beaked and pilot whales in the Bahamas. Using underwater microphones, scientists gathered information on what is believed to be a behavioral response to simulated sonar and other control sounds, though they were careful not to draw conclusions from a relatively small sample size of animals. The program will influence future approaches to experiment-based research involving the whales.

This past year, researchers placed acoustic listening tags on six whales from four species and played simulated mid-frequency sonar sounds and natural sounds.

"We're trying to study what's going on with animal responses to these signals and what we can do to try and minimize the impact of active sonar on marine mammals, generally, and beaked whales, specifically," said Dr. Brandon Southall, director of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Ocean Acoustics Program.