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News | Aug. 6, 2007

Documents Add Perspective to 2004 Hanalei Whale Incident

By U.S. Pacific Fleet U.S. Pacific Fleet

Two documents shed new light on the aggregation of melon-headed whales that occurred on July 3, 2004, in Hanalei Bay on the north shore of Kauai.

An investigation of the event was conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service, which issued its finding in an April 2006 technical memorandum. ( 

One of the additional documents is a 2006 report on the appearance of 500 to 700 melon-headed whales and some rough-toothed dolphins at Rota in the Northern Mariana Islands at the same time (July 4, 2004 in Rota).

The Rota incident was reported in a scientific paper ( whose principal author was Thomas A. Jefferson, a marine mammal researcher with NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center. Three other authors are listed.

The second additional document is a sworn declaration dated June 30, 2006, by Brandon Southall, director of NOAA's Ocean Acoustics Program and the principal author of the National Marine Fisheries Service report on the Hanalei incident ( Southall's declaration, which was made under oath, is part of the record in a lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council against the Navy. 

Southall states (with his emphasis included): "To be clear, and contrary to certain media and other characterizations, the carefully-worded and qualified Hanalei report event did not conclude that active military sonar caused this event. We do not know what caused it.

"The report stated that based on information available, sonar may have contributed to a 'confluence of events,' including human presence (notably the uncontrolled and random human interactions fragmenting the pod of whales on 3 July) and/or other unknown biological or physical factors," Southall stated in his declaration, which was submitted two months after NOAA's Hanalei report was completed.

Southall also mentions he had only recently learned of the Rota incident, where "Some 500-700 melon-headed whales came into Sasanhaya Bay on 4 July 2004 ... and then left of their own accord after 5.5 hours; no known active sonar transmissions occurred in the vicinity of that event.

"What, if any relationship this event has to the simultaneous events in Hawaii and whether they might be related to some common factor (e.g., there was a full moon on 2 July 2004) is and will likely remain unknown. However, these two synchronous, nearshore events involving a rarely-sighted species are curious and may point to the range of potential contributing factors for which we lacked detailed understanding and which the authors acknowledge might be have played some role in the 'confluence of events' in Hanalei Bay."

Southall also stated, "It seems highly unlikely that operation of military sonar in Hawaii or elsewhere would always or even commonly result in strong reactions (e.g. movement en masse to shore) or stranding of marine mammals. Rather, the combined evidence suggests that such events may occur only in rare instances where there are (generally poorly understood) combinations of interacting physical and biological factors."