NOVATO, Calif. - The four San Marin High School students working toward a good grade in their English class had no idea what they were getting into when they decided to form Moby Dicks: Guardians of the Sea. Their group assignment blossomed into a movement to raise awareness about the harmful effects of sonar on whales and dolphins, and now they're unsure if they want the project to end.
The scope of their lofty endeavor is hampered only by time constraints inherent with being juniors having demanding course loads, part-time jobs and school sports obligations. Ideally, Moby Dicks could become a student club focused on marine biology education and support for the various agencies and organizations involved in the cause.
For now, though, its primary goal is to inform fellow San Marin High students and faculty about a topic seemingly few in their school knew. Whatever the outcome of the Moby Dicks, one thing is for sure: spreading the word about one aspect of ocean noise can only help the cause. And by focusing on children and youth, its members say, their message is sure to reach adults.
"Once the kids get involved, it makes a difference," Moby Dicks group leader Thèrése Cullen said. Cullen, 17, of Novato, is assisted by fellow San Marin High School juniors Stanislav Moroz, Nathan Troop and Kolby Gleason. "Adults have experience, but I think kids can bring a lot to the table. We are pretty passionate about it."
To date, the extent of that passion includes a custom-made flier posted around the campus, a website that serves as a reservoir of topical information, and a public outreach table one day at school, where 122 signatures were obtained from students and adults expressing interest in the cause.
Cullen said the group initially focused on whales, but their research showed the impacts of sonar tests went much further. "The whole ecosystem is affected," she said. "Whales are important. The dolphins. The biodiversity. There's a great deal that comes into factor."
Recognizing the enormity of their huge undertaking, the group has been growing slowly, and its members aren't sure they'll stick to it during the summer. Although she, personally, would like the group to continue, Cullen admitted: "We are all still kids, and and it's just a school project."
School project or not, educating people about ongoing efforts to help mitigate the impact of increased noise in the ocean is commendable, say those involved with getting the US Navy to alter its timing and locations of sonar testing and to follow national maritime laws governing such matters.
Whales, dolphins and other marine life depend upon hearing to find food, communicate, determine orientation and mate. The bombardment of noise echoing through today's oceans means the "marine mammal population is having to yell to maintain communications," National Resources Defense Council Staff Attorney Zak Smith said.
One of the NRDC litigators arguing on behalf of marine mammal protection, Smith said, "It's very important to raise awareness because sonar activities are an example of a larger issue going on in the oceans. I am excited that this high school is working on this issue."
Sound travels much faster and farther in water than on land; these effects are compounded by today's more acidic waters created by carbon emissions. The constant den of ship propellers, airguns used in oil exploration, and sonar from subs and military vessels have combined over the last decade to raise the overall ambiance of noise in our oceans to unprecedented levels.
Starting in 2000, when 17 Beaked whales stranded themselves on beaches in the northern Bahamas, environmentalists and other activists have been battling the US Navy to acknowledge the role its sonar tests play in harassing and killing these animals. Sounds at levels thousands of times more powerful than a jet engine have been proven, through Navy-funded research, to force these creatures from native feeding grounds, alter dive patterns and behaviors, cause devastating acoustic trauma in their brains and ultimately death.
Moby Dicks - Guardians of the Sea admit their name causes laughter; however, after recognizing the contrast between their quest and that of Captain Ahab, they decided to keep it. Most important, they say, what began as a class project led to their being moved into action and educated about an issue "that doesn't really have a clear solution," Cullen said.
The good news, NRDC attorney Smith said, is that workable solutions already exist: for example, conducting sonar activities away from dense feeding and mating grounds, avoiding indiscriminate testing during certain breeding and migration periods, adhering to national maritime laws and increasing enforcement of them. "We don't have to make a choice between national security needs and marine mammal protection," he said. "We can do both, if we are smart about it."
# # #