10/25/2013 02:07 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Twenty-Three Days in Madagascar

A French naval ship moves along the Northwest coast of the former French colony of Madagacar in April 2008, returning to port on May 24 that year, its purpose and activities unclear and undisclosed by the French government despite repeated requests from the scientific community. The same day the French ship docks, a 4.4 magnitude earthquake occurs off the northwest coast of the African island nation, one of fifteen such earthquakes the area would experience between June 2007 and the end of 2008.

The weather has just transitioned from the monsoon season to the dry season in northern Madagascar, and there is a tidal downwelling shift associated with a coastward surface current and a rise in sea surface temperatures. Another ship, operating on behalf of ExxonMobil's northern Madagascar subsidiary, moves along the Northwest coast of Madagascar on May 29, 2008, intermittently running a sonar system like that employed by the French some days earlier.

The following day two melon-headed whales are stranded at the mouth of a lagoon system, and according to interviews conducted later were butchered by the local population. On the last day of May, more melon-headed whales, which traditionally live further out at sea but have a history of stranding themselves in unexplained ways, pass by villages further into the lagoon. Over 23 days, despite mobilization of an international team to one of the planet's most remote locations and efforts to herd them out, an estimated 50 whales would die, largely of exposure, in the Loza Lagoon.

What happened here?

Madagascar isn't a place you'd want to do business unless you had to, much less a place you'd want to conduct a complex historic review of a whale stranding by a species on which little research has been done. Beyond stranding reportings from various parts around the world, little is known of the natural history and behavior of the melon-headed whale, notes the UK-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and the Marine Mammals Conservation Society of India.

The lack of a functional government in Madagascar is made largely superfluous to its citizens only by the tragedy of the country's development standing. The United Nations development agency has placed it at 149 out of 175 countries tracked for its development index. The island has lived under a caretaker government headed by a former disc jockey and entrepreneur for the past five years, while its putative president, deposed in a March 2009 coup, continues to negotiate the future of his office from exile in South Africa. A scheduled election is set for this year, though its legitimacy and even completion remain in question.

Madagascar's economy is characterized by subsistence farming and agriculture, particularly far from the capital at the island's center, and the people of Lozada Lagoon are no different. "There are a number of small villages and fishing camps along the shoreline of the Lozada Lagoon...Most villagers subsist through farming, fishing and making charcoal," the report that would examine the incident notes.

Although the government of the now deposed president seemed inclined to help investigate the original stranding incident, early efforts to build an incident report were lost during the 2009 coup, and the results of those efforts were later unavailable.

The other groups involved in the international rescue operation had conducted interviews in the region, searched the internet for news coverage and gathered eyewitness accounts. Coming up against the information black hole of Madagascar in the throes of a government coup, scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society, ExxonMobil, the NOAA Marine Mammal Stranding Network, the NOAA Acoustics Program, the Marine Mammal Commission, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the International Whaling Commission and a private company from Southern California called Southall Environmental Associates formed a committee to investigate the incident.

Who is to blame?

Just shy of five years after the whales are stranded at Lozada Lagoon, five scientists gather in a conference room in Washington, D.C.. They will spend 20 hours over three days examining 18 documents with the purpose not only of establishing as best as possible what happened, but also with the stated purpose of providing "specific recommendations for assessment and monitoring and response protocols to reduce the risk and/or respond to subsequent such events," according to the document that dictated their three days together. They were looking not only to ascertain what had happened, but how humans could prevent it from happening again.

Of the 18 documents, five deal with postmortems of the stranded whales, one combines pathology with a stranding response report, one is a timeline gathered together by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the International FAW, and eleven are from Exxon Mobil's Madagascar subsidiary (known as EMEPNML).

It became universally apparent to the five scientists of the Independent Scientific Review Panel that what had killed the whales was exposure and being in an environment so unlike the deeper ocean that is their natural habitat. So what triggered them to leave their natural environment, to head toward such tragic ends?

"This species have been known to strand en masse," Dr. Darlene Ketten, an neuroethologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution specializing in how underwater mammals hear, said in a recent interview. The scientific review panel chose to ignore what she described as 25 years of data surrounding these strandings, as well as French news reports from the time of the incident that the animals were moving strangely. Ketten, who was on the ground in Madagascar to assist at the time of the stranding and one of whose reports on a whale autopsy was included in the documentation seen by the panel, said there was no evidence of acoustic trauma in the event.

There was a little-reported stranding of whales in 2007 under similar tidal conditions in northwest Madagascar mentioned in the documentation, but what the panel had this time that it didn't then was the presence of a ship loaded with top of the line data-collecting material. Unlike the eyewitness accounts or the suppositions about how the earthquakes or tides might have affected the whales, the panel was provided with rich quantitative detail of the exploratory sonar work being done by EMEPNML's ship M/V Teknik Perdana roughly 65 kilometers away from the incident in the days preceding the whale stranding in 2008.

The kind of sonar then in use on the Teknik Perdana is currently in constant use all over the world. Known as a multi-beam echo sounder system, the device uses the same sonar technology and frequency that is employed by every freighter in operation at sea, except with more of the same devices going at once to build a more complete picture of the ocean below.

"There are at least two or three of these research ships that run around the world, running [swathe sonar] twenty-four-seven" on behalf of the Navy, Professor of Applied Marine Physics at the University of Miami Harry DeFerrari said in an interview. DeFerrari was part of a National Research Council panel that did a deep investigation into the subject of sound use at sea, and said he's "never even heard a suggestion of this."

The scientific panel's own report says the same, noting that "such MBES systems have not been previously identified as being associated with marine mammal stranding event" even though it then goes on to say that "the fact that no similar such situations have been observed previously despite previous operations of such systems is not a compelling reason to conclude they did not play a role in this case."

"There's something else going on here," Dr. Ketten said, discussing the outcome of the report. "Sonar existence coincident with strandings isn't sufficient exploration."

Assisted both by the copious data from the original use of the MBES system on the Teknik Perdana, and by later simulations run by ExxonMobil, and charged with finding recommendations for human activity, the report written following the three day conference by panel chair Brandon Southall came to the conclusion that somehow, MBES must have been involved.

"[The panel] thought it would be the airguns, but those couldn't be it," de Ferrari said, citing the report's own conclusion that airgun use by the ships at the time was too remote from anywhere the whales could have been. "So then they turned to the depth recorder."

The French hydrographic surveys done in May also used MBES sonar, the panel report says, although it also notes that "key data including details on the French hydrographic survey were not available."

"An investigation could be far more accurate in the data sources," including in the acoustic data, in the involvement of scientists outside the specific group represented in the panel, in reviews of what is known about the behavior of the species and in the history of strandings.

The Sound and the Fury

Despite copious caveats, and repeated attestations in the report's conclusions that little is known about everything from the way melonheaded whales hear to the way the sound would move underwater in the region, to the mysterious activities of the French navy ship and the impact of the tides, the report includes a final set of recommendations that at first glance seem innocuous.

"Given the extensive use of these operations without widespread observations of mass strandings previously, there may well be a very small probability that these or other social, pelagic whales would respond in a manner that put them in a dangerous situation," the report's conclusion reads. In the executive summary, it recommends that "the potential for behavioral responses and indirect injury or mortality from the use of similar MBES systems should be considered in future environmental assessments, operational planning, and regulatory decisions."

Southall, who now runs "an international company that delivers science to support conservation management and environmentally-responsible business decisions" and chaired the scientific panel, issued the report earlier this year and saw it picked up by environmentalists keen to blame an oil company for killing whales. From the Natural Resources Defense Council to a column by Oceana's Vice President here on the Huffington Post, blog posts based on the report's executive summary, explicitly written to appeal to a general audience and including the recommendations for new reviews of MBES use, appeared. The political static around ocean noise grew and further twisted the outcomes of an already uneven incident review.

The report's recommendations were released at what is becoming a key juncture for the interaction of humans and the oceans. Increased awareness of sound levels in the oceans, and their insufficiently studied potential to disturb underwater life, has lent urgency to efforts to increase regulation of sonar activity at sea. Oil companies and other shippers already comply with the Marine Mammal Protection Act, de Ferrari noted, but regulatory agencies and legislative bodies are looking to do more. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is currently working to develop "comprehensive guidance on sound characteristics likely to cause injury and behavioral disruption in the context of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act and other statutes," NOAA notes.

What little we know about the ocean is due to use of exploratory equipment like sonar. Limiting its use without clear evidence of its impact on wildlife, based on the evidence of a single study rife with issues, has some scientists concerned that environmental science could be replaced with environmental compliance.

"Advances in science and technology are enabling new uses of acoustics to study the oceans; they are also prompting conservation and management considerations," Duke University professor Douglas Nowacek and, then representing University of Southern California as a professor, Brandon Southall, who would come to lead the review panel on the Madagascar event five years later, and issue the report blaming MBES, wrote in an article for the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series. "Currently we lack key data in many areas pertaining to the impacts of sound on the distribution and behavior of marine life; specifically lacking are data needed to inform conservation management decisions," the authors wrote in 2009.

"There's no question sonar is impacting [whales]," said Ketten in an interview, but "taking this report and its findings as 'the facts' could limit scientific exploration. That could mean there is a scientific gap in our understanding and everyone should be aware of that."

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