Review: 'War of the Whales; A True Story,' by Joshua Horwitz

  • Article by: STEVE WEINBERG , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 18, 2014 - 2:13 PM

NONFICTION: After several whales beached themselves and died in 2000, journalist Joshua Horwitz set out to find out why — and discovered that the mass deaths were almost certainly caused by the U.S. Navy.


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On March 15, 2000, in the Bermuda Islands not far from Florida, several whales washed up onto beaches, barely alive. Within hours, the mammoth and increasingly rare ocean creatures, whose ancestors dated to when dinosaurs roamed the earth, had expired.

Whale researchers Ken Balcomb and his wife, Diane Claridge, who resided in the Bahamas during American winters, had never seen anything like the mass deaths, or even heard of anything so catastrophic. Nor had they experienced anything like it at the other whale research outpost, in the San Juan Islands of Washington state during American summers.

Joshua Horwitz, a journalist and book publisher, knew nothing about whales when he heard about the mass deaths. But when he learned that the deaths had been almost certainly caused by the U.S. Navy, he set out to write this book, spending seven years on research.

Horwitz skillfully builds the narrative around the lives of Balcomb and Joel Reynolds, an environmental lawyer in the Los Angeles office of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Becoming acquainted in the aftermath of the 2000 carnage, Reynolds and Balcomb battled the Navy all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Horwitz might view Balcomb and Reynolds as heroes, but he wisely relates the messiness of their lives as well as their professional accomplishments. Just as wisely, Horwitz does not reduce the Navy characters to villainy. The uniformed and civilian Navy folks who use sonar to track enemy submarines believe deeply in their obligation to protect the United States from foreign warriors. Before March 15, 2000, some Navy personnel had access to information that sonar might harm whales and other marine mammals. But it seems fair to conclude that those Navy personnel did not fully understand the extent of harm possible.

Explaining in detail how underwater sonar disorients whales so fully that they end up dying on beaches is beyond the scope of a book review, and a full explanation would act as something of a spoiler for readers intent on consuming Horwitz’s words.

Suffice it to say that “War of the Whales” offers a vivid portrait of unexpected intersections between humans and marine mammals. I, for one, will never again think about whales and marine mammal researchers and Navy maneuvers in the ways I did before reading Horwitz’s book.

Steve Weinberg is the author of eight nonfiction books and is currently writing a biography of Garry Trudeau. He lives in Missouri.

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