Washington State ferry workers and passengers on the Clinton-Mukilteo route heard sonar sounds above water (presumably coming through the hull) that lasted for about an hour this afternoon (Wednesday 2/29/2012). Jenny Atkinson, Executive Director of The Whale Museum said that the Washington State Ferries operations center had called the Musuem’s stranding/sighting hotline to report that the ferry workers on the Clinton-Mukilteo run were complaining about sonar noises this afternoon. Dr. Jason Wood, a bioacoustician and Research Associate with the Museum, requested further details from the operations center and obtained this chronology:
- 15:49 Approximate local Pacific time that sonar pings begin
- 15:54 First call from ferry workers to operations center stating that sonar pings had started 5 minutes before.
- 16:30 A second call is received saying pings are still loud in the ferry’s engine room
- Total duration of sonar pinging was ~ 1 hour
He also learned that:
“The crew in the engine room, the captain, and passengers could hear the sonar, at times so loudly that the ferry agent on land could hear the sonar coming up through the ferry while it was at the dock…. The operations center called the Everett Naval base, but got no answers. They also called the coast guard. No naval or coast guard vessels were reported seen during the sonar incident, other than a naval vessel at the dock in the Everett Navy yard.”
However, Susan Berta and Howard Garrett of Orca Network had noticed a Coast Guard cutter on the marinetraffic.com real-time AIS web site the same afternoon “down between the south end of Camano Islands, Whidbey Island, and & Everett.” Susan wrote “I can’t recall exactly what time, but it had to be mid-late afternoon – I remember looking on the map several times to see if there were any vessels in Saratoga Passage, and noticed a Coast Guard vessel in the south end of Saratoga Passage.”
Using the replay feature of the Siitech.com real-time AIS web site suggests that the vessel was the Coast Guard Cutter FIR (MMSI 369915000, see frame grab below). However, this vessel appears to have been at anchor — at least in the early afternoon — and based on the listed characteristics, the CGC FIR does not carry an active sonar system.
With no other suspect vessels archived in the AIS data, we fall back to the likelihood that the U.S. Navy was involved. Jason wonders “Is is possible that they would test sonar from the dock?”
Interestingly, Mike Francis of Oregonian foresaw that such “pierside testing” was likely to become a contentious issue when he wrote about the new Navy proposed EIS on Monday (2/27/2012). The Federal Register also mentions that the Study Area of the proposed EIS would include “pierside locations” for testing. After studying the lengthy EIS, Mike pulled out this single quote:
“The Proposed Action includes pierside sonar testing conducted as part of overhaul, modernization, maintenance and repair activities at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Naval Base Kitsap at Bangor and Naval Station Everett.”
So, are there any vessels currently at Naval Station Everett that carry Mid-Frequency Active sonar? Well, for starters it is the home port of our old friend the USS Shoup which just a few weeks ago emerged from 7-months of improvements in Seattle, including to its “combat systems.” It seems likely that the Shoup was testing its AN/SQS-53C(V)4 Hull Mounted Sonar (or possibly an updated system).
Confirmation of Shoup sonar testing on 3/2/2012 from Navy Region Northwest:
We’ve received two responses from Sheila Murray, the External Relations Manager from Navy Region Northwest.
On 3/2/12 9:25 Sheila Murray wrote:
The Navy was conducting pierside testing of mid-frequency active sonar at Naval Station Everett yesterday. This is routine testing that is a longstanding and ongoing requirement, and is an essential process in preparing a Navy ship to get underway. Pierside testing is not continuous, but consists of very brief transmissions of acoustic energy interspersed with longer silent periods. Hopefully, this answers your question?
Sheila Sheila Murray, External Relations Manager
Navy Region Northwest Public Affairs 1100 Hunley Rd. Silverdale,WA 98315
On 3/2/12 3:27 PM, Sheila Murray responded to further inquiries, adding these details:
After receiving approval from Commander Pacific Fleet, the Navy was conducting pierside testing of mid-frequency sonar equipment Wednesday afternoon…. USS Shoup was at Everett conducting pierside testing of mid-frequency active sonar Wednesday afternoon.
There are also other Navy vessels which make Everett their home port… Or, was a U.S. submarine in the vicinity ensuring the path would be clear and safe for the inbound aircraft carrier USS Stennis which is due back in Bremerton this Friday around 11:30 a.m.?
There’s more acoustic analysis to be done about the potential effects of this new sonar incident, especially since harbor porpoises have been observed more frequently in the area and a grey whale was sighted simultaneous to the sonar use. Susan wrote this afternoon on the Orca Network Facebook page:
“Yay!! Just saw a Gray whale from our office window, 4:35 pm! It appears to be feeding of the very tip of Fox Spit/East Pt, in Saratoga Passage, near the entrance to Holmes Harbor. I think it may be moving north, but not sure yet – cool!!”
Is the U.S. Navy “pinging in the pool” again, immediately after a new EIS is out for public scoping?
We’re still trying to assess whether damage was done by the sonar used by the Canadian Naval frigate Ottawa on 2/6/2012. But first we have to walk the beaches again — this time in our own backyard — looking for injured marine mammals.
Update on 3/2/2012 from Susan Berta of Orca Network:
The sonar continues today (Friday 3/2/2012). Observers on a dock in Everett about 200 yards from a Naval ship that may have been doing the sonar testing heard pings that lasted about 10 seconds and described them as “REALLY LOUD.” The Coast Guard boat FIR was anchored there again, but it is not clear if they are involved in the testing.
At 4:35 pm WSF operations reported that the Mukilteo/Clinton crew again began hearing sonar again today at 1400. They made some calls & were told sonar testing will continue today until 2200 and will take place again next Wednesday 3/7 and Friday 3/9.
We have had reports of a gray whale off Langley this afternoon, but are not sure how sonar impacts them. The Navy is doing the testing near one of the Grays’ favorite feeding areas at a time the whales are definitely present.
Update on 3/8/2012:
The home page of the Washington State Ferries has a link to this blog post within one of the three revolving highlights. See screenshot below. Apparently, their engineers have been complaining a lot about the sonar pings that they hear through the ferry hulls on the Mukilteo-Clinton route.