Category Archives: noise

Sonar heard in Puget Sound – through WA State ferry!

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 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 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.

Location of the Coast Guard cutter FIR

Location of the Coast Guard cutter FIR during the afternoon when sonar was heard.

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.”

Naval Station Everett

Naval Station Everett is ~6.5 km from the Mukilteo ferry terminal.

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.


Screenshot of taken on 3/8/2012





Ruckelshaus suggests whale watchers be more precautious

Today Tacoma’s News Tribune offers a story about the imminent issuing of new rules for watching southern resident killer whales.  This story confirms Donna Darm’s recent mention of the regulations being currently under review at OMB.  It remains to be seen whether the rules will be issued in time for the whale watching industry and killer whale researchers to plan accordingly for the upcoming season.

While the story isn’t quite accurate about the state of bioacoustic science, it does contain a fascinating juxtaposition of quotes — from former EPA administrator and Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council Chair Bill Ruckelshaus, and former President of the Pacific Whale Watch Association Shane Aggergaard.  (Why wasn’t current President Bill Wright quoted?)  This exchange of perspectives reminded me that someone needs to create a synopsis and analysis of the diverse public comments on the proposed vessel regulations, particularly those (30 Mb of) comments from the whale watch industry.

Underwater noise pollution affects calls but not clicks (yet)

The article states that “Research shows engine noise can interfere with the whales’ ability to find food.”  That’s a little unclear.  What has been shown for southern residents (Holt, et al., 2009) is that underwater noise from nearby boats makes killer whales call louder.  If those calls are important for foraging, then the boat noise could affect the whales’ ability to find food.  The greater potential impact of vessel noise on their ability to forage is masking of the echolocation clicks they use to target salmon.  That is a focus of on-going observational and modeling efforts.

Ruckelshaus pwns Aggergaard

My favorite quote is from Bill because it suggests that the whale watching industry should take a broader, longer view of conservation science and policies:

Anytime you have an endangered species you always have somebody who is adversely impacted by the efforts to save the species, and they are very skeptical about the science that shows what they’re doing is causing any harm. The whale watch boats are equally dependent on the health of the orcas as are people who are concerned about them as a species.

He didn’t quite deliver the punch line for which I was hoping: a sustainable whale watching industry would lead in the reduction of all risks identified in the recovery plan — not just donating time and money to save Pacific salmon or working to clean up persistent pollutants, but proactively reducing potential vessel effects in accordance with all available science and the precautionary principle.  Why not support the proposed vessel regulations — even propose to strengthen them (e.g. by adding a 7 knot speed limit within 400 yards throughout their critical habitat despite enforcement logistics), enjoy the short-term PR benefits of setting a stellar example, invest in binoculars and range finders, and then work with NOAA to abate the economic impacts (relax the rules, re-hire workers, grow the fleet) later if recovery occurs and new research justifies being less conservative?

Instead the Association has been vociferous about weakening the rules, questioning or cherry-picking the science, and down-playing vessel impacts. Their public comments include:

“the equation seems simple as too few fish, likely means too few whales” [pg. 3 of 250 pg PDF]

“So let’s get effective Killer Whale Viewing Regulations in place and let’s put all of our collective energies
into the really important steps of Salmon Stock Restoration and Pollution Clean-up and Prevention. All the
houses around us are burning and we are keeping our house safe by spraying the roof and walls with a
garden hose.” [pg. 6]