Joshua Horwitz’ War of the Whales has all the elements of a good beach-read thriller: compelling characters, a tight mystery, even a cute animal: in this case, beaked whales. However, Horwitz is talking real life: he spent six years researching and documenting the struggle between environmentalists and the United States Navy over the issue of Naval sonar. The basic dispute is thus: the Navy maintains that increasingly loud and complex use of sonar is critical to defense of the United States; environmentalists point out that Naval sonar disrupts the ability of whales and other sea creatures to navigate and has resulted in catastrophe for ocean life.
Horwitz begins his story with a mass stranding of whales in the Bahamas in March of 2000; at least ten whales of various species are known to have beached themselves overnight. A few were rescued and returned to open ocean. It’s impossible to tell, by the way, if these whales were healthy enough to survive or simply died later. Most of the stranded died from exposure. The ‘man on the spot’ was Ken Balcomb, ex-Naval officer and longtime marine mammal researcher with a history of many years working with the beaked whales that thrive in Bahamian waters, a number of which were among the stranded. Balcomb was also aware of a Naval sonar station on the islands as well as the presence of an unusual US destroyer.
From here, Horwitz’ story reads like a good Michael Crichton: Balcomb calls in help, the Navy stonewalls him, Balcomb collects his evidence and blows the whistle on what he believes is deliberate Naval whitewashing of the effects of sonar testing on marine mammals. Here the heroic lawyer steps in; the kind they make movies about. Joel Reynolds, working for the National Resources Defence Council, has been waiting for a case like this. For years, he has been edging his way towards direct confrontation with the Navy and, by extension, U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife over sonar testing in sensitive waters.
One of the strengths of Horwitz’ painstakingly researched book — other than providing the novice with a working understanding both of sonar and whale biology — is that he has resisted the temptation to construct a villain. From the point of view of Balcomb, the whales, and anyone concerned about the health of the oceans, the Navy steps right up to meet the need for a a bad guy. It would have been very easy for Horwitz to paint the Navy jet-black — creating a classic good guy/bad guy dichotomy between the black-hat military and the white-hat environmentalists. However, Horwitz avoids such easy distinctions and instead takes the time to elaborate on the mentalite of the Navy; inasmuch as a civilian can, he tries to explain why they are doing what they are doing, what the history is that leads top brass to behave in what seems like a deliberately inhumane — and illegal — way. Whether or not this is convincing to the reader in terms of the damage done is a question too individual for prediction.
Sometimes the narrative gets bogged down with personal details; Horwitz clearly spent a lot of time, face to face or otherwise, with his main ‘characters,’ particularly Reynolds and Balcomb, and absorbed a great deal of their personal history. Some details — like the painful break-up of Balcomb’s fourth marriage — seem unnecessary and almost intrusive. Since it helps determine Balcomb’s future involvement in the court case and his move from the Bahamas to the Pacific Northwest, where he has another chance to indict the Navy for sonar testing on a different whale group, the reality TV-style re-enactment of the moment of emotional break-up — in a bathtub, no less! — seems unnecessary.
There is no happy ending to this story; instead, there is a small step forward in a very, very long walk. If you’re looking for edutaining beach reading this summer, War of the Whales would be a good choice. Or you could hold out and wait for the movie!