While teaching a group of volunteers about marine stewardship one morning, researcher Ken Balcomb was confronted with a crisis the likes of which he'd never seen: an inexplicable mass stranding of beaked whales. While racing up and down the Bahamas coastline, trying to save lives or at least preserve specimens for autopsy, he struggled to comprehend what could have caused the whales such trauma. When the U.S. Navy's sonar program was implicated, Balcomb was torn; proud of his own service record, he nonetheless broke confidentiality about Navy practices to try and save the lives of whales. Joining forces with environmental lawyer Joel Reynolds, the two face off against a government in the throes of a national security panic in War of the Whales.
Author Joshua Horwitz structures this account like an eco-legal thriller, layering his research so that film of a Navy ship seen in the water near the site of the beachings hangs there like damning evidence. While the Navy's secrecy doesn't make them look good, Horwitz describes the history of sonar, its crucial role in the Cold War and military relevance today, allowing for no easy answers, just uncomfortable compromises.
The lawsuit at the book's center is another instance when a partial win has to be counted in the plus column. As humans encroach ever further into wild spaces, the impact on the creatures living there must be minimized or mitigated. War of the Whales tells one story among many of its type, but it speaks to the need for improved stewardship with urgency.