It took seven years and interviews with over a hundred people for Joshua Horwitz to write War of the Whales. However his dedication to the story is apparent as the book covers the political, historical, environmental, and legal struggles that developed as the connection between mass whale strandings and Navy sonar was uncovered.
The book opens on March 15, 2000, when a mass stranding occurred in the Bahamas. Marine Biologist Ken Balcomb was on hand to help the whales as much as possible (most of them didn’t make it) and to document the situation. What follows is an extensive look at how researchers figure out the cause of the stranding and how such incidents can be prevented. Horwitz employs a non-linear approach which gives the book a bit of suspense as do a few twists that unfold. He goes back in time to look at Balcomb’s upbringing and early career, the evolution of whales and their elaborate communication and hearing systems, and the domestication of whales for entertainment and research.
Throughout the chapters we’re introduced to a slew of Naval officers, marine scientists, and lawyers, which gets a bit overwhelming. However the story’s trajectory eventually turns to Joel Reynolds, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council who takes on the Navy in multiple lawsuits all the way up the Supreme Court. What’s most apparent in Balcomb’s research quests and Reynolds’ legal work is the ineffectiveness of the Navy to self-police its actions in regards to the welfare of marine wildlife. The Navy encompasses combat divisions as well as research programs (which grant civilian researchers with funding depending on their relationship with the Navy). With one arm of the Navy responsible for drafting Environmental Impact reports, it’s often to another naval department’s direct advantage (and made easier by fallout from 9/11 when invoking national security for ocean exercises became more common).
What makes the 448-page book accessible is that it explains complicated systems like biosonar and the bureaucracy of the Navy but it doesn’t get bogged down. Readers are introduced to the personal tribulations of many of the people and the pages are dotted with illustrations of whales and photographs. What results is an engrossing, and relatively neutral, tale of the scientific and legal expeditions that have unfolded to save the whales.