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LONDON, March 4 Reuters - NATO tests of an underwater sonar system could have caused a mass stranding of whales off the coast of Greece, scientists said today.
Twelve Cuvier beaked whales, a deep diving breed that is rarely stranded, washed up on the west coast of Greece in May 1996 just days after the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation tested a Low Frequency Active Sonar (LFAS) system used to detect diesel and nuclear submarines.
Alexandros Frantzis, and colleagues at the University of Athens, think the two events are more than just a coincidence.
"We know that LFAS was used in the Kyparissiakos Gulf. We also know that no other LFAS or mass strandings have occurred in the Greek Ionian (Mediterranean) Sea since 1981," he said in a letter to the scientific journal Nature.
"Taking the past 16.5 year period into account, the probability of a mass stranding occurring for other reasons during the period of the LFAS tests is less than 0.07 per cent."
The LFAS generates very loud, low-frequency sound which enables long detection ranges. Although its effect on whales has not been studied thoroughly, many specialists think that at high levels it could physically damage the whales and affect their behaviour.
Mass strandings of the creatures are extremely rare. Since 1963 there have been only seven cases worldwide of four or more whales and three of them occurred near the Canary Islands during similar military manoeuvres.
The latest stranding was also odd because the animals were not stranded together, but over a 40 kilometre area. Deep diving whales also seem especially affected by low-frequency sounds, even at low levels.
Frantzis said that more information is needed to solve the mystery, but unfortunately most of the data about the use of LFAS are a military secret.