SECTION: Pg. 9
BYLINE: Nick Thorpe
MILITARY testing of underwater sonar systems may be responsible for the rise in the number of whale strandings, such as the animal that died in the Firth of Forth last year, according to new research.
A Greek marine biologist, Alexandros Frantzis, discovered that the beaching of 12 Cuvier beaked whales, a deep diving breed that is rarely stranded, coincided with NATO testing of a Low Frequency Active Sonar (LFAS) system in May 1996.
Yesterday Dr Frantzis called for more research into the effect of all types of underwater sonar or seismic activity on whales, claiming that the probability of the two events being a coincidence was less than 0.07 per cent.
Other marine experts yesterday admitted that the phenomenon might also help explain the increase of disorientated whales in the North Sea in recent years, including Moby, the sperm whale that beached and died last March in the Firth of Forth.
The Greek research, published in the science magazine Nature, argued that the testing of LFAS - a particularly loud system that emits sounds close to the sensitive navigation frequency of some whales - had coincided with the only mass stranding in the Greek Ionian Sea since 1981.
Of only seven other cases documented worldwide since 1963, three of them occurred near the Canary Islands during similar military manoeuvres, as documented in research by British marine biologist Mark Simmonds, of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.
Yesterday Mr Simmonds claimed the new information had possible applications for investigating Scottish stranding -particularly in the light a large Ministry of Defence submarine testing ground off the West Coast of Scotland.
"Moby is one of a huge number of sperm whales which have come into the North Sea in the last three winters," he said last night.
"There is a suggestion that these sperm whales have been deflected off their natural migration by something, because we would expect them to be going round the west side of the British Isles along the Continental Shelf."
At the time Moby came ashore, Greenpeace activists claimed seismic testing and drilling by oil companies off the coast of Scotland was responsible for the death of the mammal by disorientating its navigation system.
Last night campaigners called for urgent research in the light of the Greek findings.
"This shows that human activity is having an obvious impact on marine wildlife, and anything which prompts further research can only be a good thing," said a spokeswoman for Greenpeace, Mirella Von Lindenfels.
"Our concerns relate specifically to seismic testing on the West of Scotland - it's an incredibly important area for whales."
John Goold, a marine scientist who has carried out research for oil drilling companies, said last night there was evidence of localised disturbance among dolphins, and that whales had more sensitive hearing and were therefore more likely to be distressed by underwater noise.
The new suggestions of military disturbance "certainly broaden the search" he added, though he believed sonar submarine testing by the MoD on the west coast involved lower power systems than those used by NATO.
"All we really know about Moby was that he was on the wrong side of the coast, swimming in a south-westerly direction, which is the way you would expect if he thought he was going along the shelf edge of the west coast," said Mr Goold, of the School of Ocean Sciences at the University of Wales, who came to examine Moby on the sand flats last year.
"The question is can we find out if anything was happening out there at that time - but the trouble is that this sort of stuff is veiled in secrecy."
A spokesman for the MoD at Faslane, last night confirmed that a British Underwater Test and Evaluation Centre (BUTEC) was sited off the Kyle of Lochalsh but dismissed any suggestion that sonar testing was strong enough to interfere with whales' navigation systems.
He was unable to say if testing had been going on in the area around the time that Moby had strayed into the North Sea.
Peter Merckel, the marketing manager for Rosyth Dockyard operators Babcock Facilities Management Ltd, said it was "fairly unlikely" that naval activity on the east coast had played a part, and that investigations at the time had failed to indicate any unusual underwater activity.
He dismissed suggestions that the kind of low power sonar depth soundings routinely used by ships and submarines in the Forth estuary would have had an effect.
But he added: "If something was transmitting a low-frequency signal at that time it would seem to stack up, because that would be heard for a long distance."
Dr Frantzis told The Scotsman it was only possible to speculate until military institutions provided the relevant data - but said it was possible Moby's disorientation had been caused by sonar activity.
"Whales can easily panic if they hear a noise they have never heard before that is very loud in the water - it can completely change their behaviour," he said.
Divers experiencing even a fraction of the sonar volume used in LFAS had become dizzy, somnolent and disorientated, he added.
LOAD-DATE: March 5, 1998