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Keywords:

  • beaked whales;
  • deep divers;
  • sonar;
  • avoidance reaction;
  • nitrogen saturation;
  • bubble growth;
  • decompression sickness;
  • stranding

Abstract

The impact of naval sonar on beaked whales is of increasing concern. In recent years the presence of gas and fat embolism consistent with decompression sickness (DCS) has been reported through postmortem analyses on beaked whales that stranded in connection with naval sonar exercises. In the present study, we use basic principles of diving physiology to model nitrogen tension and bubble growth in several tissue compartments during normal diving behavior and for several hypothetical dive profiles to assess the risk of DCS. Assuming that normal diving does not cause nitrogen tensions in excess of those shown to be safe for odontocetes, the modeling indicates that repetitive shallow dives, perhaps as a consequence of an extended avoidance reaction to sonar sound, can indeed pose a risk for DCS and that this risk should increase with the duration of the response. If the model is correct, then limiting the duration of sonar exposure to minimize the duration of any avoidance reaction therefore has the potential to reduce the risk of DCS.