Whales are all ears for Navy

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If only Ike and Tina could see him now.

Their baby, almost 8, has grown up to become a hot commodity.

The baby's name is Turner. He's a 1,300 pound beluga whale whose parents were named after the famous pop duo. Turner's hearing is being tested by the U.S. Navy in an experiment at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma.

The Navy is interested in Turner and his half-brother, Beethoven, for an experiment that is part of a larger effort to determine whether underwater explosions and sonar may hurt marine animals.

The tests in Tacoma do not involve explosions or extremely loud noises. They are the whale equivalent of a human hearing test, in which a series of tones is used to determine the range of a person's aural capabilities.

The scientists are hoping to get a baseline measurement of the whales' hearing.

Tom LaPuzza, spokesman for the Navy's Marine Mammals Program, said the Navy has long been curious about whales' ears.

That interest may have increased last year after the Navy was blamed by animal-rights groups for a mass beaching of beaked whales in the Bahamas. At the time of the beachings, the Navy was conducting tests in the area, and necropsies of the dead whales showed they were otherwise healthy until they became disoriented and stranded themselves.

Tissue trauma associated with hearing also was found. A report to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the incident stopped short of blaming the Navy for the whale's deaths but raised red flags.

The Navy does use loud noises in tests on two beluga whales it keeps at a facility in San Diego. But the ambient noise was too much for this experiment, so the Navy turned to the relative quiet of the Tacoma zoo.

In their pool filled with 250,000 gallons of sea water, Turner and Beethoven are being trained to make a "squealy" sound when they hear tones sounded by an underwater machine, said trainer Traci Belting. The whales have been rewarded with whistles, buzzers and other acknowledgment, Belting said.

Stephanie Boyles, spokeswoman for the national animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said the test seemed redundant and unnecessary.

"There's enough scientific research that has been done on the hearing capability of these animals for (the Navy) to figure out the consequences of what's going on out at sea from setting off those detonators," she said. "I think we already have a base knowledge of what frequencies these animals are capable of hearing."

But LaPuzza, the Navy spokesman, said there was no scientific evidence linking Navy explosions or sonar tests to whale beachings.

The Navy needs more information to make decisions on future tests, LaPuzza said.

Eli Sanders can be reached at 206-748-5815 or esanders@seattletimes.com.