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War of the Whales: A True Story

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Two men face off against an all-powerful navy—and the fate of the ocean’s most majestic creatures hangs in the balance.

War of the Whales is the gripping tale of a crusading attorney who stumbles on one of the US Navy’s best-kept secrets: a submarine detection system that floods entire ocean basins with high-intensity sound—and drives whales onto beaches. As Joel Reynolds launches a legal fight to expose and challenge the Navy program, marine biologist Ken Balcomb witnesses a ...

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War of the Whales: A True Story

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Two men face off against an all-powerful navy—and the fate of the ocean’s most majestic creatures hangs in the balance.

War of the Whales is the gripping tale of a crusading attorney who stumbles on one of the US Navy’s best-kept secrets: a submarine detection system that floods entire ocean basins with high-intensity sound—and drives whales onto beaches. As Joel Reynolds launches a legal fight to expose and challenge the Navy program, marine biologist Ken Balcomb witnesses a mysterious mass stranding of whales near his research station in the Bahamas. Investigating this calamity, Balcomb is forced to choose between his conscience and an oath of secrecy he swore to the Navy in his youth.

When Balcomb and Reynolds team up to expose the truth behind an epidemic of mass strandings, the stage is set for an epic battle that pits admirals against activists, rogue submarines against weaponized dolphins, and national security against the need to safeguard the ocean environment. Waged in secret military labs and the nation’s highest court, War of the Whales is a real-life thriller that combines the best of legal drama, natural history, and military intrigue.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

It began with the news of the stranding of a single whale in the Bahamas in 2000, but before long, veteran scientist Ken Balcomb and his research partner wife Diane Claridge learned of a number of others. At first, they were puzzled, but eventually a probable cause for the beaching, most of them fatal, became frighteningly apparent: the U.S. Navy's high-intensity active sonar was responsible. In this revelatory book, science writer Joshua Horwitz recounts the quest of Balcomb and whale volunteers to identify and expose the culprits. What follows in War of the Whales is an all-too-true story of Navy resistance, cover-up, and obstruction. Bob Woodward has already lauded this book as "a gripping, brilliantly told tale of the secret and deadly struggle between American national security and the kings of the ocean."

Publishers Weekly
In March of 2000, on Abaco Island in the Bahamas, a group of volunteers surrounded Ken Balcomb and his wife and research partner, Diane Claridge, eager to learn more about the Cuvier’s and Blainville’s beaked whales of the Great Bahama Canyon. Panic ensued as one of Balcomb’s assistants delivered news of a stranded whale nearby. Although the volunteers were able to free this whale and push it back to deeper water, they learned of numerous strandings on several islands, and the mystery, along with Balcomb’s quest to solve it, began. In this gripping detective tale, science writer Horwitz recreates a day-by-day account of the quest to find the reasons for the mass strandings; their discovery of the probable cause—the U.S. Navy’s use of high-intensity active sonar; the Navy’s resistance and cover-up of their use of sonar in the area; and the drawn-out struggles between Balcomb, Joel Reynolds of the Natural Resources Defence Council, and the Navy. In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that public interest lay in “securing the strongest military defense rather than in enforcing marine mammal protection,” yet five years later continued research further solidified the position of various parties within the environmental movement that noise pollution poses grave threats to whales. Horwitz’s riveting story illuminates the many challenges continuing to face environmentalists working with marine mammals. (July)
[A] real-life thriller.
All Animals
[A] compelling account of what happens when animal and human interests collide—and a sobering look at the suffering caused by increasingly noisy oceans.
Robert Kurson
A stunning true story that delivers us into beautiful and mysterious depths – of great oceans, top-secret military operations, and the hearts of underdogs who risk it all to save the most extraordinary creatures in the world. In War of the Whales, Joshua Horwitz has written a tale of passion and courage with all the intrigue of the best mystery novels.
Geraldine Brooks
A page-turning plunge into deep seas and deep secrets. A finely braided, tautly constructed narrative full of science, suspense and unexpected reversals. This is an awe-inspiring book, and an enraging one. You won't be able to put it down.
Seattle PI
This masterfully crafted book is guaranteed to bring the issues to a larger audience.
Rear Admiral Richard F. Pittenger (Ret.)
War of the Whales is an important book about a major post-Cold War problem: the often conflicting goals of national security and environmental protection. The author presents this very complex and multidimensional story with great clarity. I'm certain that no one who has been involved with this issue will agree with everything in this book (I don't). But the topic is, by its nature, so emotionally charged and controversial that I doubt anyone can read it without a strong personal response. The importance of this book is that it tells the "inside" story to the wide reading public in a compelling way.
“Impeccably researched.”
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-05-17
Living Planet Books co-founder Horwitz chronicles an ongoing collision of epic proportions between the U.S. Navy, intent on protecting its submarine warfare program, and environmental activists, who fight to save whales from extinction.The author begins in March 2000, when, over several days, “the largest multispecies whale stranding ever recorded” occurred across 150 miles of beach in the Bahamas. Rescue efforts led by Ken Balcomb, a researcher who was conducting a census of whales in the area, were mostly unsuccessful, but he was able to preserve their bodies for later forensic examination. Having served as a naval sonar expert, Balcomb surmised that training exercises involving a top-secret “Sound Surveillance System,” developed during the Cold War to monitor Soviet nuclear submarines, were likely responsible. The use of high-decibel, low-frequency sonar signals by the Navy would have overwhelmed the whales' biosonar system and caused physiological damage as well. This was not the first such incident of whale strandings in the vicinity of naval exercises—nor, unfortunately, the last. The author reports on the battle led by Balcomb and Joel Reynolds—a senior lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council—to force the release of the forensic evidence and the attempts by the Navy’s top brass to stonewall any serious investigation that could lead to curtailment of their activities.The battle led to a court ruling against the Navy for overriding environmental law. The Bush administration overturned the court decision by executive order on grounds of national security, and the NRDC countered legally, asking for a ruling on the administration's action. The case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the administration was within its rights, but it opened the door for the requirement of “comprehensive Environmental Impact Statements” in advance of any future naval maneuvers.Based on years of interviews and research, Horwitz delivers a powerful, engrossing narrative that raises serious questions about the unchecked use of secrecy by the military to advance its institutional power.
Robert F. Kennedy
Seneca said it best: 'He who is brave is free.' War of the Whales tells the astounding true story of how brave men and women, free from fear, spoke truth to the most powerful military on earth to save the most majestic creatures in the oceans.
Huffington Post - Brenda Peterson
In a riveting and groundbreaking new book, War of the Whales, Joshua Horwitz, chronicles the true story of the 20-year battle led by scientists and environmental activists against military sonar. It reads like the best investigative journalism, with cinematic scenes of strandings and dramatic David-and-Goliath courtroom dramas as activists diligently hold the Navy accountable. A page-turning detective story, War of the Whales... chillingly tracks the US Navy’s culture of secrecy as it collides with environmental groups and grassroots’ demand for transparency.
CBS Watch! Magazine
For those looking for the perfect non-fiction beach read, you couldn’t do better than War of the Whales: A True Story, Joshua Horwitz’s recounting of an attorney and marine biologist who take on the Navy and the fatal harm they are causing the ocean’s mammals.
Animal Welfare Institute Quarterly
Engaging… War of the Whales reads like a novel, but the story it tells is true…a fascinating personal tale.
Jean-Michel Cousteau
War of the Whales takes us deep inside the soundscape of our acoustically complex seas, where whales have evolved to communicate, navigate and hunt with sound. It's the true story of the underwater collision between life in the ocean and an acoustic storm of military sonar — and of citizen activists holding accountable the world's most powerful Navy. For anyone who wants to save marine life from drowning in man-made noise, this is a must-read book.
Tim Zimmerman
War of the Whales is the surprising and untold story of how two individuals united in a desperate fight to protect dolphins and whales from the deadly acoustic assault of navy sonar. Deeply researched, and brimming with colorful and interesting detail, Joshua Horwitz's gripping book reads like a thriller but, in the tradition of the best non-fiction writing, brings to light the secret history of military sonar and its devastating connection to traumatized whales and dolphins stranding and dying on beaches around the world.
David Helvarg
From severed whale heads to top-secret Naval warfare ops, from the blue waters of the Bahamas to the inner corridors of the Pentagon, War of the Whales is a true-life detective story, military drama and legal procedural of the first order. Joshua Horwitz channels John Grisham and Jacques Cousteau in a way that will leave the reader inspired, outraged and deeply satisfied.
Bob Woodward
A gripping, brilliantly told tale of the secret and deadly struggle between American national security and the kings of the oceans. At once thrilling and heartbreaking, this is a landmark book of deep, original reporting which could alter forever how we view our role as stewards of the seas.
Washington Post
As War of the Whales…makes convincingly clear, the connection between naval sonar and deadly mass strandings of whales is scientifically undeniable…a strong and valuable narrative.
Chicago Tribune
Intimate and urgent storytelling....Horwitz's years of research and observation lend genuine drama to this save-the-whales tale. The author paints rich portraits of his subjects, much fuller than the rote physical descriptions and caricatures that might pass for characterization in a breezier work of nonfiction.
Navy Proceedings Magzine - HOWARD ERNST
A fascinating read and incredibly informative. This is a powerful book and will be of great interest to anyone concerned with marine mammal protection, the uneasy balance between the competing desires for national security and environmental protection, or the messy politics of scientific inquiry.
The Washingtonian
Amazing…Forget toting the latest spy novel or horror story to the beach this summer; take War of the Whales instead. You don't need to be an eco-warrior to learn from this real-life thriller.
Santa Barbara Independent
A page-turning ride…Horwitz tells a taut, energetic story that feels immediate, even though the events are nearly a decade old. War of the Whales is a reminder — and a warning — that our technological, industrial, and military prowess produces unintended consequences for other species with which we share this fragile planet.
The gripping tale of two men’s crusade to protect the earth’s oceans and the majestic creatures that call it home will appeal to the activist hidden within every reader…The story is as intriguing as it is informative as Horowitz weaves together legal drama, natural history and military intrigue.
A game changing book that unveils, layer by layer, the blood-­stained legacy of Navy sonar on whales and dolphins.
Fiction Reboot
War of the Whales has all the elements of a good beach-read thriller: compelling characters, a tight mystery, even a cute animal: in this case, beaked whales. However, Horwitz is talking real life…If you are looking for [an] edutaining beach reading this summer, War of the Whales would be a good choice.
Lansing City Pulse
The opening scenario of this fascinating story is shocking and heartbreaking…well-researched and passionate.
Wyatt’s World
Immersive reading.
A must read!
All Animals (Humane Society Magazine)
[A] compelling account of what happens when animal and human interests collide—and a sobering look at the suffering caused by increasingly noisy oceans.
Journal of the San Juan Islands
A gripping, true-life tale… War of the Whales blends together the spirit of both a suspense thriller of a Grisham novel (except that it's not fiction) and the political intrigue of an All The President's Men.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
The story is so artfully constructed that you are drawn in and forget that you are not reading a novel…. [A] story that is fascinating even if you have no interest in whales or navy sonar…. [H]is masterfully crafted book is guaranteed to bring the issues to a larger audience.
Author Joshua Horwitz structures this account like an eco-legal thriller, layering his research so that film of a Navy ship seen in the water near the site of the beachings hangs there like damning evidence…. As humans encroach ever further into wild spaces, the impact on the creatures living there must be minimized or mitigated. War of the Whales tells one story among many of its type, but it speaks to the need for improved stewardship with urgency.
Switchboard (Natural Resources Defense Council Staff Blog) - Michael Jasney
Suspenseful and moving and fascinating in equal measure…Stranding investigations are about cause and effect. But in showing us, based on the best available evidence, what the Navy’s sonar transit might have been like for the whales that suffered through it, the book reminds us of the dignity of the individual animal.
Switchboard (Natural Resources Defense Council Staff Blog) - Joel Reynolds
A true story brilliantly told…The book is compelling, it’s comprehensive, it’s ground-breaking – and it’s infuriating.
San Francisco Chronicle
Intriguing…offers excellent capsule descriptions of various scientific specialties, and scientists.
Minneapolis Star-Tribune
Horwitz skillfully builds the narrative around the lives of Balcomb and Joel Reynolds…wisely relat[ing] the messiness of their lives as well as their professional accomplishments. Just as wisely, Horwitz does not reduce the Navy characters to villainy….War of the Whales offers a vivid portrait of unexpected intersections between humans and marine mammals. I, for one, will never again think about whales and marine mammal researchers and Navy maneuvers in the ways I did before reading Horwitz’s book.
Seattle Times
Highly detailed…Suits, appeals and maneuvering all the way to the Supreme Court expose a fascinating but sometimes demoralizing conflict, since the book depicts yet another example of the executive branch of government operating as though it were above the law. That Horwitz persevered and made this important battle public is admirable.
Joshua Horwitz's strongly-written book about a secret Navy program that targeted whales will pull at your heartstrings harder than anything you've experienced since Free Willy 3.
Brilliant…[Horwitz] astonishes us with the breadth and depth of his coverage of why whales are dying as a result of sonar systems in the oceans, the legal battle between environmental groups and the U.S. Navy, and the pain and suffering resulting from the "unintended consequences ‘of keeping the United States safe.
Fans of the Blackfish documentary will enjoy Joshua Horwitz's incredible new book…the effort to reveal the truth sets up an epic battle that spills over the pages of War of the Whales, combining legal drama, natural history, and military intrigue into an surprising tale of the battle for the ocean's future.
Barnstable Patriot
An astounding and brave expose of how it has penetrated our oceans and how destructive that involvement is to cetaceans…Horwitz moves us profoundly…This is an essential read for those interested in the ocean environment and in how the world really works.
Daily Herald
Pitch-perfect prose and compelling detail…Horwitz’s fine text is filled with multi-dimensional characters and frenetic action. It has deservedly been designated one of the best books of the year so far.
Queen Anne & Magnolia News
Fascinating… Horwitz does a superb job… This is narrative journalism at its finest and one of the best nonfiction books of the year.
War of the Whales is well researched and provides deep insight into the little known consequences of our government’s use of sonar technology — two reasons it’d make great fodder for conversation at a summer cocktail party. Just don’t be surprised if you take up the mantle of environmental activist after plowing through it.
A Green Beauty
"WAR OF THE WHALES is riveting, wide-ranging, and a masterly account of this landmark showdown in courtrooms and the court of public opinion."
“War of the Whales is as gripping as any spy novel, but from the perspective of having reported at the time about the central events and conflicts that Horwitz covers, being acquainted with most of Horwitz’s cast of characters, and even having been on the original cc. list for some of the e-mails he quotes, I can attest first hand to the accuracy and insightfulness of his writing.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781451645019
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 7/1/2014
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 32,788
  • Product dimensions: 6.60 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Joshua Horwitz is the coauthor of two books of nonfiction, Wrestling with Angels (with Naomi Rosenblatt) and If I Get to Five (with Fred Epstein, MD), as well as a young adult novel and several children’s books. In 1990, he co-founded Living Planet Books, an environmental small press and nonfiction packaging firm specializing in books by thought leaders in science, medicine, and psychology. In 2000, Horwitz co-founded AuthorsOnline, a website featuring the homepages of award-winning and bestselling authors.

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Read an Excerpt

War of the Whales


The Day the Whales Came Ashore

DAY 1: MARCH 15, 2000, 7:45 A.M.

Sandy Point, Abaco Island, the Bahamas

Powered by his second cup of coffee, Ken Balcomb was motoring through his orientation speech for the Earthwatch Institute volunteers who had flown in the night before. The workday started early at Sandy Point, and Balcomb was eager to finish his spiel and head out onto the water before the sun got high and hot.

“Take as many pictures as you like,” he told them, “but leave the marine life in the ocean. Conches in the Bahamas are listed as a threatened species, so you can’t take their shells home as souvenirs.”

After a breakfast of sliced papaya and peanut butter sandwiches, a dozen volunteers sprawled across the worn couches of the modest beachfront house that Balcomb rented with his wife and research partner, Diane Claridge. Here, on the underpopulated southwestern tip of Abaco, far from the posh resorts on the tiny Out Islands elsewhere in the Bahamas, the only tourist activity was bonefishing in the clear, bright shallows of the continental shelf. What the tourists rarely glimpsed, and what the volunteers had come to see, were the reclusive Cuvier’s and Blainville’s beaked whales of the Great Bahama Canyon.

For the past 15 years, the Earthwatch volunteer program had provided the sole financial support for the decadelong photo-identification survey of the beaked whales here in the Bahamas and of the killer whales in the Pacific Northwest. The Earthlings, as Ken and Diane called them, traveled from across the United States and around the world to assist their survey and to catch a fleeting glance of the deepest-diving creatures in the ocean: the beaked whales that lived inside the underwater canyon offshore from Sandy Point. For the most part, they were altruistic tourists, from teenagers to golden-agers, looking for a useful vacation from the winter doldrums up north. At Sandy Point, they could learn a little about whales, lend a hand in a righteous eco-science project, and enjoy the Bahamian sunshine.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2014

    An important new book about the conflict between national securi

    An important new book about the conflict between national security and the life of marine mammals. 

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2014

    An "everyone should read book"

    A very gripping and broadly imformative account of assault on our oceans through history, and especially of a few brave men who forced the U.S. Navy to accept accountability for their role.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 27, 2014

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    Posted September 5, 2014

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