Science Book a Day Interviews Joshua Horwitz


Special thanks to Joshua Horwitz for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – War of the Whales: A True Story

Joshua Horwitz is the founder and publisher of Living Planet Books in Washington, DC, which specializes in books by thought leaders in science, medicine, and psychology. – From Joshua’s Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for War of the Whales?

I first heard about the lawsuit that environmentalists had filed against the Navy over harm caused to whales by sonar during trainings when that case was heading to the Supreme Court in 2008. But I didn’t get hooked on the story until I dug deeper into the history of the Cold War and realized that the U.S. Navy actually created the field of marine mammal research in the early 1960s. The Navy’s motives were self-interested — it wanted to train dolphins and small whales as combatants, and to reverse engineer their exquisitely evolved biosonar for its own antisubmarine warfare sonar — but some of these early Navy-sponsored whale researchers became the godfathers of the Save the Whales movement. The story I wanted to tell was of a 50-year culture war between two facets of American society — the Navy and conservationists — that cared deeply about whales and the oceans, but for very different reasons.

#2 – How did you do the research for this book? How did manage to contain the complexities of the story within a manageable narrative?

I was committed from the start to tell the Navy’s side of the story alongside the environmentalists’. It took me several years to penetrate the veil of the Navy, which is known as “The Silent Service.” But eventually, a retired admiral began to speak to me about the hidden history of this story, and he introduced me to other retired admirals and navy-sponsored scientists.

The braided strands of Navy research, antisubmarine warfare, the Save the Whales movement, and the scientists and lawyers who joined forces to challenge the Navy made for a complicated narrative. My solution was to follow two principal characters — a whale scientist and a lawyer — as they dove into the hidden history of the Navy and uncovered the truth about how high-intensity sonar was driving whales onto beaches.

#3 – The events of the book started some 15 years ago. Have the outcomes of the court case been sustained?

The legal battle continues — just last week the federal court in Hawaii declared the latest round of permits issued to the Navy for sonar exercises in CA and HI were invalid. Unfortunately, the whale standings also continue, notably during US and foreign Navy joint sonar trainings in foreign waters, which are less closely regulated than exercises in U.S. waters.

#4 – How have the public reacted to this book? Did many people know of this unique story?

The response, both critically and from the public has been very positive. (War of the Whales is shortlisted for the Pen Literary Award for Best Science Book of 2014 — winner is announced next week on May 13). The most surprising positive reaction has been from the US Navy, which I believe sees this as a problem they need to solve, and has invited me to speak at the Naval Academy in Annapolis — where War of the Whales is assigned reading in its Environmental Security course — and at the U.S. Navy War College in Newport, where I was the keynote speaker at the recent Symposium on Marine Power and International Security.

#5 – Are you working on any new books/projects you are working on?

My focus right now is continuing my dialogue with the Navy to see if they can become part of the solution to the problem of ocean noise — not just regarding naval sonar but by sharing its ship-quieting technology with commercial shipping and sharing its satellite telemetry assets with oil and gas companies who currently use high-intensity air cannons to survey the ocean floor.

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