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"Man is but a strand in the complex web of life"

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could affect whales at all depths. Animal-rights activists have likened Deep Hear to torture. "It’s nothing less than vivisection of the subject," says Berman of Earth Island Institute.

Berman argues that the navy should release its 92 marine mammals. Many whales that have been set free after years of captivity have thrived in their natural habitats. He cites the killer whale Keiko, star of the Free Willy films, who was freed after being held captive in various aquariums for most of his 25 years.

Whale biologist Morton questions whether the information gathered from animals in captivity even reflects their true nature. If killer whales, for instance, travel 160km a day in the open ocean, is there any point studying one held captive in a small tank, not moving or eating as it would in the wild? "Ridgway has taught us a lot about how marine mammals work," she says, "but I know the animals he was working with were suffering a great deal, and I feel badly that I walked away from that situation without doing anything."

The situation is made worse, she says, with the realisation that whales are highly social creatures that never choose to leave their families. The mammals also have phenomenal memories, and belugas in particular revel in intense communication with each other. Some researchers now believe whales can see with sound. Morton says whales can visualise with sound in a way humans can’t imagine or understand. "If you look at the connection between their ears and their brains, it’s a superhighway compared to what we have. We would have more like a bicycle path."

Two independent inquiries to examine allegations of abuse, carried out in the late 1980s and early 1990s, cleared the programme. The whales, says Bowers, were eager to take part in the Cold Ops and Deep Hear experiments. Life in the navy, he feels, has been easier for them than in the wild. "All these years, I’m convinced we were keeping them healthy and happy," he says. "They have a better chance of living to old age in an environment where they’re not being chased by killer whales and polar bears.” Muk is considered old for a beluga, although scientists are uncertain about maximum life expectancy in the wild. The veterinarian says the whales could have escaped on many occasions, but chose to swim back to their handlers, with whom they felt confident and secure.

These days, the marine-mammal programme mainly comprises mine-hunting dolphins and the Swimmer Defence Team. In 1998 a team of the mine-hunting dolphins was sent to Newfoundland to take part in joint US-Canadian war games. Of the six Canadian belugas, only Muk and Ruby, who was captured in 1980, are still alive.

Muk is considered semi-retired from navy service but can be brought back to duty if necessary. She and Ruby are kept at Sea World in San Diego, where they swim among the fake icebergs in a climate-controlled environment. Both are to be bred. Ridgway insists they are still navy whales. "If there are offspring, we get the first. Sea World gets the second."

What would become of any offspring in the navy’s hands is unknown. Ridgway suggests more studies might be done on the young whales in the areas of hearing or brain function. "We still have a lot to learn from them," he says.