FLAGLER BEACH — In the blue-green surf, 11 endangered North Atlantic right whales surface, jump and shoot mist high into the air through their blow holes.
Dozens of motorists pull over on A1A and grab their cameras and binoculars as the whales frolic in three groups near this North Florida town's pier.
"It's a good day," whale researcher Jim Hain said as he watched through binoculars from a restaurant's top deck.
But this picturesque scene is at the center of the latest debate over how to balance the protection of marine mammals with the military's need to train using sonar.
The right whale is among the world's most endangered mammals. Hain and other researchers believe there are only about 300 to 350 of them remaining.
Until now, their biggest threat has been ship strikes and entanglement in fishing lines. But researchers worry a new threat might be lurking in the waters off northwest Florida and south Georgia where the whales come each year from the North Atlantic to give birth — two Navy sonar projects.
The National Marine Fisheries Service just approved the Navy's plan to do sonar training along the Eastern Seaboard, the right whales' habitat, but it requires the Navy to take precautions to protect the whales and other marine animals.
The Navy also wants to locate an antisubmarine warfare training range on 75 miles off the North Florida coast. The facility, the Navy says, would enable it to train in a shallow-water environment. The effect on marine mammals would be negligible, the Navy said.
But environmentalists argue that midfrequency active sonar can disrupt whale feeding patterns, and in the most extreme cases can kill whales by causing them to beach themselves. Scientists don't fully know how it hurts whales.
"In proposing to locate the training range just outside of this federally designated right whale critical habitat, the Navy ignores or turns a willful blind eye to the various risks posed by its activities," said Catherine Wannamaker, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Atlanta.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also are concerned about the sonar. Florida has asked the Navy to cancel the project or at least close the range from mid October to mid April, when whales are in the area.
Environmental groups and the Navy have been at odds for years over sonar, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Southern California case in November that military training was more important than protecting whales.
A federal study determined Navy sonar tests likely caused the deaths of six beaked whales in the Bahamas in 2000. A necropsy determined the whales had bled heavily near their ears. The report said the wounds would not be fatal but could disorient the animals to the point of beaching themselves.
It has been a good season for the right whales. Researchers have spotted 39 calves and mothers, the highest number recorded in about two decades of watching, and about 100 juveniles and sub-adults of the 165 whales spotted. They were named "right" because they were considered the right whales for whalers to pursue. They range from 45 to 55 feet and can weigh up to 70 tons. As baleen whales, they have plates to filter small crustaceans from the water instead of teeth. They swim close to shore, are slow and float when dead.
The species takes about 10 years to reach sexual maturity and some females might be 20 years old before having their first calf.