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Nature. 2004 Apr 15;428(6984):1 p following 716; discussion 2 p following 716.

Pathology: whales, sonar and decompression sickness.

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  • 1Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Environmental Physiology, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina 27710, USA.


We do not yet know why whales occasionally strand after sonar has been deployed nearby, but such information is important for both naval undersea activities and the protection of marine mammals. Jepson et al. suggest that a peculiar gas-forming disease afflicting some stranded cetaceans could be a type of decompression sickness (DCS) resulting from exposure to mid-range sonar. However, neither decompression theory nor observation support the existence of a naturally occurring DCS in whales that is characterized by encapsulated, gas-filled cavities in the liver. Although gas-bubble formation may be aggravated by acoustic energy, more rigorous investigation is needed before sonar can be firmly linked to bubble formation in whales.

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