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War of the Whales: A True Story Hardcover – July 1, 2014

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Editorial Reviews Review

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, July 2014: Reported and written with great passion and precision, this is a gripping and wholly original tale of the ecological side effects of national security. When whales begin beaching themselves in the Bahamas, a marine researcher suspects a clandestine military sonar program. The fight to protect the gentle giants of the sea from the U.S. Navy reads like an eco-thriller crossed with the best of investigative journalism. The action veers from Caribbean beaches to the Pentagon, from the San Juan Islands of Washington State to the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court. At the center of the action is marine biologist and ex-Navy man, Ken Balcomb, a relentless defender of the whales he’s come to love. Take your fictional pick: Balcomb is either Quixote, Ishmael, or David to the Navy’s Goliath. He’s also got a backstory worthy of its own book--an absent-father childhood, a lengthy (and secret) Navy career, three failed marriages, and finally a passion for marine mammals. When Balcomb teams up with activist environmental lawyer Joel Reynolds, the story’s twists and turns expose us to the hidden histories of underwater submarine surveillance and its impact on deep-sea dwellers. Joshua Horwitz is an exuberant storyteller, and this is a rare trifecta of a book: important, highly readable, and stunningly true. --Neal Thompson


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. (Bob Woodward, author of The Price of Politics)

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. (Washington Post, 50 Notable Books 2014)

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. (Chicago Tribune)

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. (HOWARD ERNST, Professor of Political Science at the United States Naval Academy Navy Proceedings Magazine)

Horwitz delivers a powerful, engrossing narrative that raises serious questions about the unchecked use of secrecy by the military to advance its institutional power. (Kirkus starred review Best Nonfiction Books of 2014)

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; 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 Defense Council, and the Navy. . . . Riveting. (Publishers Weekly)

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. (Brenda Peterson Huffington Post)

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. (CBS Watch! Magazine)

Engaging… War of the Whales reads like a novel, but the story it tells is true…a fascinating personal tale. (Animal Welfare Institute Quarterly)

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. (David Helvarg, Founding Director of Blue Frontier Campaign)

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. (Seattle Times)

Intriguing…offers excellent capsule descriptions of various scientific specialties, and scientists. (San Francisco Chronicle)

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. (Minneapolis Star-Tribune)

"As riveting and as involved as a good novel with a lengthy cast of characters.” (The Journal of Supreme Court History)

[A] compelling account of what happens when animal and human interests collide—and a sobering look at the suffering caused by increasingly noisy oceans. (All Animals (Humane Society Magazine))

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. (Jean-Michel Cousteau, Ocean Futures Society)

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. (Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Founder and President of the Waterkeeper Alliance)

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. (Tim Zimmerman, Co-Writer of "Blackfish", author of "The Killer In The Pool")

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. (Journal of the San Juan Islands)

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. (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

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. (Bookpage)

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. (Michael Jasney Switchboard (Natural Resources Defense Council Staff Blog))

A true story brilliantly told…The book is compelling, it’s comprehensive, it’s ground-breaking – and it’s infuriating. (Joel Reynolds Switchboard (Natural Resources Defense Council Staff Blog))

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. (The Washingtonian)

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. (Santa Barbara Independent)

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. (The

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. (Fiction Reboot)

The opening scenario of this fascinating story is shocking and heartbreaking…well-researched and passionate. (Lansing City Pulse)

Immersive reading. (, Wyatt’s World)

It’s that time of year when bookstores everywhere showcase “summer reading” options. But take a pass on the books touted as easy reading and pick up War of the Whales by Joshua Horwitz instead. (

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. (

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. (Barnstable Patriot)

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. (Daily Herald)

Fascinating… Horwitz does a superb job… This is narrative journalism at its finest and one of the best nonfiction books of the year. (Queen Anne & Magnolia News)

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 must read! (

"WAR OF THE WHALES is riveting, wide-ranging, and a masterly account of this landmark showdown in courtrooms and the court of public opinion." (A Green Beauty)

“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.” (

What really gained my admiration for Horwitz was how he was able to weave scientific and historical aspects of the story into a gripping tale that reads like a detective thriller. (Puget Sound Blog)

“Confirms the consensus of so many readers and critics that War of the Whales is an exceptional achievement in non-fiction story-telling.” (Huffington Post, feature on PEN Award win)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; 1St Edition edition (July 1, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1451645015
  • ISBN-13: 978-1451645019
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.4 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (243 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #165,484 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

67 of 72 people found the following review helpful By Ann D. on July 1, 2014
Format: Hardcover
I've followed the news about the threat to whales from navy sonar and been alarmed by the ongoing situation but I was concerned that this book might make for some dry reading. I was wrong! The author has written a gripping book that reads as easily as a crime novel, full of rich characters and exciting situations that tell a remarkable story of fascinating, dedicated men and women fighting against one of the biggest and most powerful government agencies in the world. You'll learn a lot about the whales but also about the unusual people involved. I highly recommend it for anyone who cares about animals and the environment OR just wants a really great book to read this summer.
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Schuyler T Wallace VINE VOICE on July 5, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
As a Navy man, sailor, lover of all things oceanic, and a person who once thought about a career in marine biology, I found Joshua Horwitz's "War of the Whales" to be both fascinating and food for thought. I abhor the image of Navy brass as perpetrators of animal cruelty although I'm convinced, after reading the book, that such behavior in the name of national security is entirely in character and unlikely to change.

Marine biologist Ken Balcomb is a fascinating study of a dedicated scientist who is so immersed in his studies that the customary things in life that most people enjoy go unnoticed to him. He doesn't need creature comforts and, in fact, struggles to get the funding to help pay for them or for living a normal life. Although he has two homes in resort locations, neither of which could be considered luxurious, he has been known to eat fresh road-killed rabbits and stays at Motel 6 and eats Pizza Hut when he travels; travails he gladly puts up with to keep his studies funded.

Horwitz makes what seems to be an impossible job of making Balcomb's early life fathomable. A weak and skinny kid, Balcomb resolutely builds himself up to a fitness specimen and spends every waking moment outdoors, wading rivers and combing beaches. As a graduate zoology student at UC Davis he gathered horse lungs from regional slaughterhouses for use in the Davis lab. Then he became interested in the whale deconstruction he encountered and became immersed in maggoty and aromatic whale offal as he dug through the garbage bins at a whaling station looking for intact whale lungs to study. After reading of Balcomb's dedication to smelly work, I am happy with my decision to go a different direction.
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49 of 54 people found the following review helpful By sneaky-sneaky VINE VOICE on June 18, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
We live in a world of sound. It is everywhere and the din is increasing year by year as there are more vehicles, planes, cars, boats, jet skis, you name it. Does it affect us? Yes, lawn mowers, barking dogs, all kinds of things. It is the same in the ocean. Marine life has been in the ocean for hundreds of millions of years, but we haven't, so that marine life is now being bombarded with the increasing racket that humanity creates, not just propellers, but sonar pings and explosive-charge oil exploration. Some of these noises exceed 230 decibels, something like standing next to a jet engine.
For cetaceans that must surface to breathe, loud noises like these disrupt not only hearing, but also the echolocation they use to hunt and maintain contact with other members of their pod in the inky depths. Some animals will become so confused that they swim into the depths and drown, or surface rapidly to try and avoid the noise and get a case of the bends just like a human diver failing to decompress. Some strand, or wash up dead.
Enter Ken Balcomb, an old salt who has devoted his life to beaked whales in the Bahamas and Orca in Puget Sound. The subject of the book investigates a stranding event and slowly ties together evidence over several years while battling academic rivalries, the fact that the navy is the chief sponsor of oceanographic research, secrecy, and events like 9/11 that quickly reignited the military's cold war-era carte blanche.
Joshua Horwitz spent some seven years on his book, and has delved deeply into what is ultimately a small community, but one that can easily mobilize public interest. The book is well organized and written, at once sad and hopeful, and covers litigation all the way up to the Supreme Court.
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40 of 46 people found the following review helpful By wjb VINE VOICE on June 9, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is an absolutely brilliant tour-de-force that goes beyond the struggles of American national security and the majestic whales, but other marine animals as well. I was enthralled with the detail the author gave to not only the majesty of the whales, but how they navigate the world’s oceans with their built-in communication system in total darkness. I admit it – I was not very knowledgeable about whales. I didn’t realize that whales are inundated with pollution, noise, and sonar exercise constantly. Their natural habitat is constantly being assaulted by man.
This true story delivers us into the depths of our great oceans that resulted into a struggle pitting a caring environmental attorney and a marine biologist, who first witnessed the strandings, against the US Navy to set the stage for a showdown at the SCOTUS that weighs national security against God’s command to have dominion over the animals. Animals are God’s creation too and we have to take responsibility and care for the animals.
This is heady reading at its best and will stay with you for a long time. I live in Florida and have seen the Shamu show at Sea World. I often wondered how those magnificent creatures can survive in such close quarters. Whales are meant to roam the world’s oceans – uninhibited and very much in command. That takes me back to a paragraph in the author’s prologue…”whales roamed as the unchallenged masters of the oceans for tens of millions of years__until another highly social, intelligent, and adaptive terrestrial mammal dipped its toes into the water”. The dominance changed for the whales and other marine life then. We have to be good stewards, but the strandings continue. I will never view our oceans the same again
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