Some of these animals are so scarce that intense noise pollution could have long-term effects, agreed Scott Kraus, a right whale expert at the John H. Prescott Marine Laboratory in Boston. Scientists can't even approach them without extensive permits from federal marine mammal regulators.
"No one has been allowed to test anything like this on right whales," Kraus said of the seismic cannons. "(The Obama administration) has authorized a giant experiment on right whales that this country would never allow researchers to do."
Before the U.S. Atlantic seabed was closed to oil exploration in the 1980s, some exploratory wells were drilled, but the region has never had significant offshore production.
"One thing we find is, the more you get out and drill and explore to confirm what you see in the seismic -- you end up finding more oil and gas than what you think is out there when you started," Radford said.
Opposition to oil development has been abundant along the coast, where people worry that oil will displace fisheries and tourism. More than 16 communities from Florida to New Jersey passed resolutions opposing or raising concerns about the seismic testing and offshore drilling. Some states have passed
The local economy is fueled by beach tourism and fishing in St. Augustine in north Florida, where rare turtles come ashore to lay their eggs.
"Florida has already felt the devastating effects of an uncontrolled oil release with the Deepwater Horizon event of which cleanup efforts are still on-going," said John Morris, a county commissioner whose constituency includes St. Augustine Beach. "Any oil spill, large or small, off the coast of St. Johns County, would greatly affect the county's economy."