Naval blasts, sonar suspected as cause of whale’s death

The U.S. and Canadian navies are being asked to hand over details of live fire exercises and sonar use around southern Vancouver Island and Puget Sound in February, when an endangered southern resident killer whale died.

Brent Norberg, of the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, said his agency hopes that information and a detailed necropsy will point to a cause of death.

The Royal Canadian Navy has been contacted by U.S. and Canadian agencies and will provide the information, said a navy public affairs statement.

“On Feb. 6, HMCS Ottawa was operating in Juan de Fuca Strait, specifically in Constance Bank, conducting workups training, including a period of sonar use and two small underwater charges as part of an anti-submarine warfare exercise,” the statement said.

Ken Balcomb, senior scientist with the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Wash., believes 3-year-old L112, also known as Sooke, was killed by an explosion – and said the animal may not be the only fatality.

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“She always swam very close to her mother and brother, and not too far away from her aunt and cousin,” said Balcomb, who was present at an on-beach necropsy, but is not part of the team of U.S. and Canadian scientists examining tissue from the whale, which washed up near Long Beach, Wash., on Feb. 11.

Military bombs are regularly dropped in Juan de Fuca Strait and sonar and live fire exercises are common, Balcomb said.

“You would expect, once in a while, a whale would get blown up,” he said.

“It is absurd for our federal governments to have very strong endangered species law, and then exempt the military in the critical habitat of endangered whales.”

Balcomb said the beach necropsy clearly indicated a blast caused a hemorrhage.

“One-half of this poor little whale’s brain was just soup,” he said.

That initial necropsy found that massive trauma was the cause of death, but bones in the whale’s head were not broken.

Zoologist Anna Hall, who captains a Victoria-based whale-watching boat, said it is possible either sonar or live fire played a role in the death.

“Killer whales and other whales have suffered damage from very loud sounds,” she said.

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Hall has video of an incident about four years ago, when the U.S. Coast Guard was using the live fire range when orcas were in the area.

“We managed to get someone in the U.S. Coast Guard and let them know endangered southern residents were passing by and the first response was, ‘We know,’ ” she said.

Detailed tissue examination, which will form part of the necropsy report, has been held up because of a delay in obtaining a permit allowing samples to be sent to the B.C. Centre for Animal Health in Abbotsford, B.C., from the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor.

“I would guess it will take about six weeks from the time it gets there,” said Whale Museum executive director Jenny Atkinson.

It is not yet possible to draw conclusions, Atkinson said.

“Our strong belief is that (Sooke’s) body is going to tell the story. There is a lot of collecting of information and evidence to analyze. We don’t have all the pieces yet.”