Ken Balcomb, the dean of killer whale research in the Northwest, has looked at the evidence and believes he knows what killed L-112, a 3-year-old female orca found along the Washington Coast in February.
“Clearly the animal was blown up,” he told Scott Rasmussen, a reporter for the Journal of the San Juan Islands.
When I asked Ken to explain, he provided a lot more detail and informed me that he was calling for a law-enforcement investigation into the whale’s death by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Why he is seeking more than a biological analysis of the death will become clear in a moment.
What Ken is suggesting is that L-112 was killed by a bomb, possibly dropped from an aircraft during a training event in the Navy’s Northwest Training Range off the West Coast. His evidence is circumstantial, but he wants some answers.
What we know for sure is that this young female orca washed up dead at Long Beach on Feb. 11 in relatively fresh condition, allowing a complete necropsy, including CT scans of the head and dissections of the internal organs and head.
Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian with The SeaDoc Society who
participated in the necropsy, said the whale showed signs of “blunt
force trauma” with injury to the right and left sides of the head
and right side of the body. Blunt force trauma might be what a
human would experience if dropped from a helicopter onto soft
ground, he explained.
Blast trauma can be similar, depending on how the shock waves reach the animal. Acoustic trauma, such as sonar, is not well defined in the world of pathology, he said, but it is different from blunt force and blast trauma.
Joe and most of the other scientists involved with the study of L-112 are withholding judgment until all the information is in.
“What we need to do now,” he told me, “is put all the pieces of the mosaic together. What is the highest probability of what caused those particular injuries?”
Whatever the cause, he said, the young orca did not swim very far before she died.
Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research, has a long history with unusual deaths of marine mammals going back to 2002, when the Navy apparently killed 16 whales during an exercise involving sonar in the Bahamas. The Navy acknowledged its responsibility two years later. See the Kitsap Sun report of Jan. 1, 2002. In that incident, Ken was instrumental in saving the heads of some animals for forensic examination, without which the mystery may have gone unsolved.
When I talked to Ken yesterday, he said the injuries sustained by L-112 were similar to what he has seen before. He mentioned a Cuvier’s beaked whale found near Seaside, Ore., in 2002; a killer whale, L-60, found about a month later at Long Beach; and a Berardius (Baird’s beaked whale) at Lapush in 2003.
“Now we have L-112,” he said. “It was massively bloody in the ears and at the base of the ears.”
Balcomb has zeroed in on live aerial bombing practices conducted off the West Coast. According to a permit issued under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (PDF 690 kb), the Navy is allowed to conduct an average of 30 bombing exercises each year. That includes the use of 500-pound Mark-82 aerial bombs — although the Navy says the actual number of exercises does not come near that number.
“What we may have experienced over these years is an unusual mortality related to these bombing events,” Ken said.
Last night, I contacted the Navy’s John Mosher, Northwest program manager for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. There were no bombing exercises in the Long Beach vicinity for at least 30 days before L-112 was found, he said.
I addressed the possibility of a sonar injury in Water Ways on Feb. 18.
Ken, a former Navy technician, is suspicious of Navy statements because of his experience in the Bahamas, where the Navy eventually admitted to using sonar in a planned exercise.
“They lied to us for a month about the existence of that exercise,” Ken said. “We had to show them pictures of the Navy ships with their hull numbers.”
As he tells it, his requests for information kept being directed to other Navy exercises. It took a month before he could get confirmation of the exercise in question, he said, and that’s when the Navy decided it was time to quit denying the indisputable evidence.
To examine past bombing practices, Ken and I both called up the first “Annual Range Complex Exercise Report” (PDF 121 kb) covering the period from Nov. 12, 2010, to May 1, 2011.
We found that all the details about exercises along the West Coast — including the number of bombing events — was marked “classified.”
Lynne Barre, a marine mammal specialist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, said her agency has staff experts in Washington, D.C., who are qualified to review classified documents. They looked at the numbers and concluded that the training exercises during that period met the requirements of the permit, and they issued a new one.
If we are to discount connections between Navy bombing and the death of L-112, it would be reassuring to know exactly when such activities took place, Balcomb says. But not even Lynne Barre, a leading marine biologist with the federal government, is trusted with that information.
Lynne told me she may need to seek help from her headquarters office to work on possible correlations between Navy activities and the mortality of marine mammals on the West Coast, including L-112 and possibly other dead whales going back for years.
By the way, we know that the Canadian Navy was conducting an exercise with sonar in the Strait of Juan de Fuca about the time L-112 died. While that activity was not likely the cause of L-112’s death, acoustic expert Scott Veirs has identified an explosion on a hydrophone in the ocean before that exercise began. (See Water Ways, Feb. 18.)
My inquiry a month ago about any exercises involving explosions during the time in question remains unanswered by the Canadian Navy.
Balcomb is asking the law-enforcement arm of the National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct an investigation into the deaths of the whales and to involve the Department of Justice, if necessary.
“That way, nobody can withhold or filter the information without being liable for prosecution,” he said, “and the Navy would not be able to claim the whole thing is classified.”
L pod, the largest of the three Salish Sea orca pods, has been the one with the greatest number of individuals who have mysteriously disappeared. In 2008, during the annual return of the killer whales to the San Juan Islands, a shocking seven orcas came up missing — including five from L pod. See Kitsap Sun, Oct. 23, 2008.
Did something kill them all at once? We may never know. But I can’t avoid an uneasy feeling about L-112, who would normally be traveling with her closest relatives, including her mother, brother and aunt.
Let’s hope that whatever killed L-112 left her relatives alone, and we’ll see them swimming into Puget Sound with the rest of L pod in May or June.