Tag Archives: Canadian Navy

Ken Balcomb calls for further review of orca’s death

Ken Balcomb, the dean of killer whale research in Puget Sound, is asking federal authorities to reopen the investigation into the death of L-112, a young female orca who died two years ago of mysterious causes.

Ken Balcomb
Ken Balcomb

Ken maintains that an underwater “blast” remains the mostly likely cause of death for the whale, who was known as Sooke — or Victoria, as Ken originally named her.

A draft final report (PDF 2.3 mb) by the National Marine Fisheries Service, dated Feb. 24, states that “blunt trauma to the head and neck is the prime consideration for the cause of mortality. Despite extensive diagnostic evaluation, the cause of the head and neck injuries could not be determined.”

See Water Ways, Feb. 25, for a discussion of the final report and links to other stories.

The official investigation could find no military operations in the area off the Washington/Oregon coast, where the young whale was found dead on Feb. 11, 2012. In looking for a cause of the trauma, the report essentially rules out several underwater explosions set off by the Canadian Navy a week before, on Feb. 4, 5 and 6 off Vancouver Island. These activities occurred too far north — and prevailing winds and currents were in the opposite direction, according to the report.

But Ken Balcomb argues that the report fails to fully consider how L-112 could have ended up south of these military exercises. Currents are not certain, he said. They can change, and eddies can even flow in the opposite direction from prevailing currents. Ken also raises the prospect that a dead or dying orca calf could be carried a great distance by other members of the pod.

“I consider the evidence presented in the NMFS report to be selected and filtered to depict a preferred hypothetical scenario, rather than one that may be more realistic,” he wrote to NMFS, the federal agency in charge of protecting marine mammals.

Ken’s 12 pages of comments (PDF 1.1 mb) address numerous statements in the report, and here are a few:

On the brain:

Report: “The absence of right cerebral hemisphere and right cerebellum of the brain was secondary to loss of tissue during disarticulation of the head. Significance is uncertain based on imaging alone, but unilateral loss of brain tissue is unusual.”

Ken’s comment: “UNUSUAL! The right cerebral hemisphere and cerebellum were completely mushed and there was evidence of hemorrhage in the calvarium, both significant findings of brain damage from a blast impact. The observation is consistent with blast trauma.”

On the ear bones:

Report: “The CT results showed no evidence of bone fractures or damage to the middle or inner ear bones. These results do not conflict with gross observations and the proposed cause of acute or peracute death by blunt force trauma; however, blast- or seismic-related injuries cannot be
entirely discounted.”

Ken’s comment: ”Upon gross dissection both tympanic bullae were found to be dislocated from their fragile bony pedestals anchoring them to the cranium. While it may be accurate to say that no evidence of fractures or damage to the middle or inner ear bones on the CT scans, it is misleading to infer that no damage was evident to the ears (see page 11 of Necropsy report).”

On possible attack by another marine animal:

Report: “The primary signs of injury reported from aggressive attacks are rake marks, musculoskeletal and/or intra tissue trauma (bruising, tearing) attributed to ramming and sometimes death. Contrary to the cases reported in the literature, L-112 was a juvenile animal (older and larger than a calf or neonate), and the examiners did not document tooth rake marks associated with the signs of hemorrhage they observed during the gross examination. Nevertheless, we cannot rule out the possibility that L-112 suffered injuries from an aggressive attack, such as ramming, by a larger animal.”

Ken’s comment: “The presumed hypothesis suggested by the last sentence is absolutely preposterous, given the evidence of a massive single traumatic event causing the mortal injury. To not rule out the attack hypothesis while ruling out blast trauma is ludicrous.”

On currents:

Report: “Because of prevailing currents and eddies it is unlikely that L-112 died in Canadian waters or the Strait of Juan de Fuca and drifted south, but instead likely died in the Columbia River plume or farther to the south along the coast of Oregon. Given the state of decomposition at the time of stranding the body was either carried by eddies for several days or may have drifted a substantial distance from the south before being trapped by the eddies and cast ashore on the Long Beach Peninsula.”

Ken’s comment:
“The drift patterns can be quite different from year to year, as well as from season to season, or even week to week. It is regrettable that drifters were not deployed near the west entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca in February 2012. There was a NOAA cruise in these waters at that time, and I asked the chief scientist to deploy drifters or some identifiable devices to ascertain the real time drift pattern at that time. One can surmise from the temperature regimes that were documented real-time that there was an anomalous cold water regime moving in a southerly direction in February 2012, but there were no current measurements.”

On the possibility of transport by another orca

Ken’s comment:
“I further request that the investigation team thoughtfully consider the relevant cetacean epimeletic behavior … (He mentions two studies.) Hoyt (1981) in ‘Orca, the Whale Called killer” on page 92 states: ‘Among cetaceans, and especially the dolphin family (including orca), care-giving behavior to sick or wounded family members seems exemplary. Moby Doll was supported by members of his family after he was harpooned in 1964. On another occasion off the B.C. coast, a young killer whale was hit by a government ferry boat, the propeller accidentally slashing its back. The ferry captain stopped the boat and watched a male and a female supporting the bleeding calf. Fifteen days later, two whales supporting a third – presumably the same group — were observed at the same place.'”

Ken concludes his remarks with this: “These comments are dedicated to L86 and L112, the most overtly affectionate mother/offspring pair of whales I have ever seen. Rest in peace, L112. We miss you.”

Mystery of orca’s death only deepens with new info

The unusual death of L-112, a young female orca apparently killed by “blunt force trauma,” continues to fuel discussions about what may have killed her and what should be done about it.

Kenneth Hess, a Navy public affairs officer, posted a comment today on the recent blog entry “Balcomb wants to know if young orca was bombed.” In his comment, Hess repeats that the Navy did not conduct any training with sonar, bombs or explosives in the days preceding L-112’s death. He called it “irresponsible and inaccurate” to blame the Navy for “blowing up” the whale.

Another new development today is an e-mail I received from Lt. Diane Larose of the Canadian Navy, responding to my inquiry about any explosive devices used in the days before L-112 was found dead on Feb. 11. Read the e-mail (PDF 16 kb) I received:

“On February 6, 2012 HMCS Ottawa was operating in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, specifically in Constance Bank, conducting Work Ups Training including a period of sonar use and two small under water charges as part of an anti-submarine warfare exercise. These small charges were used to get the ships’ company to react to a potential threat or damage to meet the necessary training requirement.”

In talking to experts involved in the investigation, it seems unlikely that L-112 could have been injured or killed in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and then wash up dead on Long Beach five days later. So the mystery continues.

In tomorrow’s Kitsap Sun, I’m reporting that environmental groups on both sides of the Canadian border are calling on their respective navies to disclose all the specific activities during the 10 days leading up to the discovery of L-112’s carcass at Long Beach on Feb. 11. The groups also are calling for a complete cessation of sonar use for training and testing in the Salish Sea.

Check out three letters submitted to the navies involved, including one from U.S. and Canadian scientists:
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Balcomb wants to know if young orca was bombed

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.

L-112 in happier times. The 3-year-old orca died in February, and her death is the subject of an intense investigation.
Photo by Jeanne Hyde, Whale of a Porpoise
(Click on image to see Jeanne's tribute page)

“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.
Continue reading

So far, sonar has not been linked to orca death

When one of our resident killer whales, L-112, was found dead north of Long Beach on Feb. 11, people wondered immediately if the death might be related to a sonar incident reported a few days before.

Could the two events be linked or could the timing be just a coincidence?

The two-year-old killer whale, L-112, was laid out after death and prepared for a necropsy.
Photo by Cascadia Research

So far, I have been unable to find a ship that was deploying sonar off the coast. At the same time, it appears highly unlikely that L-112 could have been injured by sonar in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and then somehow swam out of the strait and down the full length of the Washington coast, succumb to death and then wash up on the beach, all in less than five days.

New evidence may come to light, but for now I would caution that we need to wait for an investigation by the National Marine Fisheries Service and not jump to conclusions over our concerns about sonar.

I discussed the investigation with marine mammal expert Lynne Barre of NMFS. She said the endangered listing of Southern Residents has heightened interest in all killer whale strandings, particularly unusual deaths like that of this 2-year-old female orca.

Lynne seems to confirm the idea that the investigation will proceed along three tracks. First, there’s the physical condition of L-112, as will be determined through careful examinations. Second, there’s the question of where L-112 and her family group were located during the time of injury. And, third, investigators need to locate ships with sonar capabilities and determine whether any of them had been using them in the time period in question.

Jessie Huggins of Cascadia Research and Dyanna Lambourn of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife provided an initial report from the necropsy:

“The whale was moderately decomposed and in good overall body condition. Internal exam revealed significant trauma around the head, chest and right side; at this point the cause of these injuries is unknown.”

Jessie told me that the whale was probably dead two to four days before it washed up on the beach. Trauma to the head was consistent with a blunt force, such as a boat collision or an attack by another large animal. The report mentions the prospects for what researchers may learn from various tissue samples taken from the whale.

Of particular interest to the sonar question is the skull, which has been frozen for the time being. Lynne Barre said it will undergo a CT scan with the hope of obtaining information about the condition of the inner ear and the delicate tissues involved in echolocation. Damage to those tissues could be an indication of trauma from a sound source, but experts will need to account for any decomposition after death. These issues are more complicated than they might seem.

As for the location of L-112 and her family, that probably will never be known unless one of the hydrophones picked up and recorded calls from L pod. Scott Veirs, associated with OrcaSound, has been working tirelessly the past few days to locate any orca sounds that may have been picked up throughout the area.

Scott has noted that killer whale calls consistent with K and L pods were picked up on two hydrophones in the San Juan Islands on Monday, Feb. 6, just 18 hours after a Canadian frigate, the HMCS Ottawa, transmitted loud pings throughout the area (Water Ways, Feb. 11). The two hydrophones picked up the sounds one after the other, suggesting that those whales were heading south toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca (OrcaSound, Feb. 8).

The next day, Tuesday, Feb. 7, some members of K and L pod were spotted in Discovery Bay between Sequim and Port Townsend, according to reports to Orca Network. Nobody can remember seeing Southern Resident killer whales there before. Could they have gone into the bay one day earlier, seeking refuge from the sonar? We may never know.

But if we’re talking about the death of L-112, subsequent IDs of the whales in Discovery Bay suggest that the group probably did not include L-112 or her family. I’m still trying to learn which whales likely would have been with L-112 around the time of her death. But chances are she and her family were out in the ocean when all this excitement was taking place in Puget Sound.

So that leaves the question of whether a ship could have been using sonar off the coast when L-112 was within range. I have been in touch with both U.S. and Canadian Navy public affairs officials, and both have denied that their ships were using sonar in the ocean during this time.

Lt. Diane Larose of the Canadian Navy confirms that two sonar-equipped Canadian Navy ships, the HMSC Ottawa and the HMCS Algonquin, were out at sea before entering the Salish Sea at the time of Exercise Pacific Guardian. But neither ship deployed their sonar before reaching the Salish Sea on Feb. 6, when Ottawa’s pinging was picked up on local hydrophones, she said. Navy officials say they followed procedures to avoid harm to marine mammals and have seen no evidence that marine mammals were in the area at the time.

A lot of gaps remain to be filled in, including the source of an unusual explosive-type sound at the beginning of the hydrophone recording that includes the Ottawa sonar, which Scott Veirs discovered (OrcaSound, Feb. 6).

Lynne Barre of NMFS agreed that the best thing for now is to wait until the investigation begins to answer some of the lingering questions. Sometimes the cause of death may include contributing factors, such as weakened immune systems that lead to disease that ultimately lead to a physical injury of some kind.

This is the third dead killer whale to be found in the vicinity since November. The others were a newborn calf from an offshore group of orcas and a very decomposed adult orca from the offshore population.

In all the discussions about sonar, we should not forget that the loss of this young female killer whale is significant for a variety of reasons. I remember the optimism that came with her birth back in the spring of 2009. See Kitsap Sun, March 5, 2009. L-112 also was one of the orcas who received two names, in this case Sooke and Victoria, because Ken Balcomb also named some whales at the time. (See Water Ways, Aug. 25, 2010.)

Canadian sonar raises new safety concerns

The U.S. Navy has developed a policy against using active sonar during training exercises in Puget Sound, but the Canadian Navy has no such policy — as we learned this week when loud pings were heard around the San Juan Islands.

After Monday’s incident, whale advocates were in an uproar over concern for killer whales, dolphins and other marine mammals. Jeanne Hyde was the first to raise the alarm and later placed a sample of the sound on her blog, “Whale of a Porpose.”

Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council railed against the Canadians’ use of sonar in his blog on “Switchboard”:

“The simple fact is that these waters should not be used for sonar training. Period. Even the U.S. Navy — which has thus far refused to protect marine mammal habitat anywhere else on the west coast — has effectively put the area off-limits to sonar use.

“NRDC will appeal to both the Canadian and U.S. governments to ensure that this patently dangerous activity does not happen in this place again.”

The U.S. Navy policy against sonar use during training was solidly confirmed in 2009, when the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a permit for the Navy to use sonar off Washington’s coast. The permit did not include inland waterways.

When I inquired about this, Navy officials confirmed that they never requested authorization for training in waters east of Cape Flattery. For details, check out the story I wrote for the Kitsap Sun, July 29, 2009.

Contrary to some beliefs, the Navy did not say it would never use sonar in inland waters under any circumstances. In fact, in April of 2009, the USS San Francisco, a fast-attack submarine, left Bremerton after a refit and conducted “required training dives,” including the use of sonar that was reported as unusually intense. See Kitsap Sun, April 10, 2009.

How did that happen? The federal permit, according to the Navy, makes an exception for sonar related to “safety and navigation; testing; maintenance; and research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E).”

The San Francisco incident fell under “safety and navigation,” according to Navy spokeswoman Sheila Murray.

I’m not sure whether the Navy has ever answered the question of how it intends to address potential harm to marine mammals when sonar is used outside approved testing ranges, for which environmental reviews have been conducted. Meanwhile, a coalition of environmental groups has sued NMFS for failing to protect marine mammals within testing ranges along the West Coast. Check out the news release by NRDC.

And so we return to this week’s incident with the Canadian Navy, which has no restrictions on where sonar can be used in training exercises, although the Navy follows a written procedure designed to protect marine mammals, according to Lt. Diane Larose of the Royal Canadian Navy. Download the procedure here.

That policy was followed early Monday morning when the Canadian frigate HMCS Ottawa deployed sonar in Haro Strait on the Canadian side of the border, Larose told me. The protection measures, said to be consistent with those of other NATO navies, include watching (with night-vision equipment if necessary), listening with passive sonar and other gear, and searching with airplanes, helicopters or submarines, if available.

It would be interesting to conduct a test to determine if these precautions really work. Can sentries aboard a ship find and identify a few killer whales in the dark across miles of water where islands may impede visual sightings? If not, then someone needs to rethink these procedures, because these are the conditions that were present on Monday when the Ottawa was using its sonar.

Scott Veirs, who helps maintain the Salish Sea Hydrophone Network, pieced together information from Monday’s incident with the help of Jason Wood, research associate with The Whale Museum. Here’s a summary of the analysis on his blog Orca Sound:

“Below are the compressed (mp3) recordings and coarse spectrograms of the sounds that were auto-detected this morning. They begin with a series of low frequency sounds and echoes that may have been from an impulsive source, like a detonation or explosion. Then the series of high-frequency pings occurs between 4:42:50 and 5:08:17 at three network locations: Lime Kiln (13 pings), Port Townsend (1), and Orcasound (1).

“While we are not yet sure if pings were detected at Neah Bay or on the NEPTUNE Canada hydrophones located near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, it appears that the sonar ensonified a good portion of the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca and southern Haro Strait.” (Emphasis added by me.)

Before the end of that same day, killer whales could be heard on hydrophones in the area and were later identified as our local K and L pods, according to reports made to Orca Network. The proximity of the whales to the exercise was disconcerting.

“It would have been more comforting if we had not seen them for a couple of weeks,” Scott noted.

The question on everyone’s mind relates to potential injury to killer whales and other marine mammals from the intense sound of sonar pings. During the 2003 incident with the USS Shoup, killer whale researchers in the area reported J pod fleeing the sound in a confused pattern, though Navy biologists reviewing the video denied that the orcas were acting unusual.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research reviews that incident on a video for Earthjustice. Equally revealing but with less commentary is the raw video of the incident.

Studies are ongoing to consider the effect of sonar on a variety of marine mammals, but Scott Veirs points out that Navy’s sonar is most powerful at a frequency of about 7 kilohertz, which is within the sensitive part of a killer whale’s hearing range — “not the most sensitive, but close to it,” he told me.

“Mid-frequency sonar is a bit of a red flag, because the frequency overlap is really quite complete,” he said.

I was wondering whether the sonar pings heard Monday in Puget Sound were of any concern to the Canadian Navy. I shouldn’t have expected any introspection. Lt. Larose pointed out that nobody has reported seeing any marine mammals in the area at the time.

Will the Canadian Navy reconsider its policy in light of the U.S. Navy’s policy against training with sonar in Puget Sound? I posed the question and got this response from Larose:

“The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) takes its role as environmental steward very seriously. The RCN’s Marine Mammal Mitigation Policy is reviewed annually to ensure that it reflects current scientific data, the capacities of Royal Canadian Navy equipment and environmental concerns. It is applicable to all Canadian military vessel wherever they may operate.

“Sonars found on board Canadian ships, submarines, and maritime aircraft, are different from that of our allies and therefore call for country specific mitigation policy.”

For years, more than a few marine mammal experts have been calling on the U.S. Navy to use its network of hydrophones to track endangered killer whales and other vulnerable species. It’s not enough, they say, for the Navy to post a lookout during training exercises when the Navy’s listening buoys have the potential of knowing with some precision where the whales are.

Fred Felleman, Northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth, says the Navy spends plenty of money filtering out biological sounds to detect the sounds of enemy ships. Similar algorithms could inform us when marine mammals pass within hearing range of Navy hydrophones.

“We’ve met with at least three admirals through the years to present them with explicit proposals,” Fred said. “They never said ‘no,’ but they never gave us an answer.

“Now that they are asking for permits from NOAA, they should be willing to make an obligation to help advance our understanding of the whales. The Navy knows this domain better than anybody. They are the best listeners on the planet.”

The Navy has been requesting and receiving “take” permits from NMFS with not much more mitigation that putting someone up on deck to look for marine mammals, Fred said, expressing his ongoing frustration.

He added, “It’s about time that the Navy stop asking for ‘takes’ and start finding ways of giving.”