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Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Posts Tagged ‘L-112’

Ken Balcomb calls for further review of orca’s death

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

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

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

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:
(more…)


Balcomb wants to know if young orca was bombed

Friday, March 16th, 2012

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.
(more…)


So far, sonar has not been linked to orca death

Saturday, February 18th, 2012

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.)


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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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