An orca mom’s mourning adds new clue to another mysterious death

UPDATE: Aug. 11, 9 p.m.

After I posted this blog entry this evening, I received this note from Ken Balcomb:

Hello all,
J35 frolicked past my window today with other J pod whales, and she looks vigorous and healthy. The ordeal of her carrying a dead calf for at least seventeen days and 1,000 miles is now over, thank goodness. She probably has lost two others since her son was born in 2010, and the loss of her most recent may have been emotionally hard on her.

—–

It has been heart-breaking to follow the story of the 20-year-old orca mom named Tahlequah (J-35), who has been carrying her dead newborn calf for nearly three weeks. But Tahlequah’s travails might add new insight into the mysterious death of a 3-year-old orca, who washed up on the Long Beach Peninsula in 2012.

Ken Balcomb, the dean of killer whale research in Puget Sound, has always maintained that the young whale, designated L-112, was killed by a concussive blast of some sort that caused massive trauma inside her skull. He suspects that military operations were to blame.

A 3-year-old orca known as L-112 shown here before her death in 2012.
Photo: Center for Whale Research

The Canadian Navy acknowledges that it was conducting exercises near the U.S.-Canada border up to seven days before the dead whale was found. The activities, which included the use of sonar and detonations, started 85 miles northwest of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and ended up inside the Strait. The detonations were said to be too small to kill a whale except at a very close range.

The official cause of death was “blunt force trauma.” The final report did not rule out an explosion as a possible cause of death, but investigators said a glancing blow from a boat or even another whale could cause a similar injury.

Even if military activities were to blame for the death of the young orca, the whale washed up at least 200 miles to the south, where prevailing currents in the ocean were going in the opposite direction. The official conclusion was that the dead animal probably died close to the Columbia River and was pushed northward by the currents.

Ken noted at the time that dolphins have been known to support their dead or injured relatives for a few days, but the idea that a whale could be pushed 200 miles or more seemed to be ruled out by the investigators.

I remember talking about the incident with Erich Hoyt, a researcher who has been telling stories about whales since the 1970s. The possibilities of what might have happened to L-112 were too easily dismissed, he said. See Water Ways, May 3, 2014.

“This brings to mind the crash of the Malaysian jetliner,” Erich said, as I quoted in Water Ways. “You know something unusual happened, but it defies almost any explanation you bring up. Scientists tend to come up with explanations that are the simplest … but they should be careful not to rule anything out.”

Of course, Erich was talking about Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which disappeared in March 2014 with almost no trace. The 500-page final report (PDF 10 mb) on the incident, released last month, closes the investigation without a conclusion, much like the story of L-112.

We’re now confronted with Tahlequah, who has captured the attention of people throughout the world for her dedication to her dead baby. (See NOAA’s website for updates.) She has carried the dead calf while managing to stay with her family group. The dead neotate, who lived about 30 minutes, is Tahlequah’s second calf — as far as we know. Her first-born is Notch (J-47), now 8 years old.

That gap of eight years since Notch was born makes one wonder if Tahlequah might have had another calf that died before her latest one. If so, how would she have responded to that death? Could her ongoing devotion to her latest calf be a reaction to the loss of two calves in a row? We also believe that our Southern Resident killer whales may be experiencing miscarriages at an alarming rate, thanks to studies by Sam Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington.

As I told Ken, we all know so little about any actual deaths. After not seeing an animal for a time, Ken and the Center for Whale Research will declare it “missing and presumed dead.” Most of the time we don’t know how the whale died or how the relatives grieved before moving on with their lives.

I don’t know that anyone will reopen the investigation into the death of L-112, named either Sooke or Victoria. I’ve heard some support for a new discussion in light of recent developments. Ken told me this week that people will need to rethink their positions if they believed it was not possible for a whale to die in Northwest Washington and end up in Southwest Washington with currents running the opposite direction. We now know what one grieving mother is capable of doing.

L-112 where she was found dead on the Long Beach Peninsula in 2012.
Photo: Northwest Fisheries Science Center

I don’t need to recount all the facts in the case of L-112. The official investigative report (PDF 82.2 mb), which includes a very readable summary, can be found on the website of the National Marine Fisheries Service. Ken’s response (1.1 mb) to the report reveals his viewpoint. I’m listing my ongoing coverage in Water Ways at the bottom of this page.

Even if L-112 were “bombed” as Ken once described it, there are other pieces of the puzzle that need to be put into place — such as the location of the whales at the time, the source of the blast, and the effects on L-112’s closest relatives, who would normally be nearby. Is it possible that other military activities occurred and were never reported, or do we now have all the facts we will ever get?

Ken, who served as an acoustics technician in the U.S. Navy, has been suspicious of what military officials say since March 2000 when he observed first-hand the deaths of many beaked whales in the Bahamas during Navy exercises with sonar. Ken said the injuries to those whales appeared similar to the head trauma of L-112. It took a month for the Navy to even admit that the Bahaman exercises had taken place, Ken once told me, and it took another two years and much scientific evidence before the Navy acknowledged its role.

Check out my reporting of that incident in the Kitsap Sun, first on June 15, 2000, and then on Jan. 1, 2002.

Scott Veirs, an acoustic expert with Beam Reach Marine Science and Sustainability School, has been trying to solve the mystery of L-112 since he first heard the sounds of sonar and detonations on hydrophones at the time of the incident. Scott, who has summarized his investigation in an ongoing blog post, made this comment:

“What is clear is that in February 2012 we experienced a sequence of events that should motivate us all to understand the potential risks of generating loud noises, particularly during military activities, in the habitat of marine animals that we value and that rely heavily on sound for their survival.

“Until we have divorced our military training and testing areas from the critical habitat of the SRKWs, and mitigated potentially harmful sources of underwater sound with attention to their annual migratory patterns, we will continue to run the risk of SRKWs suffering the type of acoustic trauma that may have killed L-112.”

Blog posts about L-112 in reverse chronological order:

4 thoughts on “An orca mom’s mourning adds new clue to another mysterious death

  1. UPDATE: Aug. 11, 9 p.m.

    After I posted this blog entry this evening, I received this note from Ken Balcomb:

    Hello all,
    J35 frolicked past my window today with other J pod whales, and she looks vigorous and healthy. The ordeal of her carrying a dead calf for at least seventeen days and 1,000 miles is now over, thank goodness. She probably has lost two others since her son was born in 2010, and the loss of her most recent may have been emotionally hard on her.

  2. Reminds me of an NPR segment a week or so ago reporting on 2 servicemen who are experiencing symptoms of TBI from using shoulder- mounted rocket launchers in practice. They had never been in combat and military as so far denied that not ever being hit by anything (only experiencing close range sound and blast wave) could cause brain injury. But the men are pretty convinced this is the cause of their symptoms.

  3. Thank you to all who are try to save this beloved family members of the Southern resident orcas, I’m from Missouri and have made calls and an writing letters to breach the dams and give the magnificent mammals a fighting chance!

  4. For the record, it would be interesting to know the body mass and dimension differences between L-112 and J-35’s calf.

    We should also continue seeking the full release of Canadian necropsy/forensic data on J-34 which could help us begin to differentiate between blunt force trauma caused by sound waves versus collisions (e.g. with a speeding boat).

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