On February 11th, 2011 the body of a young orca (killer whale) was found washed up on a Washington State beach. The subsequent investigation opened a Pandora's Box, eventually raising questions about the wisdom of naval bombing practices in a marine sanctuary. Final results of the necropsy are still pending, but early reports show the young whale died of percussive trauma, which is often due to explosive blasts.
Decimated by the captive industry in the early seventies, the Southern Resident orca population has failed to rebound in spite of full protection as an Endangered Species. Unlike their transient cousins these killer whales are not whale killers - instead they peacefully share the waterways of Washington state, occasionally going as far south as California as they search for their favorite fish, Chinook salmon.
The little whale who died, L112, was first seen as a new calf in early February 2009. She was later photographed near Vancouver Island, Canada and given the name 'Victoria' after the beautiful city where her birth was first officially recorded.
She grew quickly and soon shed the orange cast that often accompanies newborn orca calves.
Over the next two years, she began to spend more time playing with her big brother, L106. She practiced breaching, but is headed for a belly flop in the photo below!
Over the autumn and into the winter, she and her family began to spend more time in the open ocean, away from the more protected waters of the Salish Sea (the inland waterway that goes from Puget Sound in Washington to the Georgia Straits in Canada). In recent years Victoria's extended pod has been seen as far south as Monterey, California as they search for increasingly scarce fish to sustain them over the winter.
She was just three years old when she died, the equivalent of a human preschooler in development.
Ken Balcomb, Senior Scientist at the Center for Whale Research
The final results of analysis of her tissues and fluids found in her cranium may take some time, but it is important to note that ALL of the expert observations of her bloody and bruised carcass, and her head, concluded that there is strong evidence of near instantaneous lethal destruction of tissues, mostly on one side, consistent with blast trauma, as already reported.
Her death was undoubtedly caused by humans, and we have to look for the source of the blast. I have asked the Law Enforcement division of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to investigate so that there will be a clear set of rules concerning withholding, filtering, or losing evidence in this case.
The complex currents along the coast of Washington and the Columbia River plume make it difficult to determine exactly where she was killed, but the nature of the whale's injuries focused the investigation on the military exercises in the otherwise safe Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.
According to the Sanctuary's website, Military operations that are exempt from sanctuary regulations include:
• Hull integrity tests and other deepwater tests;
• Live firing of guns, missiles, torpedoes and chaff;
• Activities associated with the Quinault Range including the in-water testing of non-explosive torpedoes; and
• Anti-submarine warfare operations
At a recent community meeting
in Friday Harbor, Wa, naval officials explained that in this instance, no military exercises were conducted in the time range of Victoria's death, and they expressed their concern for the loss of a young member of this iconic endangered species. They were not able to address possible losses due to past bombing practices, nor reassure Friday Harbor County Council, scientists, journalists and concerned citizens that these endangered whales will not be harmed by military practice in the future. All questions asked by Digital Journal were openly addressed.
Both Victoria's mom and her brother survived the winter and were recently photographed by Cascadia Research Collective
in the perilous waters of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, heading for their real sanctuary, the Salish Sea.
Because this orca population has been studied by the Center for Whale Research
for over 30 years, each individual is well known to researchers, who are now waiting to see if any other Southern Resident orcas vanished this winter, and will provide updates.