A new report out Tuesday stops short of determining what killed a young female orca that washed up near Long Beach, Wash. The scientists who produced it for a federal agency came up with new details about the whale’s trauma, bruising and hemorrhaging, and lack of broken bones.
The necropsy report’s findings have whale experts suspicious of naval activity as a possible cause of her death. The Navy is in the process of renewing its permits to conduct sonar and explosive tests in the Northwest.
Orca L112 - also known as “Victoria” - was a three year old member of Puget Sound’s L Pod family of orcas. The whales are listed as endangered in the sound. Orca L112 washed up dead in February.
Joe Gaydos is part of the team that’s conducting an investigation into Victoria’s death for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He said the whale showed signs of hemorrhaging and trauma on her head, and down the right side of her body.
“It could have been a host of different things that caused that blunt trauma and that’s really what we’re trying to work out right now,” Gaydos said.
So far, Gaydos said the team can’t pinpoint a cause of death.
“Everybody always wants the scapegoat… and people really don’t like when you have to come out and say we think this happened but we don’t know why when they want an answer,” he said.
The Center for Whale Research’s Ken Balcomb and other whale researchers are pointing the finger at the Navy, which is currently permitted to drop up to 10 bombs in its practice range and use sonar for over 100 hours each year. The practice range covers an area about the size of California in the waters off the coast of Oregon and Washington.
The Navy denies any responsibility for the orca’s death. At a recent presentation on San Juan Island John Mosher spoke to a packed room of whale experts and concerned residents. Mosher is the Northwest environmental program manager for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
“There really is no explanation from Navy training or Navy activities that would explain that particular stranding event,” Mosher told the audience.
Right now there’s no definitive proof linking the whale’s death to the Navy. But environmental groups have filed a lawsuit saying naval sonar and explosive exercises can harm marine mammals and should be limited.
The details of Navy actions are classified but there are underwater recordings from the time when Victoria died that could provide more information. Those recordings will be released in August.