VANCOUVER — Marine officials hope an analysis of tissue samples in coming days by labs in the U.S. and Canada will solve the mystery of why a bloodied and battered young female killer whale washed up on a beach in Washington State in February.
For weeks there has been speculation that naval military exercises in either Canadian or U.S. waters may have been responsible for the endangered whale’s death, but officials are urging the public not to jump to conclusions.
“In an investigation, you don’t try to eliminate anything or focus on anything too early. Let the evidence lead you,” said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Its law enforcement branch launched an investigation about three weeks ago.
The carcass of the three-year-old orca, known among marine scientists as L112, washed up on the shores of Long Beach, along Washington’s southern coast, on Feb. 11. It showed obvious signs of trauma.
But whether the whale suffered those injuries before or after it died is still under investigation, Gorman said.
Some of the dead whale’s tissue has been sent to Oregon State University for analysis and investigators hope to begin getting results of that analysis in two or three weeks, he said.
Stephen Raverty, a veterinary pathologist with B.C.’s ministry of agriculture and lands, confirmed via email Monday that he will be travelling to Oregon soon to examine some of those samples. Some samples are also being sent to his lab in Abbotsford, B.C.
Some in the scientific community, however, say the evidence is clear that the injuries preceded death.
“This animal was the victim of an explosive type trauma — huge pressure trauma,” said Ken Balcomb, a senior scientist with the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Wash. Balcomb is convinced that a military exercise — either on the American or Canadian side of the border — is likely to blame.
“To me they’ve assassinated a very prominent individual.”
Seattle oceanographer Scott Veirs, president of Beam Reach Marine Science and Sustainability School, said he believes the most likely cause of death was “acoustic trauma” from a military detonation.
Veirs said computer monitoring devices picked up several “explosive-like” sounds in Haro Strait between Victoria and Washington’s San Juan Islands on Feb. 6.
However, Jessie Huggins, stranding co-ordinator for Cascadia Research Collective — a non-profit group assisting in the investigation — was a little more circumspect about the possible cause of death.
The whale clearly suffered a “traumatic event,” she said, but the injuries it suffered could have been the result of a number of scenarios, such as an attack from another whale, oil drilling or blast trauma from a military source.
Canadian military officials previously have released a statement confirming that HMCS Ottawa was performing training exercises in the Straits of Juan de Fuca on Feb. 6 and that those exercises included a period of sonar use and “two small underwater charges” as part of an anti-submarine warfare exercise.
The statement went on to say that the Royal Canadian Navy requires all vessels to follow a Marine Mammal Mitigation Policy when using sonar and detonating charges, “which includes (but is not limited to) a visual surveillance of the area by watch officers and lookouts, monitoring of passive systems as a means to detect marine mammals as well as the use of a mitigation zone which will cease operations if marine mammals come within a certain range.”
HMCS Ottawa followed the policy during its exercises, the statement said.
On Monday, a military spokeswoman also forwarded a letter to the editor written recently by Rear Admiral Nigel Greenwood, the commander of Maritime Forces Pacific, stating that no live torpedoes or bombs are used in Juan de Fuca Strait.
“HMCS Victoria did fire inert test torpedoes at the Canadian Forces Maritime Experimental and Test Ranges near Nanoose several weeks after the whale was found. These exercise torpedoes carry no explosives,” Greenwood wrote.