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U.S. navy says it has nothing o do with whale's death

Mar 28 2012

The U.S. navy had nothing to do with the death of an endangered killer whale last month, says the northwest environmental program manager for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

"We have gone back and looked at our records for training and gone back quite a bit prior to [the whale's death] to determine if we were a potential cause," said John Mosher.

"We have not, in fact, done any bomb exercises, any explosive training or any sonar within our range complex dating back to several weeks before that," he said.

Any bomb training is carried out well off the Washington state coast in the designated range area and not in Juan de Fuca Strait, Mosher said.

A three-year-old southern resident killer whale, known as L112 or Sooke, washed ashore on a Washington beach Feb. 11.

An initial necropsy determined she died of trauma, but scientists said the injuries were not consistent with a boat strike.

Tissues are now being examined in Canada and the U.S. to try to determine the cause of death.

Ken Balcomb, senior scientist with the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Washington, said he believes the whale was blown up.

"All of the 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," said Balcomb, who has documented the three pods of endangered orcas for decades.

Planes from the naval air station at Whidbey Island are permitted to drop more than 90 bombs in the marine training range annually, including 10 high explosive ones that will kill anything in the vicinity, said Balcomb, who fears other members of the whale's may also have been killed.

But Mosher said any bomb training is conducted more than 50 kilometres from shore.

No such exercises took place in February, and it is extremely rare for the navy to hold bombing exercises in the area, he said.

"It is very infrequent that we [drop] practice bombs or live ones, because we don't have the aircraft to perform that action in the northwest," he said.

Mosher said he does not have figures for how many bombs are dropped in the area annually, but said he does not believe there have been any such exercises this year.

He said the navy typically drops fewer bombs than it is permitted. "It's a very rare occurrence."

The Royal Canadian Navy came under fire from conservation groups before the whale's death for using sonar in critical whale habitat, and has since said HMCS Ottawa used sonar in Juan de Fuca Strait and detonated two "small underwater charges" as part of an anti-submarine warfare exercise Feb. 6.

No other Canadian ships used sonar or explosives in the Strait of Georgia or Juan de Fuca Strait in the first 10 days of February, said Lt. Diane Larose of navy public affairs.

"In that time frame and in that geography, only the two small charges were used by [HMCS] Ottawa," she said.

There have been no accidents between whales and navy ships in the past five years, Larose said.

The U.S. Coast Guard also trains in the marine range, which stretches from northern Washington to northern California and 250 nautical miles out to sea, but no exercises were taking place in February, said public affairs officer Lt. Regina Caffrey, adding that most coast guard training is with small arms.

Caffrey said that when the coast guard does conduct training, it makes ensuring no marine mammals are in the area a priority.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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