The death of a female orca off the coast this week and recent use of high frequency sonar by the Canadian Navy has whale advocates on high alert. The National Resource Defense Council plans to appeal the action to the Canadian and U.S. governments. The burning question, why was sonar known to cause internal stress and sometimes death, allowed in coastal waters designated as critical habitat for endangered orcas?
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It’s been a tough week for those committed to protecting the state’s endangered southern resident orcas. First the Canadian Navy engaged in high frequency sonar testing in Haro Strait and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Then, five days later, a female orca washed ashore near Long Beach. Whale advocates don’t know for sure whether the two are linked, but remain anxious and more committed than ever to monitor the movement of all orcas.
“We’re headed over toward Canada. We’re leaving Snug Harbor Marina which is on the Northwest side of San Juan Island, Washington, three miles from the Canadian border.” Captain Jim with Maya’s Whale Watch guides his boat, The Peregrine. Transient orcas were spotted earlier in the day and resident orcas from K and L pods a few days earlier. He and Jeanne Hyde scan the waters for dorsal fins. “They are all the humans of the sea," Hyde says. "They’re just whales raising their families. The males never leave their moms in in the southern resident community. They look for food. They play. They travel. They rest together.”
Hyde is a volunteer with the Salish Sea Hydrophone Network, an audio network that tracks underwater sounds from whales to ships. Last week she was awakened by a piercing sound from speakers on her computer. It was sonar, last tested by the U.S. Navy in the area in 2009.
“When I heard the sonar it woke me up and I hit the button to record at 4:49 in the morning," she says. "I didn’t know where it was coming from initially.” Then Hyde realized she could identify the sound by checking the Automatic Identification System website or AIS used to monitor vessels at sea. “I was able to locate the HMCS Ottawa, a Canadian Navy ship. When I saw that I called the Coast Guard in Bellingham and told them there’s sonar in Haro Strait and asked them to please pursue it.”
For 40 minutes the sonar reverberated within the echo chambers of the San Juan’s inland waters. Jason Wood, a Research Associate with The Whale Museum at Friday Harbor, describes the inland waters as glacial scoured canyons with a hard bottom. “What that means is that as the sound spreads from its source it really doesn’t have anywhere to go.” The sound echoes off the bottom of the canyon instead of dissipating as it would in open waters. The echo interferes with the marine mammals ability to maneuver away. “It can potentially restrict their movements and that’s one of the best way a marine mammal can minimize the potential impacts on itself is by moving away from the source.”
The commander of the Canadian frigate HMCS Ottawa, Captain Scott Van Will, says sonar training is guided by Canada’s Marine Mammal Mitigation Policy: “It’s a stringent and comprehensive order that we use to avoid any hampering or injuring of marine mammals when we’re in areas conducting operations.” Look and listen for a half hour, then slowly ramp up the sonar; that's the policy. Does the Ottawa or other Navy ship have plans to use sonar again? “I’m not aware of any others right now. But I’m not saying there wouldn’t be.”
Scott Veirs helped launch the Salish Sea Hydrophone Network seven years ago. He believes the Canadian Navy is violating its own protocols by operating in pre-dawn hours in a known migratory corridor for marine mammals. “The southern residents are known to be completely silent for periods of at least six hours when they’re resting," Veirs says, "It’s the only time they’re not using their echo-location clicks.”
Echo-location clicks were not picked up by the hydrophone network during the hours preceding the sonar exercise. Nor was the network informed sonar would be tested by the U.S. Coast Guard or NOAA, the agency responsible for protected endangered marine mammals. Eighteen hours after the sonar event, says Veirs, an odd combination of K and L pods were sited at the southern edge of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
“Then four days later we have an L pod whale that washes up dead on the outer coast near the mouth of the Columbia," Veirs says. "That’s a long ways away from the stranding event but it's actually only two days at typical traveling time.”
It’s unclear, but likely, says Veirs, that the whale was confused or even deafened by the sound, “and swam its way out of the area back into the ocean, bumped into some things that caused some trauma, and died and washed up on shore.” What makes it all the more tragic, adds Veirs, is the whale was a potentially reproductive female in L pod. L pod has shown the most signs of recovery.
The southern resident orca population peaked at 97 in the 1990s and is now estimated to number 84. The Natural Resources Defense Council, which has joined other conservation and Native American groups in launching a lawsuit against expanded U.S. Navy sonar training, will appeal the use of sonar in waters designated as critical habitat for orcas to both the Canadian and US governments.