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Did a Canadian Navy Sonar Bomb Kill a Beloved Young Orca?

Little Victoria, aka L-112, was first seen as a baby orca off the coast of Victoria in 2009.

It’s different when you’ve met the person who was killed.

I may have met Little Victoria last summer. I don’t know that for sure, but I certainly met her family when I was on a whale watching expedition off the coast of San Juan Island, Wash. She was part of the L pod – one of three extended families (J, K, and L) who live off the coast of Washington State and British Columbia. The day we were out on a boat, we were lucky enough to meet all three families as they came together for a “superpod” gathering. Little Victoria had to have been among them.

These three families are known as the Southern Residents, and there are only 87 of them left. In the United States they’re listed as an endangered species, and in Canada as “at risk.” That’s largely because the waters are increasingly polluted and the Chinook salmon are fewer. In the 1970s, the Southern Residents were decimated by marine circuses like SeaWorld capturing them, but these kidnappings have since been prohibited. Today, human visitors are required to keep a specific distance away from them in order to avoid being a nuisance.

But none of this seems to have been bothering the Canadian Navy, which is implicated in the death of Little Victoria after dropping sonar bombs into the home of the Southern Residents.

Little Victoria’s body was washed up on the shore near Long Beach, Wash., in mid-February.

Initial inspections found signs of major trauma to her head, neck and right side, but no outward signs of broken bones. That led to the likelihood that Little Victoria had been injured some major underwater noise. According to Cascadia Research:

orca-L112-4-040912The 12’3”  juvenile female was taken to a secure location for a full necropsy by biologists and volunteers from a number of organizations that are part of the Northwest Marine Mammal Stranding Network, including Portland State University, Cascadia Research, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Marine Mammal Investigations, Seaside Aquarium, Seattle Seal Sitters, the Makah Tribe, and NOAA Fisheries.

The whale was moderately decomposed and in good overall body condition.

Internal exam revealed significant trauma around the head, chest and right side; at this point the cause of these injuries is unknown.

There have been reports of sonar activity in the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the past week and a half and members of K and L pod were reportedly in the area at the time as well.

We do not know if this whale was among those in the area but the possibility is under consideration … The processing of tissue samples could take several weeks or months and will hopefully provide insight into the origin of the traumatic injuries or other factors that may have contributed to the death of this whale.

The Canadian Navy admitted to using sonar in an area where orcas were observed days before L-112’s body was found. But they have declined to conduct an official investigation, and the Canadian Press reports that the Department of National Defense is still turning down requests for an interview.

Now the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has launched an investigation into Little Victoria’s death in an attempt to determine if there’s been a violation of the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act.

What we know so far is that just hours after the navy sonar tests were heard, southern resident killer whales were spotted in the same area in the Haro Strait that divides Canada and the United States.

“To me [sonar] is the most plausible connection,” he told the Canadian Press.

More than two dozen environmental groups and 20 whale biologists and other experts on both sides of the border have sent a letter to the Canadian and American governments asking for a total ban on naval training using sonar in critical killer whale habitat off the West Coast.

Thirty six hours after the sonar was set off, a group of southern residents from unusually mixed pods was seen in the sheltered waters of Discovery Bay, an area they had never been seen in decades.

“It’s the kind of place if the whales were the area would duck into in order to get away from the sound,” said Robin Baird, a research biologist with the Cascadia Research Collective.

Baird said his biggest concern is the use of explosives in such war games. “We should not be dropping bombs or blowing things up where we’ve got animals of any kind, let alone this apex species that’s loved by millions and millions of people,” he said.

If the Canadian Navy continues its cover-up, scientists may never be able to say for sure that Little Victoria was killed by a sonar bomb. But we do know that sonar is deadly to marine mammals. Scientists are generally agreed, for example, that most of the 3,000 dolphins who have washed up on the beaches of Peru so far this year were killed by sonar from companies probing for oil.

Numbers like that are hard to digest. It’s like hearing about the hundreds and thousands of people who were killed as “collateral damage” in some war we’re engaged in.

It comes much closer to home when it’s just one whale, a three-year-old called Little Victoria who was swimming and playing with her mother when you met her family in their ocean home last summer.