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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Transient IDs and Navy Sonar Incident and Comment Period

After comparing notes with other whale reports I've been able to figure out the identity of all the transients ("Ts") I saw on Monday. The two females and calf were the T123s. T123 is the mother and the calf is T123B, a newly documented whale probably just a few months old. While both mom and youngster were around in the porpoise hunt, my photos revealed that it was T123's older daugther, nine year old T123A, that was the primary participant and the whale that launched the porpoise out of the water. It's amazing to me that we know enough about these whales - even the relatively mysterious transients - for me to be able to figure out the exact whale it was in that photo. Thanks, of course, to others who were there being able to ID the group of three as the T123s, and to T123A having a distinct notch on her fin I can just make out in that photo. Here's another photo showing her and her notch:


The other group of Ts was indeed male T14 with four of the T49s - specifically, T49A, T49A1, T49B, and T49B1. The complicated transient whale nomenclature actually encodes the whales genealogy in their names, since their pods are more fluid than those of the resident whales. So T49B was the second offspring of T49, and T49B1 is the first offspring of T49B.

Finally, I must say a word about a bizarre incident that occurred the night of the 7th-8th. Starting at about 7 PM and continuing until after 4 AM, a strange human voice and sonar pings were audible on the Lime Kiln and Orcasound hydrophones. It turns out the sonar pings were coming from the US Navy submarine the USS San Francisco, and the strange voices were underwater communication occurring between the submarine and an accompanying surface vessel. You can hear a sample of the sounds that occurred here.

Navy sonar is a great concern when it comes to marine mammals, because animals in the presence of sonar have demonstrated physiological and behavioral responses the intense sounds including disorientation, panic, hearing loss, tears in the ear, brain hemorrhaging, and stranding, in some cases resulting in the death of the animal. The last major incident in the area involving Navy sonar occurred in May 2003 when J-Pod was in the area - a scary situation in which these endangered whales showed unusual behavior where they came close to shore (where the acoustic impacts of the sonar were lessened) and repeatedly spyhopped, apparently to get their ears clear of the water. That incident resulted in the deaths and stranding of at least several harbor porpoises, and you can read about it and see evidence of porpoise brain hemorrhaging at the Center for Whale Research's report on the Shoup.

Luckily there have been no reported strandings in response to this most recent incident and no orcas were believed to be in the immediate area at the time, although several transient groups were reported in the region in the days preceding and following the incident. Still, it is a grim, timely reminder that the US Navy is exempt from the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and is currently seeking to expand its local training range to include a huge portion of vital killer whale and marine mammal habitat. They are currently seeking public comment on their Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), and their proposal in includes minimal mitigation measures to prevent harm to marine mammals.

Obviously, this is an issue close to my home and my heart. I strongly encourage you to submit public comments supporting the "No Action Alternative", which keeps the current training area in place. They simply have not invested the resources in studying the impacts to marine mammals and do not have the measures in place to ensure marine mammals are not within lethal range of their sonar and explosive detonations during training activities. The EIS document itself is imposing, but you can read up on this issue and learn everything you need to know to comment via Orca Network's informational page about this public comment period. Comments are due April 13th!

We need to take into consideration our nation's security and I understand the need for the Navy to undergo training exercises. Still, this is such a vital yet fragile marine ecosystem, and one serious incident involving sonar and the Southern Resident whales could easily spell their extinction. Hopefully under President Obama, we can begin to improve international communication so that disagreements are resolved at the bargaining table and not at war, and these sorts of training exercises will be less necessary and perceived as less vital for maintaining our country's safety. Obama appointed Jane Lubchenco to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and she is a respected marine biologist who has critiqued the government's dealings with oceanic issues in the past. She recognizes that we, as a people, along with all life on earth, depend on healthy oceans to survive on this planet. Hopefully we, as a nation, will move towards an attitude that preserves our marine resources and helps them to thrive, from orcas and harbor porpoises to krill and plankton. I understand the need for military operations, but it's hard for me to justify some of their short-term goals when looking at the long-term impacts it could have on ocean life.


Warren Baker said...

Fascinating stuff Monika. You watch out you dont arrested for spying!!

Monika said...

Haha, I was wondering what the Navy thinks about the fact that there are virtually always people listening over the publicly streaming hydrophones. I certainly wasn't the only one who heard's caused quite a little uproar locally.