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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Sad Story of L112

L112 was first seen off Depoe Bay, Oregon in January 2009 during a rare winter Pacific Coast encounter with the Southern Resident Killer Whales. Many calves are born during the winter months, but they often aren't seen until the whales return to inland waters in the spring, so it was exciting to get the news of her birth in what for many orca lovers is a relatively whale-free month in January. 
L112 Sooke with mom L86 Surprise in 2009, the year Sooke was born

L112, later named Sooke through The Whale Museum's orca adoption project, was the second surviving offspring of L86 Surprise. Her brother, L106 Pooka, was four years her senior. The subgroup of L-Pod her matriline belonged to, a group of about 10 whales descended from the late L4 Sonar, is probably the one group of Southern Residents I'm least familiar with. Part of the reason is because it's a group made up entirely of females and juveniles with relatively indistinct saddle patches, so there's no "keystone" whale that makes it easy to identify the group as a whole. Another reason is because they also tend to spend a lot of out in the open ocean, even during the summer months, so they spend much less time in inland waters than most of the other whales. The new little calf Sooke, however, definitely stood out in the summers of 2009 and 2010.

L112, the smallest whale in the photo, surrounded by her L-Pod family in 2010

L112 tail slapping in the Strait of Juan de Fuca
All calves born to this endangered population of whales are a cause for celebrations, but there was an extra special reason to be thrilled about L112's birth: she was a girl. While the sex ratio of juvenile whales in J-Pod is even, there's a strong male-bias in K and L Pods. As of July 2011, there were 8 juvenile males, 2 juvenile females, and 4 juveniles of unknown gender in L-Pod. Sooke was one of the two females.

Sooke also gained some attention in the summer of 2010, when she became one of the first whales to receive two names as the whale naming disagreement between The Whale Museum and the Center for Whale Research came to a head. The Center named her Victoria.

One and a half year-old L112 swimming among her immediate family

Early in the morning of February 6th, 2012 ear-piercing sonar pings began being heard over the hydrophones on the westside of San Juan Island. It was mid-frequency active sonar being emitted by a Canadian naval ship. A full recap of the incident can be read here. It is not believed any killer whales were in Haro Strait at the time of the incident, though there had been several nighttime recordings over the preceding couple of days indicating Southern Residents had been in the area.

L112 (right) with L86 (middle) and L27 Ophelia (left)

On February 11th, a 12-foot female orca washed up dead on the shoreline of Long Beach, Washington. As a necropsy was performed the next day, it was confirmed that this whale was L112, and that she had died from massive trauma surrounding the head. It is rare for a killer whale to wash ashore, and even rarer for it to be a Southern Resident. Currently, it is unknown what caused the massive trauma, but the evidence doesn't suggest a vessel strike or predation. You can read Cascadia Research's necropsy report for more details. 
This has left the whale world wondering if the recent sonar incident might have played a role - cetaceans have shown massive head trauma as a result of sonar before. It's believed she was dead for about three days when she washed up, and it would take about two days for the whales to travel from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Long Beach, which adds up to the five days that span the sonar incident and when she was found.
One thing that's amazing to me in the following photo of her is how big she is compared to the people around her. She looks so small in the pictures above, alongside her adult family members. Distance and size can be hard to judge for us humans on the water where there aren't many reference points - but a three year old killer whale is a pretty darn big animal!

As sad as her death is, it does provide a huge opportunity to learn about things like genetics, contaminants, disease. Until the cause of death is determined, however, I'm especially concerned for her family members - hopefully it wasn't the sonar, so they aren't experiencing any adverse affects from it. If it was the sonar, however, hopefully this will become a rallying point to help keep these exercises out of critical whale habitat.


Anonymous said...

So sorry that this happened to Sooke. What can we do (we who do not live so close, I mean...)

Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

Very sad to see a magnificent animal like that. Let's hope some good science comes out of her death however that came about, and that it can be used to help protect the rest of her species.

I did herar of several owls being found dead in London after the new Year and one of the causes mentioned was aural shock due to the percussion waves from the firework display - not good!


PS 115 today ;-)

Unknown said...

There exists strong evidence that Sooke encountered violent alteration in pressure induced by an undersea earthquake before she ran blindly into the sonar ship.

In every incident in which sonar has been implicated, we always find that a whale-dangerous earthquake has occurred upstream from and prior to contact with the sonar vessel. Seaquakes induce barosinusitis which leads to the loss of directional senses in whales. If Sooke was suffering barosinusitis, it is understandable why she got too close to the sonar vessel. On the other hand, if she was not suffering prior injury, it is extremely difficult to explain why she did not run from such an injurious encounter.

Capt. David Williams
Deafwhale Society, Inc