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Blue Whale Deaths Off the California Coast

by David Gurney Sunday, Oct. 25, 2009 at 2:01 PM

Five confirmed but unexplained blue whale deaths in the last six weeks.

Blue Whale Deaths Of...
blue_whale.jpg, image/jpeg, 2560x1920

On August 31, 2009 an appeals judge lifted an existing ban on Navy sonar, and ruled against a lawsuit that would have prevented the U.S. Navy from resuming sonar training exercises off Southern California. The training exercises thus commenced on September 11, 2009 off San Diego. Within two weeks at least three great blue whales were reported floating dead off the Southern California coast.

On October 12, another great blue whale was found dead off Big Sur.

On Monday, October 19 yet another blue whale washed ashore, this time at Fort Bragg in Northern California.

The latest incident has raised serious questions of whether or not the sonar used by the survey vessel confirmed to have hit the whale might have been responsible. According to some scientists, the type of sonar used by the 78 foot Pacific Star was not powerful enough to have contributed to the injury and death of the Fort Bragg blue whale. The vessel was reportedly engaged in mapping for the controversial Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) now being enacted on the North Coast.

But the Act only covers waters under the jurisdiction of the State of California - 3 miles off the coast. According to Joe Cordaro, spokesman for the NOAA operation, the Pacific Star was 7.5 miles out, at the coordinates 39 degrees 22 minutes North, 123 degrees 50 minutes West, at the time of the collision.

Mr. Cordaro downplayed the incident in the local press, saying that whales "aren't paying attention in the open ocean" when they are "feeding, eating, or coming up for air." But basic research into whale behavior will tell you otherwise.

In an interview with Mr. Cordaro, he said that according to a statement provided to him by the Pacific Star, they were "doing seafloor mapping, and were contracted by the Hydrographic Survey Division of NOAA to supply data for nautical chart updates, and the identification of dangers to navigation." But what kind of "dangers to navigation" were they expecting to find seven miles out to sea?

Mr. Cordaro could not identify the type of sonar being used, and is awaiting that information.

According to a reliable source, the Pacific Star was just completing its mapping operations for the California State Marine Life Protection Act that very weekend.

Some have openly expressed the fear that the Pacific Star was engaged in exploration for natural gas and oil. The type of sonar used to penetrate deep layers of the earth's crust would most definitely seriously injure a blue whale. This is not the type of sonar used to map variations of underwater topography. Such pinging sonar is similar to a depth finder, and though certainly an annoyance to whales, it is not enough to make them engage in suicidal frenzy. The deeply penetrating sonar used to for minerals exploration, however, could cause panic and severe injury to the extremely sensitive hearing of a blue whale. This reporter has heard first-hand accounts of persons who claim to have heard from shore the loud sonar pulses of offshore geological exploration.

Does the Pacific Star have onboard the type of sonar used to conduct such geological exploration? If so, was it in use at the time they struck the blue whale? If their mapping exercises for the MLPA were to have concluded just before this incident occurred, what were they really doing seven miles out? Officials promoting the Marine Life Protection Act are still working out the legal language regarding areas outside the 3 mile limit of their protected zones, and to this date have not even officially addressed the issue. So what was a survey vessel doing four miles outside the jurisdiction claimed by MLPA advocates?

The Pacific Star is an independent for-charter survey vessel, not owned by the U.S. government. Such survey vessels can and do work directly for oil companies.

It is entirely possible, however improbable, that the whale collision was strictly an accident. The whale could have struck the ships propellers by its own blundering ineptitude. Or she might have been disoriented by the ship's sonar. Maybe she had been previously injured by Navy sonar, or was simply ill and disoriented.

The intuition and common sense of concerned coastal residents tell them otherwise. Scientists have already said that judging by fat content and other indicators, this whale was a healthy female who had given birth.

Only the captain and crew of the Pacific Star know the truth of what they were doing and what happened out there that day. But according to Joe Cordaro of NOAA, the chartered vessel for the MLPA will be investigated by the Enforcement Division of, you guessed it, NOAA. Unless the public demands a full inquiry and investigation, we may never know.

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