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New orca baby sparks questions over Naval training

Orca calf L125 swimming with its mother, Surprise. (Center for Whale Research)

The birth of the newest Southern Resident orca, L-125, two weeks ago was good news for the endangered population.

But the memory of the death of this orca’s older sister is also sparking fears among some nature preservationists that history could repeat itself.

In 2012, L-112, or Victoria, the older sister of the new calf, was killed by blunt force trauma to the head.

“The blast trauma was really dramatic — there was massive bleeding in the ears and the space of the ears,” said Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, communications director for the Pacific Whale Watch Association. “She died a miserable death.”

Navy SEALs to train in more than a dozen state parks

The NOAA report completed in 2016 could not pinpoint a cause for the trauma, and Victoria’s death to this day remains a mystery.

Some people, however, believe that the cause can be found in military weapons testing. The Center for Whale Research’s press release on the new orca’s birth states that L-112 “was killed by blunt force trauma during military exercises.”

This has orca advocates like Balcomb-Bartok fearing that the Navy’s recent permit renewal — tripling the number of state parks allowed to be used for SEAL training — could pose a danger to the new calf and the rest of its relatives.

“Of all whales to have a baby right now, that’s significant news because the Navy has a permit, … to basically continue their military operations in outer coast waters,” he said.

NOAA’s investigation rules out the military as a cause of the orca’s death, noting that there were no training exercises or weapons testing happening in the area during the days leading up to the whale’s death.

“L-112 was hit, struck, or rammed in the head or neck, but the animate or inanimate source of the blow could not be determined based on postmortem examination,” the report stated.

Still, not all orca activists are convinced.

“L-112 washed up onshore with blunt blast trauma — it only could have happened with an explosion,” Balcomb-Bartok said.

SEAL training in state parks

The permit renewal granted by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission gives the Navy permission to conduct covert training activities for SEALs, the Navy’s special forces, in up to 17 state parks. This training is restricted to nighttime for the first nine months, but may be expanded to daytime by the commission’s director after that if the Navy follows all rules.

J. Overton, deputy public affairs officer for the Navy’s Northwest Region, said some people may be incorrectly picturing the Normandy Invasion at Deception Pass State Park.

“There is a very inaccurate narrative that some folks have got a hold of, of what they see this training is going to be,” he said.

During a virtual hearing before the commission, some residents expressed fear that they would run into SEALs in full gear while in state parks, or have the opposite experience and be unknowingly watched by SEALs from the bushes while hiking. Like Balcomb-Bartok, they also had concerns about the safety of orcas and other endangered animals.

However, Overton explained that the entire objective of the activities being conducted is to stay away from other people and animals.

“The point of the training is to leave no trace, be as stealthy as possible, be far away from the public,” he said.

Teams of up to eight people would come ashore “acting out some sort of benign, scripted scene away from the public” for no more than three days at a time. The Navy says the parks offer an ideal training spot to simulate other areas around the globe because of the topography, cold water, and large pieces of undeveloped land; naval bases tend to not offer as much undeveloped property.

As per the rules, SEALs must avoid endangered or threatened plants and animals, and any orca sightings must be reported. No real weapons are used at all.

“If there are any marine mammals in the area, that activity will be stopped and diverted,” Overton said. “And this does not involve any explosions or anything like that.”

Overton said the Navy has also put millions of dollars into research on marine mammals in recent years to help learn how to avoid crossing paths with them.

He added that the expansion of the parks that the SEALs are allowed in from five to 17 will give the Navy more options, which will help make it easier to avoid certain sensitive species.

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