Illness blamed for death of stranded killer whale
A pygmy killer whale washed up on an Oahu beach over the weekend as the Navy carried out maritime exercises in Hawaiian waters.
But the elderly animal died of an illness and not because the military was using a type of sonar that may harm marine mammals, a federal official said yesterday.
Initial findings from a CT scan and a necropsy show a lung infection that had spread to the heart and the brain killed the whale, said Chris Yates, assistant regional administrator in Hawaii for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The 7-foot, 200-pound animal also had a large amount of fluid in its chest and suffered from a curved spine, or scoliosis.
"It was an old, very sick animal that came ashore, which is what most strandings are," Yates said.
The fisheries service learned of the stranding on a rocky ledge at Makapuu beach Sunday morning after someone called the marine mammal response hotline. Officials examined the whale later that day.
Yates said there was no sign the animal's death was related to the Rim of the Pacific exercises the Navy has been conducting in Hawaii waters with seven other countries.
Since earlier this month, sailors have practiced searching for submarines by bouncing sound off underwater objects with active sonar. Studies have shown the sonar may harm whales, as when it was found to be a major contributing factor in the mass stranding of at least 16 whales and two dolphins in the Bahamas in 2000.
Scientists have theorized that animals get frightened by the sound and surface too quickly, causing nitrogen in the blood to transform into gas, which can block blood vessels and cause bleeding in vital organs.
The Navy agreed to adopt certain measures during this year's RIMPAC exercises to protect marine mammals, including reducing the power of its sonar when marine mammals are nearby.
The Navy also agreed not to turn its active sonar on when it was within 25 nautical miles of the recently established Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Marine Monument, which stretches for more than 1,000 miles off the main islands.
Some environmentalists were still concerned that the measures were not enough. A group called the International Ocean Noise Coalition issued a statement last week saying it was not clear the measures the Navy agreed to would sufficiently protect marine mammals.
The fisheries service, meanwhile, said Sunday's whale appeared to be one of roughly two dozen or so sickly whales found stranded in the main Hawaiian islands during an average year.
The fisheries service, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, did not ask the Navy to suspend any of its exercises after finding the whale because there did not appear to be any sonar connection.