The image alone suggests that the young orca was killed in a terrible manner -- but could it have been "blown up" during naval training exercises?
The 3-year-old female orca, which belonged to the endangered Southern Resident orcas of the Pacific Northwest, washed ashore on a beach in Washington state on Feb. 11.
Since then, speculation has increased regarding what might have killed the orca, which is known as L-112. Pressure on the U.S. Navy and Royal Canadian Navy to stop using sonar and conducting military exercises within critical orca habitat also has increased.
(There are fewer than 90 Southern Resident orcas, an extended family comprised of the J, K and L pods. They range from Monterey to northern British Columbia and utilize protected inshore waters off Puget Sound, mostly during the summer.)
The Royal Canadian Navy acknowledged using sonar off the Puget Sound/Vancouver Island area on Feb. 6, but has stated that there were no reports or indications of marine mammals in the vicinity.
A necropsy found the orca had suffered from blunt force trauma to both sides of its head and to its right side but the cause of death her not yet been determined.
Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Wash., has implied that sonar alone could not have caused such extensive damage. The researcher is quoted in the San Juan Journal as saying, "Clearly the animal was blown up."
Balcomb, in Canada's CBC News, explained that the blunt force trauma did not appear to have been caused by the bow of a ship and added that he suspects the orca was killed by an explosive device deployed by the U.S. Navy during training exercises.
"I suspect she died in U.S. waters. And probably from an explosion," said Balcomb, who is hoping a National Marine Fisheries Service investigation will provide more insight into recent naval activities. "We're seeking information about what explosions at least the navy would be aware of."
The U.S. Navy has denied using explosives in the area in February.
The Kitsap Sun's Christopher Dunagan reported: "According to a permit issued under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Navy is allowed to conduct an average of 30 bombing exercises each year. That includes the use of 500-pound Mark-82 aerial bombs — although the Navy says the actual number of exercises does not come near that number."
Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian with The SeaDoc Society who participated in the necropsy, told Dunagan that the orca showed signs of a type of trauma that might be what a human would experience if dropped from a helicopter onto soft ground.
Blast trauma can be similar. Trauma caused by sonar is different from blunt force and blast trauma.
L-112 was "massively bloody in the ears and at the base of the ears," Balcomb said, implying that the damage was caused by a blast.
The Southern Residents will return to the Puget Sound area en masse in the summer. At that time researchers will conduct a census and try to determine if other pod members are missing.
"Chances are some other whales got killed, too," Balcomb said.