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Remains of Ventura blue whale get beach burial

Biologists investigating the giant carcass find no evidence that the animal's injuries were caused by the Navy's sonar exercises.

September 18, 2007|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

On a quiet beach up the coast from Ventura, there wasn't much left on Monday of the 60- to 70-ton blue whale that over the weekend lay there dead, scrutinized by researchers and photographed by hundreds of spectators.

The tire tracks of two pieces of heavy equipment still gouged the wet sand and a boulder-sized chunk of what appeared to be blubber sat in the surf, pecked by gulls. Most of the putrefying blue whale -- an endangered species and the largest animal on Earth -- had been chopped up and buried beneath the beach.

Researchers were confident that the female whale had been struck by a ship in the Santa Barbara Channel. They said they saw no signs that the whale had been affected by the Navy's use of sonar during training exercises, as some had feared. Others held open the possibility that it might have been disoriented by an illness before its fatal collision with an unknown ship.

Paul Collins, curator of vertebrate zoology for the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, said biologists cutting into the enormous carcass found a number of crushed bones in its spinal column -- bones so large they could have fragmented only with "a sustained, hard impact."

Searching for any possible links to sonar, scientists looked for blood in the whale's ear canal and irregularities in the nearby bones. "We found no indications of damage due to sonar," Collins said.

The Navy's use of mid-frequency active sonar -- powerful bursts emitted from ships to detect enemy submarines -- has been a contentious issue. On Aug. 31, a federal appeals court at least temporarily reversed a judge's sonar ban, ruling that national security trumps the possibility that sonar causes mass whale die-offs. The decision allowed the Navy to proceed with exercises off Southern California.

Navy Cmdr. Dora Lockwood, a spokesman for the Third Fleet in San Diego, on Monday said that the previously banned training exercises resumed off the west coast of San Clemente Island on Sept. 11. The same day, the Ventura County whale was found dead off San Miguel Island more than 150 miles away. That whale had drifted ashore Thursday night in Ventura County.

"All ships participating in this exercise had mitigation measures in effect," said Lockwood, referring to precautions developed by the Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service. In the first week of September, less extensive sonar exercises -- training that had not been addressed in the litigation -- also were conducted, said Lockwood, asserting that the Navy has run sonar training off the Southern California coast for four decades without harming marine life.

On Wednesday, a second dead blue whale was found off San Clemente Island. However, this may have been a whale found dead in Long Beach Harbor the previous weekend that was towed out to sea by the Coast Guard, according to a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service. Researchers are testing tissues extracted from that whale, which may have been inadvertently pushed to Long Beach by a ship.

After the Ventura County whale washed ashore, local officials had a boat tow it to a beach a mile down the coast, where it could be buried after a necropsy. But officials were concerned that the body would fall apart en route, with tons of remains sweeping onto area beaches.

Whether the whale was disoriented by domoic acid -- a bacterial product implicated in the deaths of marine mammals and sea birds -- isn't yet known. However, the substance is strongly suspected in the deaths of two dolphins that recently washed up on a beach near Oxnard, scientists said.

Initially, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History expressed interest in retrieving the whale's skeleton.

With so many bones crushed, however, it only kept the skull -- a 5,000-pound chunk of bone measuring 15 feet long and 9 feet wide.


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