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Fail Whale

The Dorsal Spin
Tsu’xiit/Luna (L98) implores us to do better. Deddema Stemler/AP photo.”

I write this on the sorrowful anniversary of Tsu’xiit/Luna’s death. Hail pounds the roof, as it did on the day Luna died. Tsu’xiit left his earth swim during a freaky, powerful thunderstorm. Killed on March 10, 2006 at the tender age of 6½, luminous Luna (L98) – enchanting film star of “The Whale” and “Saving Luna” – has been dead now longer than he was alive.

In March 2006, I wrote a Dorsal Spin questioning whether Tsux’iit’s death would teach us anything. Eight years out, the tenuous treaty between Kakawin (killer whales) and industrial humans still feels broken. Progress toward saving Luna’s endangered Southern Resident kin is negligible to non-existent.

L Pod has plummeted to 36 orcas from a peak of 59 in 1993. The only surviving member of Luna’s L2 matriline is Wave Walker (L88), his 21-year-old uncle. Six others were all dead by 2012. Most died young. Luna’s mother, Splash (L67), was just 23 when she died in 2008. His grandmother Grace (L2) was only 52 when she died in 2012.

As I fondly recall Tsu’xiit, the tragic death of another L Pod juvenile vexes me. Sweet female Sooke (L112), age 3, stranded near Long Beach, WA on February 11, 2012. A recently released report on her death states that she died of “blunt force trauma from a collision or a blow” but “the exact type or source of the traumatic injuries . . . remains unknown.”

Sooke might be the most extensively necropsied killer whale ever. I find it deeply frustrating and disillusioning that what killed her is inconclusive. Decomposition prevented definitive resolution to a number of issues. The report could not completely rule out the following possibilities: vessel strike, ramming by a larger animal, or blast trauma.

Well-intentioned, skilled biologists and researchers investigated L112’s death. My criticism is not an indictment of them or their effort. I suspect, however, that some clues to Sooke’s death were de-emphasized or disregarded.

Permit me to dispel one scenario. Southern Resident orcas do not mortally ram each other. Fatal ramming incidents occur with orcas in captivity. If anyone reading this can prove that closely related wild orcas ram their podmates to death, call me.

I am not the only one skeptical of the report. Two experienced researchers -- Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research and Scott Veirs of Beam Reach marine sustainability school -- deemed L112’s death report critically flawed and asked National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to revisit the investigation.

Ken and Scott challenged discrepancies in evidence provided about the sonar and blasting exercises of a Canadian navy destroyer several days before L112 stranded. See “Whale-death investigation flawed, experts say,” in the March 8 Victoria Times Colonist. The article also links to the NMFS report on L112.

Another good read is at Ken’s words on the ramming hypothesis: “absolutely preposterous.”

The discussion section of the L112 report unceremoniously cites L98’s death: in 2006, “a juvenile male was drawn through the propeller of a tug boat.” Luna (L98) and Sooke (L112) died under substantially different circumstances, but the losses were equally senseless and devastating. The promise of their genetic potential, which L Pod urgently needs, was extinguished.

As with Luna, perhaps no one is specifically to blame for Sooke’s death, but we bear the burden collectively. The lifeways of industrialized, militarized humanity are seemingly inconsistent with conditions that allow killer whales to thrive.

Look online at Ken’s impossibly cute baby photo of Victoria, his name for Sooke (L112). Look at Tsu’xiit/Luna here: gorgeous and eternal with his soulful gaze and the wisdom of a sage, imploring us to do right by his Kakawin kin. What the hell are we doing to these orcas? When does life get better for them? Epic fail whale.

Please support the work of the Vashon Hydrophone Project (VHP): REPORT LOCAL WHALE SIGHTINGS ASAP TO 463-9041, as well as seal pups and sick, injured, or dead marine mammals on Island beaches. Prompt reports to the VHP expedite vital data collection efforts and sustain an accurate record of whale sightings for Vashon-Maury. Send photos to Orca Annie at