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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, July 29, 2004

Lost baby whale may have starved

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Kaua'i Bureau

LIHU'E, Kaua'i — A baby melon-headed whale found dead July 5 in Hanalei Bay apparently starved to death, according to veterinarians who examined the animal.

The carcass washed ashore two days after a pod of about 200 melon-headed whales appeared in Hanalei Bay. The pod was herded out of the bay July 4 by canoe paddlers and surfers, under the direction of a marine biologist, but the baby whale may have been left behind.

Several hours later, beachgoers at neighboring Lumaha'i Bay watched a baby whale strand itself and pushed it back into the sea. It is not known if it was the same animal, but the next day, a dead calf washed up on the beach at Hanalei.

The episode gained national prominence because of active sonar exercises by the U.S. and Japan navies off Kaua'i while the pod was in Hanalei Bay, and there is concern that sonar can alter whale behavior and in some cases injure the animals.

A necropsy found the 37-pound baby whale's stomach was empty and there was little fat around its abdomen and organs, as if it had not been feeding.

"Those young calves don't last very long without sustenance," said Honolulu-based veterinarian Robert Braun, a consultant to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The necropsy was performed by veterinarian Frances Gulland of the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif., with veterinarians Kathleen Colegrove and Martin Haulena. Braun said Gulland is a world-recognized expert in the field.

Melon-headed whales are a deep-water species. Hanalei residents were shocked on the morning of July 3 to find the large pod swimming in tight formation within the sandy-bottomed bay.

Many beachgoers tried to swim out to the whales, even as lifeguards and marine mammal program volunteers attempted to keep the humans away.

Braun, who oversaw the herding of the whales out of the bay, said his concern, in part, was that the pod was behaving as if stressed, and that the weaker animals would suffer disproportionately.

"I didn't think that they were feeding or that the calves were nursing very well, or that the old whales were doing very well," he said.

The U.S. and Japan navies, which were conducting exercises off the Pacific Missile Range Facility on the west side of the island, halted use of active sonar after learning of the presence of the whales.

Researchers continue to study the possible link between the sonar exercises and the appearance of the whales, although the Navy reported it did not start using the sonar until about 8:30 a.m. that day, an hour after the whales were already inside Hanalei Bay.

"NOAA Fisheries does not know and may never know whether the behavior of the pod was caused by the Navy," said Tamra Faris, assistant regional administrator for protected resources with the National Marine Fisheries Service's Pacific Islands Regional Office.

But the links between undersea noise and changes in whale behavior have been raising increased concern, including two new reports in the past week.

Scientists with the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University announced Monday that they are conducting tests on how whales respond to the use of ship-mounted air cannons. One technique they are studying is gradually increasing the volume of the seismic array so whales have time to get away before the noise reaches hazardous levels. Another technique is to find sound frequencies that minimize disturbance to whales.

In Rome last week, the International Whaling Commission received a report from its scientific committee that asserts that military sonar can cause self-destructive behavior in whales, in particular deep-water species called beaked whales.

Faris said the necropsy on the baby melon-headed whale did not find any evidence of damage to its hearing organs, a condition associated with military sonar in previous cases.

The animal had scratches and scrapes that were not believed to have contributed significantly to its death. The preliminary assessment is that the calf starved to death, but no final determination will be made until testing of tissue samples is complete.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.