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Night Sonar Test in Northwest; Transient Orcas in Area

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Earlier this month, the US Navy spent a night testing sonar and communications systems on the USS San Francisco, a submarine that had recently completed major repairs to its sonar dome after crashing into a seamount in 2006.  

A recent photo of the U.S. Navy submarine, the U.S.S. San Francisco (Photo: RLW)

A recent photo of the U.S. Navy submarine, the U.S.S. San Francisco (Photo: RLW)

The sub was doing “required training dives” in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, between Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula, with an escort ship also present; the Navy ships did not enter Haro Strait, a more constrained channel where sonar training stirred up considerable controversy in 2003.  Orca researchers throughout the region picked up unusual sounds (sonar pings and human voices) from 7pm to 3am on the night of April 6-7; the sounds were audible from San Juan Island to Whidbey Island and Port Washington and Port Townsend.  

Val Veirs of Beam Reach reported that their system heard “about the most intense sounds that the hydrophones there have recorded in the past several years of continuous operation.”  While the resident orca pods have not returned from their winter at sea, a large group of transient orcas had been seen in the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the 6th.  While the Navy was employing its standard safety measures, transient orcas rarely vocalize, so could easily be missed by listening systems used at night.  However, according to the Orca Network sightings log, the same transient group was seen the next day in the same area, so they apparently were not chased from the region.  Local orca groups expressed concern that the Navy had proceeded with the activity in a region where orca populations are critically threatened, and in or near designated critical habitat for the orcas.  Fred Felleman, Northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth, said “You shouldn’t be doing this in the inland waters, where the echo chambers are, and you shouldn’t be doing it at night, when you can’t verify anything.” 

For more on this incident, see:

Kitsap Sun article, 4/10/09
Beam Reach blog post, 4/7/09
Watching our Waterways blog post, 4/9/09
Whale of a Porpoise blog, 4/7/09
Orca Network sightings page  ;  Orca Network sightings map

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