The heads of two beaked whales were on their way to the Woods Hole marine institution in Massachusetts Monday for high-tech MRI examination. Researchers want to know what caused the marine mammals to run aground north of Vero Beach on Sunday.
There was early speculation that Navy “shock testing” — underwater explosions — conducted earlier this month in the Atlantic east of Jacksonville may have damaged the whales’ sensitive navigation system.
But by Monday afternoon experts were downplaying that possibility, saying that the whales were badly emaciated and suffered other maladies.
“There is absolutely no indication right now that the death of these two whales had anything to do with any kind of Navy activity,” said Chris Smith, spokesman for the Southeast Region of the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency charged with, among other things, marine mammal protection.
There were three shock tests in just under a week, ending June 11, a Navy spokesman said.
The MRI testing will determine whether there might have been damage to the sonar portion of the whales’s brain. “Whales see with sound, hunt with sound and communicate with sound,” said Greg Bossart, a researcher at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce. Anything that damages that mechanism could be fatal.
The larger whale, a 13-foot, 2,000-pound female, was dead by the time would-be rescuers got there, and the smaller, a 10-foot, 1,500-pound male, was in such poor condition he was put to death.
Both animals came ashore early Sunday morning north of Vero Beach.
In March 2000, about 15 beaked whales stranded in the Bahamas. Those that died and were examined showed bleeding in hearing areas of the skull, suggesting damage possibly caused by anti-submarine sonar testing.
The Navy is experimenting with a new kind of sonar that sends a very loud, low-frequency pulse into the ocean.
The pulse is capable of picking up the presence of ships and submarines at much greater distances than current methods.
The problem is that, up close, the pulse is like standing next to a rocket being launched.
The sound is powerful enough to damage or destroy the sonar of dolphins or whales that are close to the source. An explosion could produce similar damage, so “shock tests” are conducted under heavy environmental scrutiny as well.
A Navy spokesman said the tests — in which underwater explosives were set off to check the seaworthiness of the Navy’s newest guided missile destroyer, the U.S. Churchill — were delayed twice, once when a school of dolphins came within two miles and again when a lone sea turtle was spotted within 1.5 miles of the test area.
There were 20 researchers and veterinarians on the Churchill, Smith said, making sure the tests complied with environmental restrictions.
An examination of the blast area after each blast revealed no damage to sea animals, Smith said.