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NAS Whidbey says gunfire not aimed at whales: Group claims recent small arms practice harms orcas
A whale watching group claims that routine training by the Navy endangered whales that were expected to be swimming in waters off of Whidbey Island.
The Navy maintains no whales were in danger.
The Navy was conducting routine small firearms training near base Tuesday morning, the schedule of which is announced each month, according to Mike Welding, public affairs officer for Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.
Prior to the training operation, Welding said, the Navy notifies the Coast Guard, which creates a 2,000-foot safety perimeter off of the west shore of the island, “in case of ricochets.”
The Coast Guard also issues an alert to boaters in the area.
During the training, Welding said, sailors shoot at barriers and do not shoot over the water.
Cameras are used and safety observers stand watch during these operations, Welding said.
Welding said there were also aircraft performing routine training operations, such as Field Carrier Landing Practice, at Ault Field, Welding said, but added the training operations were not linked in any way.
This past Tuesday’s Coast Guard alert was heard by Hobbes Buchanan, with Pacific Whale Watch Association, who was in the San Juan Islands tracking whale migrations through Puget Sound.
Buchanan said he immediately called the Coast Guard to ask them to stop.
Buchanan said in a press release recently that he believes the operation is a “joint exercise between the U.S. Coast Guard and the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station with thunderous jet fighters simulating air attacks” and water vessels “firing live rounds.”
“The sound even up here in the San Juans was deafening,” said Buchanan in his press release.
“I looked at my AIS (Automated Identification System) and it was lit up like a Christmas tree, military vessels everywhere.”
Welding said Buchanan was “mischaracterizing” the type of operations that were occurring on and near the base.
Welding said he is not aware of any Navy vessel operations occurring at that time and that Buchanan’s AIS can detect vessels of all sizes, Navy or otherwise.
Buchanan, however, claims he confirmed his theory with “spotters” on the island, but that he himself didn’t have any visual confirmation.
While he maintains that military vessels were shooting live rounds into the Sound, Buchanan conceded that the shooting may have been taking place on shore.
“But who knows what damage has been done?” asked Michael Harris, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association.
“These whales are highly intelligent, and deeply sentient and sensitive creatures. They have extraordinary memories, and we know from our experience here during the orca capture era that Southern residents haven’t returned to some of the places where they were harassed and captured.”
“Maybe they’ll avoid this area in future,” Harris said. “We just don’t know. But what we do know is that we have far too many eyes and ears out there for these guys to not know where the whales are.”
“We have lots of boats on the water year-round, plenty of people watching from shore. All the Coast Guard and the feds have to do is pick up a phone.”
“Even if they were shooting from shore, we still need to be notified,” Buchanan said.
“There need to be protocols in place.”
Puget Sound will be seeing a large influx of gray whales and Orca’s this spring, and that they swim as close as 100 feet from shore, he said.