On August 2, the San Juan County Marine Mammal Stranding Network recovered the body of a dead orca calf from Open Bay on Henry Island. The body was initially sighted and photographed by a part-time resident of Henry Island during the low tide on the morning of July 26. Unfortunately, the Network did not get the information and pictures until several days later so when the carcass was finally recovered, it was in a state of advanced decomposition.
“A newborn killer whale calf is usually 7-8 feet long and 300-400 pounds,” says Amy Traxler, Stranding Network Coordinator. “This carcass was approximately five feet long with an estimated weight of 70-80 pounds so it’s likely this calf was aborted.” The placenta was lying next to the calf when originally discovered.
Currently it is not known if this killer whale calf was from the endangered Southern Resident population or was a transient or offshore ecotype. Joe Gaydos, the Stranding Network’s Veterinarian and Regional Director of the SeaDoc Society, will collect tissue samples when they conduct a complete necropsy. “If we recover viable skin and blubber, which is not always possible from a decomposed carcass, we might be able to determine if the calf is a member of the Southern Resident Community and possibly even narrow down the pod of origin.” Fresh tissue samples also would contain information on contaminant levels and possibly provide a cause for the calf’s abortion.
It’s very rare to recover a body of a stranded killer whale. A recent paper Gaydos presented to the International Whaling Commission suggests that only an average of 7 killer whale carcasses are found around the world annually, making every killer whale stranding a rare opportunity to learn more about the biology and diseases of this species.
In May 2002, L-60’s (Rascal) carcass was found on the outer coast of Washington. In January 2002, the body of a female transient whale was recovered down by Dungeness Spit. The body of J-18 (Everett) washed up by Tsawwassen, B.C. in March of 2000 and the body of L-51 (Nootka) was found in September, 1999 over by Victoria, B.C.. All of these carcasses were fresh, permitting scientists to learn more about the diseases of killer whales and which diseases might have an impact on the overall health of the population. Fresh necropsy samples also have helped scientists understand how contaminants impact killer whales.
The San Juan County Marine Mammal Stranding Network is one of many science and education programs at The Whale Museum. If you encounter a stranded marine mammal in San Juan County, alive or dead, please call 1-800-562-8832 and leave a message with your name, phone number, location, and other pertinent details of the stranding. You will be helping to better understand and protect the region’s marine mammals.
The Whale Museum, 2008