On Wednesday morning, a 22-foot killer whale beached itself on Palm Coast, a Florida Beach, sparking concern among wildlife officials. The female’s appearance marked the first orca to beach itself in the southeast US in nearly 70 years.
Sadly, the whale died shortly after washing ashore, leaving officials searching for a cause of death. Initial theories included a calf birth gone wrong, trauma, and human interaction. NOAA officials eliminated all of these, however, determining that the killer whale’s death was likely the result of illness instead. The exact illness that caused the 9,000-pound animal to expire remains a mystery.
“Her passing is tragic, but she remains critically important because of what the necropsy may reveal about her species and what led to her stranding and death,” SeaWorld said following the whale’s rescue and transport. “What we learn will be another important piece of the puzzle in understanding this amazing species and helping protect wild populations, including the endangered Southern Resident killer whales of the Pacific Northwest.”
According to wildlife officials, the orca showed signs of various illnesses rather than a single one. As such, it will be several weeks or even months before her necropsy report and cause of death are finalized. Samples are currently being sent to labs around the country for analysis.
Killer Whale Skeleton Could Be Displayed in the Smithsonian
Only three orca whales have been stranded in the southeastern US in recorded history. This one was discovered by a member of the public, who reported the grisly sighting to wildlife officials at 6:30 am on Wednesday.
Dozens of scientists and volunteers then worked tirelessly for hours, first assessing the whale’s condition, then loading the corpse into a truck. By 3 pm, the whale was on its way to SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, for a necropsy (animal autopsy). The multi-agency investigation went through the night until around 4 am Thursday.
During the nearly 12-hour autopsy, scientists collected samples from every organ system in the killer whale’s body for testing. “There’s not really much left after that,” Erin Fougeres, Marine Mammal Stranding Program administrator for NOAA, explained to NPR.
According to Fougeres, scientists transported the remains of the carcass to the University of Florida, where it will decompose. After that, the killer whale skeleton will be sent to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., where it could be displayed in the future.
“We really do rely on the public to report these strandings to us,” Fougeres said. “We do want to investigate every stranded animal.”
Whale beachings are, thankfully, quite rare. And though illness is one reason for the phenomenon, scientists remain uncertain about the true reason behind strandings. Other suspected reasons include navigational errors, or a sick animal leading the herd, sometimes resulting in a mass stranding.