First orca whale to beach in southeast U.S. in decades showed signs of illness : NPR
Flagler County Sheriff’s Office via AP
Early Wednesday morning, someone spotted a rare sight for Florida: A killer whale over 20 feet long that had washed up on the state’s North Atlantic coast.
The first killer whale to kill itself in the southeastern United States in nearly 70 years died shortly after of an illness in Palm Coast, Fla., officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Fisheries division said. ).
Officials do not know the exact age of the nearly geriatric female orca that was stranded on the beach. Female orcas typically live around 50 years but reach 90 in the wild.
While it’s too early to say what exactly caused her death, there were “signs of illness. There were no signs of human interaction or trauma,” says Erin Fougeres, program administrator of ‘Marine Mammals for the NOAA Southeast region. Disease is a common reason whales are caught, Fougeres says.
A member of the public spotted the whale and reported it at around 6:30 am on Wednesday. Marine biologists from the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute and staff from the Flagler County Govt assisted NOAA with the removal of whales over 6,000 pounds, along with other groups. It was loaded onto a truck by dozens of people in an effort that took several hours, ending around 3 pm
This is the third orca known to have been stranded in the southeastern United States and the first since 1956, Fougeres says. The region stretches from North Carolina to Texas and includes Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.
The whale’s body immediately underwent a necropsy — or animal autopsy — at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla., because the facility has a large laboratory. The multi-agency effort continued until about 4 a.m. Thursday and took extensive tissue samples from every single organ system, Fougeres told NPR. Results may take weeks or months.
“There wasn’t much left after that,” Fougeres said, but what remained of the carcass was transported to the University of Florida to decompose. His skeleton will be sent to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and may be put on display in the future.
“We really rely on the public to report these concerns to us,” Fougeres said, “and we want to investigate every stray animal.” The public can report beached whales at 1-877-942-5343.
Orca whales are more commonly found further north in colder waters, and Fougeres says they are rare in the American Atlantic. However, there is a recognized stock of orcas in the western North Atlantic and another in the Gulf of Mexico.
While disease is one reason whales may strand themselves, scientists still don’t know for sure why strandings occur. Other potential reasons include navigational errors or following sick animals that end up straying while traveling as a herd, sometimes resulting in mass calving.