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Friday, December 19, 2014

Two Weeks, Two Strandings

On December 4th came the sad news that a dead killer whale had washed up near Comox, British Columbia. It took a few hours before we knew the identity of the whale, and sadly we learned it was J32 Rhapsody, an 18 year-old female in J-Pod.

J32 Rhapsody breaches in the Strait of Juan de Fuca in August 2013
Often, when a whale dies, we may not know for weeks or months. For Southern Residents, who are always in such tight family groups, our best evidence of a whale death is typically the rest of its family returning to inland without it. It's unusual for us to know right when a whale dies, and even rarer for the body to be recovered. A large group of whales, presumably J-Pod, had been seen near Comox on December 3rd. When she was first seen floating off the beach on the morning of December 4th, Rhapsody had probably been dead less than 24 hours. 
It's sad when we lose any whale, but particularly when it's a breeding-age female, the age/sex class so critical if this population is going to recover. Earlier this season, rumors were running rampant that Rhapsody might be pregnant, because she looked particularly robust in several breach photos. She's always been a round whale, and there's no reliable visible signs of pregnancy on orcas, so we didn't know if she was really carrying a calf or not, but at 18 years of age, we were all surely hoping she was. The gift in her death will be the knowledge we could gain from her. Was she fertile or infertile? Was she pregnant, or has she ever miscarried? What's in her stomach? What are her toxin loads? What diseases does she carry? Why did she die?  

J32 Rhapsody right off the rocks at Lime Kiln in June 2014

A necropsy occurred two days later with dozens of people, including Ken Balcomb, in attendance. The first news to emerge from the day is that several of Rhapsody's teeth have been illegally sawed off and taken as souvenirs by someone overnight. The next news is that Rhapsody was indeed pregnant, with a full term calf. It's a devastating blow to this population, particularly because we later find out the calf was female. About a week later Ken Balcomb posts an informal summary of the necropsy; the official report is probably at least weeks away, since numerous lab tests are still pending. In short, the fetus preceded Rhapsody in death. She appeared to get an infection from difficulty in expelling the calf, and this ultimately resulted in her death.

As 2014 draws to a close, we have gone 28 months without a successful birth among the Southern Residents. L120 was the first known birth in two years, in September, but he/she only lived for seven weeks. With Rhapsody's death, we now know we've lost not only a breeding female, but another potential calf as well.

It's a tough blow. The Southern Residents are down to just 77 whales, lower than when they were listed as endangered in 2005. But the silver lining is that this seems to have sparked a new, stronger wave of dedication and activism, and as the momentum is building, I can only hope that we see big things happen in 2015, for the sake of the orcas. I will definitely be in the middle of it all, doing everything I can.

There are a lot of photos of Rhapsody lying dead on the beach, so if you want to see those you can easily find them elsewhere. I prefer to remember her as she was in life - a vivacious young whale, full of so much potential:

J32 Rhapsody, August 2014

A week to the day after Rhapsody's necropsy, I'm at home on a Saturday morning when I read on Facebook a report of a small dead killer whale washed up on South Beach, here on San Juan Island. It can't be, I tell myself. But with J-Pod having headed west the day before, the doubts creep in. I know it's probably a Dall's porpoise, but I have to go look. I brace myself on the drive down for what I might see.

I arrive at the same time as another local whale lover, and we're the first ones on scene. We see an eagle sitting on the beach next to a carcass and start heading that way. At first it looks like a sea lion, but as we get closer, I can see the pectoral fin and tail flukes sticking up in the air. My heart jumps to my throat for a split second as we get even closer, until I can see for sure that it is in fact a Dall's porpoise. It's an amazingly fresh animal - dead, but completely in tact. 

It's fascinating to see an animal like this up close. The fear that chased me down here starts to give way to wonder at seeing a cetacean like this up close.

It's an adult female, a little over six feet long and probably weighing about 300 pounds. There's no sign of trauma on her anywhere - no rake marks from transients, no wounds or signs of disease. The only thing I notice is that it looks like she hardly has any teeth!

I learn later that Dall's porpoise have very unusual teeth to begin with. The teeth are very small and are separated by growths called "gum teeth". So maybe this isn't so unusual, though I the expert that does the necropsy confirms that some of her teeth were indeed missing.

A crowd has begun to gather by this time, including some members of the stranding network and other curious whale folks who had the same fears I did when they heard the report. Among them is one of our local whale watch captains, who is celebrating a big birthday and has the extended family in town. This proves to be fortunate, because we have to find a way to get the animal down the beach to a truck so it can be transported to the Friday Harbor Labs where the necropsy will occur. A little ingenuity goes a long way, as we fashioned a sling out of some driftwood and straps out of someone's car and took turns carrying her the quarter-mile or so to the parking area.

As we load her into the back of a truck, I think we all feel a moment of sadness. It was a huge relief that we didn't have another dead killer whale on our hands, but the loss of this porpoise is a sad thing to witness, too.

Her necropsy occurs two days later, and while I don't attend, I get a full report from a couple friends. It turns out this stranded cetacean was pregnant, too, but with a male calf no where near full term. It's determined she was an older animal that died of a bad lung infection. Her stomach and intestines were empty, indicating that she probably wasn't able to eat for some time because of the disease.

We get the opportunity to learn an amazing amount from cetaceans when they strand, but after two such experiences in two weeks, I'm definitely ready for all of the local whales, dolphins, and porpoises to stay in the water, alive and well, where they belong!


Kate said...

I am sorry for the lost of these wonderful animals.

Blue Heron said...

thank you for this post.

Crenke said...

You write very well... I love your tale... I never did get to hear about the lung infection, so thank you for telling the results.