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Rescuers workers free orca – Female orca found dead on beach

Thanks to the efforts of volunteers and state and federal scientists, a young transient bull orca was rescued after spending three days stuck on sandbars and stumps in Dungeness Bay just north of Sequim.

The orca and a companion, possibly his mother, became stuck in shallow water beginning Wednesday, Jan. 2, prompting media coverage from the Pacific Northwest and nationwide. The female orca was found dead on a sandbar, but the male orca, which became stuck a couple of miles away, is apparently in good shape after a traumatic three days trapped in shallow water.

Several local orca experts and rescuers rushed to the scene after hearing of the orca trapped in shallow water. Responding were Kelley Balcomb-Bartok and Dave Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research, Rich Osborne and Albert Shepard from the Whale Museum, and Orcas Island resident Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian with the University of California, Davis Wildlife Health Center. Officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state Department of Fish and Wildlife, Environmental Protection Agency, National Marine Mammals Lab and Vancouver Aquarium also responded.

Osborne, Shepard and Gaydos concentrated primarily on the dead orca, participating in a necropsy which may help answer what caused the whale’s death. Balcomb-Bartok and Ellifrit were part of a team that concentrated on trying to save the stranded, but still living, orca.

The two orcas were identified as California transients. Their saddle patch markings were photographed in the Coos Bay, Ore. area back in 1996.

It was high drama with all sorts of wild swings of emotions, said Balcomb-Bartok. For some time, Balcomb-Bartok said, rescuers were fearing that they would be unable to save the male orca. If he became stranded too long, his own weight would crush his lungs and internal organs.

Seven times, using ropes and cables, rescuers had to pull this orca off sandbars, out of shallow water and – in one instance – off a stump.

The male orca was either confused or distraught over the death of the female, and kept swimming back into shallow water in Dungeness Bay. Dungeness Spit sticks well out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Balcomb-Bartok thinks it’s possible the orca was trying to head west toward open water, but the spit kept getting in the way.

Finally, the orca was towed to deep water and, the last anyone heard from a transmitter attached to him, he was in open ocean and out of danger.

Balcomb-Bartok said when he first heard of a male orca stuck on a beach, he called KING-5 to get a ride out there as quickly as possible in the TV’s helicopter (In return, KING-5 got a big story and amazing aerial footage.).

Balcomb-Bartok spotted the dead orca from the chopper, but there was initially some confusion about whether this was the male orca or another whale. It was quickly deduced that this was not the male.

Osborne said that, so far, researchers have not found anything wrong with the female. The area is a known seal feeding ground for transient orcas, and it’s possible the female was hunting and simply got stuck in shallow water, said Osborne. He said there were “some extremely low tides” the day the female beached herself.

The calls of the female may have attracted the male into shallow water, getting him trapped as well. Balcomb-Bartok said he’s spent enough time around orcas to believe that they do feel emotions, and he thinks it’s possible the male orca was grieving, as well. He said rescuers presume that the male orca was the son of the female.

The male orca was becoming dehydrated and lethargic, apparently traumatized by his difficulty in the shallow water. Balcomb-Bartok said at one point the orca was freed, but then swam into a partially submerged tree, becoming stuck on a stump. “We went, ‘oh, oh’,” said Balcomb-Bartok. The orca also swam into oyster beds.

“There were lots of reason to be pessimistic,” said Balcomb-Bartok.

Balcomb-Bartok said he spent “a big chunk of Thursday night” observing the orca. His breathing through the night was steady, but labored. Rescuers had to cover the orca with wet towels through the night to keep his skin from drying out too much.

On Friday, rescuers made one last try to get the orca into deep water away from Dungeness Spit. This time their efforts apparently worked, as the orca made it around the tip of the spit and out into the strait.

Both Balcomb-Bartok and Osborne said the response to the incident was incredible. “I’ve never seen so many scientists in one place,” said Osborne.

Balcomb-Bartok said a local oyster company donated the use of its barge in an attempt to lift the orca out of shallow water. The Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport and Marine World Africa, USA in Vallejo, Calif. both offered to donate their facilities if the orca needed to be rehabilitated from his injuries. He said that when he went to a grocery store in Sequim to stock up on supplies, everyone in the store kept asking him how the orca was doing.

“It was a real heartfelt experience,” said Balcomb-Bartok.

Dead orca

Osborne said the female was relatively young – about 30 to 40 years old. She was probably too young to have died of old age, Osborne speculated.

The dead orca may help provide some clues about the effect of PCBs on killer whales, and possibly the effect of boat noise. Osborne said the whale’s head was removed (and put in an industrial freezer) so the skull and hearing bones can be studied closely to see if there is any hearing damage.

Osborne said there’s no sign of the kind of massive infection which killed a J-pod whale a couple of years ago. That whale washed up on a beach near Tsawwassen, B.C. This death may have been the result of PCB poisoning, which destroys orcas’ immune systems. Transient whales are known to have high concentration of PCBs in their flesh; higher than the local resident orcas.

Osborne said they found two seal carcasses inside the female, so she had eaten relatively recently. Samples of the orca’s organ and flesh have been sent to laboratories for more in-depth study. “The lab work could be very illuminating” as to the cause of death, said Osborne.

Osborne also said it’s possible scientists will not find anything wrong with the orca, which means its death may remain a bit of a mystery.

Casts will be made of the skeleton, one of which will be put on display at the Whale Museum, and the other at a museum in Port Townsend.

— Pierre LaBossiére reports on sports, environment and law enforcement for sanjuanjournal.com and The Journal of the San Juan Islands, sister publications of islandssounder.com and The Islands’ Sounder. He can be reached at (360) 378-4191 ext. 20 or email.

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