On January 11th, a 21-foot-long female orca died after stranding on a beach in Palm Coast, Florida. WDC’s Stranding Coordinator, Sarah McCormack, was in a meeting with rescue, response, and rehabilitation organizations across the country when news broke about this extremely rare occurrence. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and we have never had a record of a killer whale stranding in Florida – or in the Southeast, U.S.,” said Blair Mase, Southeast Regional Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator.
When the responders arrived, they found that the orca had died. A multi-agency response team, including members from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, and the University of Florida jumped into action to figure out what happened. They worked tirelessly to transport the animal from the beach to a lab to conduct a necropsy, or animal autopsy.
Rare sightings like these offer scientists an invaluable, close-up opportunity to learn about these animals. During necropsies, scientists collect samples to test for things that could impact human health too such as harmful algal blooms, contaminants, and infectious diseases. In addition to collecting basic data like length, weight, sex, etc., scientists also conduct what is known as a human interaction evaluation. This in-depth exam is a way to identify if there is evidence of vessel strikes, entanglements, debris ingestion, trauma from sonar, gunshot wounds, or other human causes.
The team meticulously examined the animal through the night, collecting data and samples to help determine the cause of death. During their examination, they found that this female orca showed signs of old age, including having very worn-down teeth. They ruled out human interaction as a reason for why it stranded.
This case is especially unique due to the scarcity of orca sightings in the Southeast Atlantic. There are occasional reports of offshore orcas here in the Northeast Atlantic. Our Marine Animal Rescue and Response program is ready to respond to reports of any marine mammal species like whales, dolphins (including orcas?) or seals from Weymouth to Plymouth, Massachusetts. If you see a marine mammal stranded, distressed or dead, call WDC’s hotline at (617) 688-6872.