First orca to be stranded in southeast U.S. in decades showed signs of illness
Early Wednesday morning, someone spotted a rare sight for Florida: A killer whale over 20 feet long that had beached itself on the state's northern Atlantic coast.
The first orca to beach itself in the southeast U.S. in nearly 70 years died shortly afterward of an illness in Palm Coast, Fla., officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries division said.
Officials don't know the exact age of the near-geriatric female orca that was stranded on the beach. Female orcas typically live about 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, Marine Mammal Stranding Program administrator for NOAA's Southeast region. Illness is a common reason that whales become stranded, Fougeres says.
A member of the public found the whale and reported it at about 6:30 a.m. Wednesday. Marine biologists from the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute and staff from the Flagler County government assisted NOAA with removing the over-6,000-pound whale, alongside other groups. It was loaded onto a truck by dozens of people in an effort that took several hours, ending at about 3 p.m.
This is the third known orca to be stranded in the southeastern U.S. and the first since 1956, Fougeres says. The region spans North Carolina to Texas and includes Puerto Rico and the U.S. 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 went on until about 4 a.m. Thursday and extensively sampled tissue from every single organ system, Fougeres told NPR. Results may take weeks or months.
"There's not really much left after that," Fougeres said, but what remains of the carcass was transported to the University of Florida to decompose. Its skeleton will be sent to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and could be put on display in the future.
"We really do rely on the public to report these strandings to us," Fougeres said, "and we do want to investigate every stranded animal." The public can report whale strandings at 1-877-942-5343.
Orcas are more commonly found further north in colder waters, and Fougeres says they're rare in the U.S. Atlantic. However, there is a stock of orcas recognized in the western North Atlantic and another in the Gulf of Mexico.
While illness is one reason that whales can beach themselves, scientists still don't know for sure why strandings occur. Other potential reasons include navigational errors or following sick animals that end up beached while traveling as a herd, sometimes resulting in mass stranding. [Copyright 2023 NPR]