Experts trying to save orca despite repeated beachings

The Associated Press
Friday January 04, 2002

SEQUIM, Wash. — A male killer whale repeatedly beached himself Thursday despite efforts by wildlife workers to move him to deeper water off Dungeness Spit, where another whale was found dead the day before. 

The male orca, believed to be 20 years old, was towed out of shallow water several times, but kept returning to shore, said National Marine Fisheries Service spokesman Brian Gorman in Seattle. 

“It’s kind of been frustrating,” he said. “The longer (he) remains stranded, the less likely it is to successfully return him.” 

Gorman said experts would monitor the whale through the night, keeping his skin wet and making sure he didn’t injure himself. Rescue efforts were expected to resume Friday morning, Gorman said. 

Experts took tissue and blood samples and planned to support the whale with a harness during the night, KING-TV reported. 

“We don’t know what he’s thinking or why he’s trying to get out (of the ropes),” said Kelley Balcomb-Bartok of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor. 

The whale, initially found in shallow water Wednesday near the spit on the north coast of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, was towed to deeper water Wednesday evening but, already disoriented, swam back to shore during an unusually low tide, Gorman said. 

A female killer whale was found dead on the spit Wednesday. A calf had been earlier spotted with the two adults, and a Coast Guard helicopter from Port Angeles was searching for it. 

The male orca “may in fact be in some kind of distress from the fact the female has died,” Steve Jeffries, a state research scientist, told reporters. 

A necropsy was begun Thursday on the female, but results were not immediately known. 

“Certainly, this is a serious setback for killer whales in general,” Balcomb-Bartok said. 

Experts have hypothesized that toxins in Washington’s inland waters may be poisoning the black and white whales. 

“The necropsy should go a long way toward helping us find out,” Gorman said. “It should tell us some other stuff — the levels of toxins that were in the female’s body and it will help us understand what’s going on, her stomach contents — things we normally aren’t able to find out because killer whale strandings are pretty rare in this part of the country.” 

The two whales are thought to be transients in the Strait of Juan de Fuca from a larger Pacific population, Gorman said, and were probably hunting for seals. Scientists believe they could be related. 

“Transients roam through the region and we do get rare sightings,” Balcomb-Bartok said. 

Though most orcas live in family pods with defined territories, some transients wander as far south as Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and north to the Bering Sea. 

Approximately 78 whales in three pods live in the marine waters of Washington state, said Tracie Hornung of the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor. Seven of those whales failed to return to their summer range in Washington’s San Juan Islands after their winter travels last year. 

Environmental groups have petitioned to place the whales on the endangered species list. 

Dave Ellifrit, an expert in orca identification, was examining photos of the whales in hopes of identifying them. Most transients and all resident killer whales have been identified individually, based on their markings, with a number assigned by researchers in Canada and the United States. 

Groups of killer whales have their own dialects, said Rich Osborne of the Whale Museum.  

Transients have fewer variations in their speech and sound more “haunting” than residents. 

Osborne said that on Monday, he heard the sound of transient orcas on hydrophones in the San Juan Islands, about 20 miles across the strait from Dungeness Spit. And on Tuesday, he said, several people at a shoreside restaurant near Sequim reported seeing whales near the beach in Dungeness Bay.