A Rare Island Orca Stranding

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - November 05, 2008
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This emaciated juvenile killer whale beached itself recently at Brennecke’s Beach on Kauai

A visiting couple enjoying a late evening stroll on Brennecke’s Beach on Kauai recently is startled by a silhouette moving in the surf. The shadow appears to be a killer whale fighting its way through the shore break. At first light their reports are confirmed - an 18-foot juvenile orca is severely emaciated and has come to shore to die.

“This animal has been in trouble for a long time and it’s probably been pulling energy from its blubber layer and therefore been less buoyant and working harder to swim, stay afloat and survive,” NOAA marine mammal biologist David Schofield informs the growing crowd. “Right now we want to support this animal and keep it comfortable for its remaining hours - it may perish anytime in front of us.”

Schofield says fishermen reported seeing a pod of three more killer whales outside Nawiliwili Harbor several hours after the juvenile orca beached itself. He believes they are “possibly members of this animal’s social group.” The killer whale uses more energy to stay on the beach. Schofield explains why the curious won’t see a Hollywood ending.


 

“A lot of people think pushing it out to sea is what you want to do. You want to Free Willy, right?” Schofield asks dozens on the beach. “It’s like the old saying, ‘you’re giving a drowning man a glass of water.’ The animal is just going to suffer. We’ve seen sharks out there this morning and if we push it out there, people doing that might get attacked and the animal is going to get eaten alive by sharks.”

At first, marine mammal biologists report the orca is a female. There are cookie-cutter shark injuries over its entire body along with a significant amount of whale lice.

“Whale lice is an indicator of poor health condition,” says Michelle Yuen, a NOAA marine mammal biologist. “Following a complete examination by a NOAA veterinarian, it was determined the whale would not survive and the humane treatment of this animal was to euthanize it.”

The animal is sedated and euthanized. A necropsy is performed later in the afternoon at an undisclosed location on Kauai. Scientists at Hawaii Pacific University say it could be months before they learn more about what really happened to the juvenile orca.

“In general, most of those organs look surprisingly good, considering the animal was emaciated when it came to shore,” says Kristi West, HPU assistant professor of biology. “What we learned so far is that there’s no smoking gun as to what killed this animal. We also learned, contrary to early reports, the whale was a male orca, not a female.”

The carcass was buried on Kauai, but about 700 pounds of tissue was shipped to Oahu to be studied. Further testing will be done on the Mainland.

The Kauai occurrence is only the third documented case in Hawaii. The last one happened on Lanai in 2004 - the first in 1950 on the Big Island. While strandings are rare - orca sightings in Hawaiian waters are not. A recent scientific publication has documented 21 records of killer whale sightings in Hawaii, averaging anywhere from a single individual to a group of about 10.

The reason may surprise you. “Killer whales reside in Hawaii with a population estimate of a minimum of 250 individuals,” says Yuen. “We don’t know if this orca was part of Hawaii’s population ,but scientists have seen them, biologists, commercial fishermen, whale watchers and tour boats - there are several anecdotal stories.”


Brennecke’s Beach recently provided another venue for more stories. The stranding also provided scientists with another opportunity to learn. And although we may never know what really caused this juvenile orca to beach itself, what the occurrence did offer was a chance for us to lose some of the misconceptions of these mysterious creatures.

“It made me so sad to see it die,” says young Taylor Wenaas of Colorado. “It was a beautiful animal.”

It was a beautiful animal and a giant “visitor” who may have called Hawaii home - who knew?

 

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