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Stranding of Two Transient Orcas at Dungeness Spit

Chronology of Events

What follows is a chronology of the stranding of two transient orcas near Sequim.

Data downloaded from the VHF radio tag on the rescued male transient

On the morning of January 2, 2002, a resident on the bluff overlooking Dungeness Spit discovered an orca in shallow water, moving very slowly, and notified officials of the Dungeness Recreation Area. Workers from the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge were the first on the scene. Officials from the National Marine Sanctuary were notified, and they in turn contacted Brent Norberg of National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). A dead whale was later spotted by a Seattle-based helicopter crew flying over Dungeness Bay.

Within hours the dead orca, a female, was located near Dungeness Spit, while the other, a male, remained almost immobile inside the spit in shallow water. Teams consisting of NMFS, DFW (Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, the Center for Whale Research and Cascadia Research were on the scene by 4 PM. The male orca was helped out to deeper water, but as darkness fell he had returned and was still inside the spit, swimming slugglishly.

On January 3, a team of scientists arrived on scene in the morning to conduct a necropsy of the dead female orca to determine cause of death. Meanwhile, rescue crews, some in the water or on the orca's back for hours at a time, attempted to tow the male to deeper water. The orca repeatedly slipped out of the tow ropes and beached himself. Although he was vocalizing, he seemed disoriented and oblivious to his surroundings, even colliding with floating driftwood at one point. He remained aground during the night, where volunteers covered him with blankets to keep him wet. He became dehydrated and blood tests showed signs of stress.

In the morning of January 4 rescuers were able to once again tow him into deeper water, but were not able to get him outside the hook-shaped sandbar of the spit. All through the day the male orca evaded repeated attempts to tow him to deeper water. At midday rescuers decided to attempt once again to tow the whale out to deeper water before his condition deteriorated further. By 4:30 the rescue team was finally able to successfully tow the male orca out of Dungeness Bay. As the sun set he was independently swimming west out the Strait of Juan de Fuca at a steady pace of around 4 knots.

On January 5 Dave Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research identified the two orcas by the saddle patch below their dorsal fins. Both had been photographed in a group of 10 whales in Coos Bay, Oregon on Sept. 12, 1996. They were confirmed to be mammal-eating transient orcas, rather than the fish-eating resident types usually encountered in Washington's inland waters.

Initial results from the gross examination of the dead female identified no clear cause of death. There were no apparent injuries or illness, and the remains of at least two freshly killed seals were in her stomach.

Around 10 PM on January 7, the male, outfitted with a suction-cup radio tag, was detected by Brad Hanson of NMFS from a hilltop just south of Neah Bay. The orca was swimming normally a few miles SW of Neah Bay.

On January 29, Seattle Times reported that Joe Barton of Shelton, Mason County, was beachcombing near Ocean Shores the previous week and chanced upon a time-depth recording tag that had been attached to the male orca in Sequim. Data on the device showed the orca had been traveling at 2 to 3 mph, regularly diving between 50 and 80 feet, then surfacing for about a dozen breaths before diving again. All of which suggests he was doing well.

Thanks are due to:

Steve Jeffries, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife was probably the central person coordinating the rescue efforts onsite. Dyanna Lambourn-Hughes, Monique Lance and Tammy Schmidt of DFW played crucial roles.

Brent Norberg coordinated all activities from NMFS. Brian Gorman, Robyn Angliss, Marilyn Dahlheim and Brad Hanson, all from the NMFS National Marine Mammal Laboratory, were key in all aspects of the operation.

Ed Bowlby, Andy Palmer, Mary Superkarno and Liam Antrim of the Olympic Coast Marine Sanctuary provided constant support.

Jeff Foster, Jennifer Schorr and Greg Schorr did much of the in-water work with the live whale.

The necropsy on the dead female was conducted by John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research, with Stephanie Norman and Gina Iatelo of NMFS, David Huff, Steven Raferty, Lance Barrett-Lennard and Brian Sheehan of Vancouver Aquarium, Rich Osborne and Albert Shepard of the Whale Museum, and Dave Ellifrit of Center for Whale Research, who also ultimately identified the whales from photographs.

Debbie Nelson, of Olympic Medical Center, tested the blood.

Pete Shroeder, Mary Sue Brancato, Mac Peterson, Kelley Balcomb-Bartok and Joe Gaydos were helpful in a variety of ways.

The U.S. Coast Guard did several surveys of the region.

Battelle Marine Science Laboratory Northwest provided equipment and logistics.

Port Townsend Marine Science Center provided volunteers.

The Dungeness Salmon Hatchery provided cold storage.

Farmer Gary Smith allowed his field to be used for the necropsy.

Steve and Mike provided their oyster barge.

Many other nameless citizens from the Sequim community helped out however they could, including the pizza delivery guy. Killer whale found stranded
New questions about the transient population the dead mammal near Sequim might raise

By Christopher Dunagan
Bremerton Sun Staff
January 3, 2002

A killer whale found dead Wednesday in Dungeness Bay near Sequim was probably one of the "transients" - a group of wide-ranging orcas that prey upon seals and sea lions.
The female whale, not yet identified, was spotted in the shallows along Dungeness Spit, said Kelley Balcomb- Bartok of the Center for Whale Research.
Nearby, a male orca floated unmoving until nearly dark Wednesday, when state biologists looped a rope around the animal and pulled it into deeper water. As darkness fell, the male was still swimming "lethargically" in the bay, Balcomb-Bartok said.
The behavior seemed "very unusual," he said, almost as if the whale were in mourning.
Researchers regrouped Wednesday night and prepared for an outing today to examine the dead whale and take tissue samples to determine the cause of death.
Based on the shape of the dorsal fin and the saddle patch behind the fin, Balcomb-Bartok said it is likely that the whale is a transient rather than one of the 80 resident orcas associated with Puget Sound.
Dave Ellifrit, an expert in orca identification, was scheduled to examine photos of the whales today in hopes of identifying them. Most transients, and all residents, have been identified individually with a number assigned by researchers in Canada and the United States.
On New Year's Eve, Rich Osborne of the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor picked up the sound of transient orcas on hydrophones in the San Juan Islands. He said the orcas seemed to be in southern Haro Strait, directly north of Dungeness Spit and across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Groups of killer whales have their own dialects, Osborne said. Transients have fewer variations in their speech and sound more "haunting" than residents.
On New Year's Day, several people at a shoreside restaurant near Sequim reported seeing whales close to the beach in Dungeness Bay, he said.
Transients have been known to swim practically up on shore to grab seals in shallow water on Dungeness Spit, he said. It is possible that's what the female was doing when it became stranded. If the whale were sick or injured, it would have had more trouble getting back to deeper water.
Except for newborns, Washington state has not had a killer whale stranding for more than 20 years, according to Osborne.
Like Puget Sound's killer whales, which eat salmon and other fish, transients are loaded with toxic chemicals, including polychlorinated biphenyls. In fact, transients contain higher concentrations of chemicals in their tissues because they eat marine mammals, which are higher in the food chain.
Transients often travel in pairs, consisting of a mother orca and her firstborn son, although they occasionally organize into larger groups.
The death at Dungeness Bay provides a rare opportunity for researchers to get fresh tissue samples of killer whales. Experts will not only attempt to determine the cause of death but try to determine how chemicals affected the animal, Osborne said.
The population of Puget Sound killer whales declined from 98 to 80 the past six years. A petition filed by environmental groups proposes to place the Puget Sound orcas on the endangered species list.
The transient population of roughly 80 whales ranges from Southeast Alaska to Oregon and is not as easy to track as the residents, experts say. Transients may also be at risk due to the effects of pollution, and some biologists argue that if Puget Sound orcas are listed as endangered, then the transients should be, too.

Orca rescued from Dungeness Bay sandbar

Second killer whale dies; necropsy planned for today
By Luke Bogues
© Peninsula Daily News

SEQUIM -- Published Jan. 3, 2001
Rescuers freed a killer whale from a Dungeness Bay sandbar Wednesday afternoon but were too late to save a second whale found dead.
Officials will perform a necropsy today on the carcass of the female killer whale that died near Dungeness Bay.
Workers were expected to mobilize today at daybreak to move the carcass to a location where scientists can determine what killed the marine mammal.
Officials also plan to monitor the status of the male killer whale rescuers freed shortly after 4 p.m. Wednesday.
Stranding Coordinator Brent Norberg of the National Marine Fisheries Service said the killer whale remained swimming in the bay after rescuers used rope to pull the male orca off the sandbar and into open water. Before nightfall, the whale was free swimming, but not heading toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca, he said.

Lingering killer whale?
This morning, the U.S. Coast Guard will assist rescuers determine if the living whale is lingering, Norberg said.
Should the male orca beach itself again, rescuers will again pull it into open water and try to persuade it to leave the bay, he said. "That seems to be the least invasive method," Norberg said.
According to Howard Garrett, president of Greenbank-based Orca Network, the whales could be a mother and son because of the reported behavior of the male.
The male is believed to be about 20 years old. The approximate age of the female has yet to be determined.
"A mother and son have a very special and strong bond that lasts throughout their lives," he said. "It is typical behavior for the son to become very distraught after his mother dies."
The son will often die shortly after the mother, Garrett said.
It is also possible the female is a "sister" or an "aunt" to the male, said Margaret Owens, cofounder of Peninsula Citizens for the Protection of Whales.
Owens believes the female is "definitely a blood relative."

Killer whales found
Rescuers became aware of the stranded whale Wednesday morning when a resident on the bluff overlooking Dungeness Spit discovered the orca after hearing peculiar noises and notified officials, Dungeness Recreation Area manager John Pease said.
Workers from the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge were the first on scene, Norberg said.
When rescue workers arrived, they found the male in water just inches below the top of the whale, Norberg said.
The dead whale was later spotted when a Seattle-based helicopter crew flying over Dungeness Bay spotted the carcass, Norberg said. The dead female's carcass washed ashore just outside the bay.

Resident or transient
Researchers are still unsure if the whales are from resident or transient pods, Norberg said.
The orcas could be from one of three resident pods in Puget Sound or may have split off from migrating transient pods.
Typically, transient whale hunt seals and resident whales eat salmon, officials have said. Washington State Patrol officials received reports of three killer whales hunting seals off Dungeness Spit on Tuesday.
Researchers are unsure if the two whales found on Wednesday could be connected with those sightings, Norberg said.

Researchers lose track of rescued killer whale Last seen headed west – 'all reports are favorable'

By Stuart Elliott
© Peninsula Daily News

DUNGENESS -- Published Jan. 5, 2001 The young male killer whale rescued from Dungeness Spit has disappeared without a trace. Rescuers had attached a radio transmitter to the five-ton, 22-foot orca before releasing it Friday in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, following three days of attempts to coax the huge creature from the shallow waters of Dungeness Bay after it repeatedly beached itself near a dead female orca believed to be its mother. But the transmitter apparently failed to work properly, or the killer whale went somewhere where scientists cannot pick up the signals.

As of late Saturday, researchers had been unable to locate the killer whale. "The last we knew he was heading west to the Pacific," said National Marine Fisheries Service spokesman Brian Gorman. "He was swimming robustly, chugging along at around 6 or 7 knots," Gorman said. "All the reports were favorable."

When last seen, the male looked healthy, spraying from his blow hole, his sagging dorsal fin straightening. Meanwhile, scientists are making arrangements for more studies on the dead female orca after a necropsy Thursday failed to turn up an apparent cause of death. "Nothing obvious jumped out at us," said Brad Hanson of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle on Friday. "Overall the animal looked pretty healthy."

Military sonar damage?
Researchers cut off female's head, which can be examined for damage by sonar. Environmentalists raised questions about whether military sonar might have caused or contributed to this week's beachings.

They filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Navy, seeking information about its operations around Puget Sound. Fred Felleman of Seattle-based Ocean Advocates, who is working with the San Francisco-based Earth Island Institute on the information request, pointed to a preliminary report released late last month in which the Navy acknowledged that sonar was the likely cause of the beaching of 16 whales and a dolphin in the Bahamas in March 2000. Seven of those whales died. However, the necropsy showed that female had a flaccid uterus, which suggests she had reproductive problems. Bacteria-laden seawater could have entered the uterus, leading to septicemia, or blood poisoning.

Where did he go?
Gorman said he couldn't confirm where the male orca went after scientists lost track of him Friday night. According to Gorman, the radio transmitter operates on a line-of-sight system. Scientists must be within a mile of the orca to pick up the signal. In addition, Gorman said, the transmitter was only designed to operate for about 24 hours. Scientists tracked the whale until about 4 p.m. Friday, but haven't been able to pick up a signal since. "That doesn't necessarily mean anything," Gorman said. "That could mean he's out of the area we expected him to be in, the transmitter malfunctioned or it fell off." All in all, Gorman said Fisheries officials are "very much relieved and very pleased" with the successful rescue. The drama began Wednesday when the dead female orca was spotted alongside the bay near Sequim. The male was lurking nearby in shallow water. He later beached himself no less than five times near the carcass of the dead female. The whales could be a mother and son because of his reluctance to leave, said Rich Osborne, research director of the Friday Harbor Whale Museum. In orca populations, first-born males are known to travel for years alongside their mothers. "It's a very close social bond," Osborne said. DNA samples taken from both animals are expected to reveal their relationship

Canvas sling
Officials from the Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Mammal Lab, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and other agencies had tried for three days to free the killer whale. They feared the stranded orca would develop pneumonia, infections from cuts on its skin or simply lose the desire to eat. On Friday, rescuers used a special canvas sling, designed for large marine mammals, to successfully tow the orca from the shallow water near the base of Dungeness Spit at about 12:30 p.m. The harness was on loan from the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The sling replaced a makeshift harness system comprising thick rope and nets used Wednesday and Thursday — the killer whale repeatedly escaped from that rig during rescue attempts. Gorman said the male orca, believed to be 20 years old, appeared healthy as he was led out to the Strait, despite some reported scrapes and cuts on its belly apparently caused during the beachings.

Initially, the prognosis didn't look good Friday, Gorman said. "It was the first time we were seriously discussing putting the animal out," Gorman said. "Being (partially) out of water is not good for a marine mammal, and he had been out for 48 hours. "He was distressed and dehydrated," and there were problems with his blood chemistry, Gorman added.

Results in a week
Tissue samples are being sent to a lab in Vancouver, British Columbia, Hanson said.
The tests will look at possible contaminants, like polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
Dead orcas have been found with high amounts of PCBs and other ocean-carried pollutants. Preliminary results could be available in a week. The animal's head will likely be sent to a marine anatomy expert at Harvard University, Gorman said.
One factor scientists will look into will be the orca's echo-location system — their version of sonar used to navigate underwater and to find food. "It's possible something went wrong with that system," Gorman said. The fact the male killer whale appeared to do well after making it out of the shallow bay could also suggest the animals' echo-location systems may have been a factor, Gorman said.

Just confused
"We know that a principal cause of strandings is the confusion that sets in when they are in shallow water with strange topography," he said. "The fact that once we got it out, and it seemed to do fine, suggests it was possibly just confused." It still isn't clear why the whales entered Dungeness Bay in the first place, though it may have been to feed on seals, said Osborne. "There are stories of whales coming in and pulling seals off of Dungeness Spit," he said. "It's possible they were doing something like that." Seal flesh and bones were found in the female's body, leading some wildlife experts to speculate the pair may have been in the area for the food.

Transient orcas
The two orcas are believed to belong to a transient orca population of about 250 animals ranging from Washington state north to Alaska, eating otters, seals and sea lions — not members of the J, K or L pods of resident orcas that frequent the Strait and Puget Sound eating salmon and other fish.
Biologists are certain because they have photographs of the resident population, and the two do not match any of them. The transient population is large, unlike the resident population which decreased from 98 to about 78 animals in the 1990s. Both groups are contaminated by PCBs, an industrial product widely used in electrical equipment until the 1970s.
Levels are higher in the transient orcas because the seals and other marine mammals they eat are closer to the top of the food chain. Federal officials are considering a petition to protect the resident whales under the Endangered Species Act. "We get occasional strandings (of orcas) on the Oregon coast, and sometimes in southern Washington waters. But nobody here can remember a stranding in the Strait . . . and to have two of them is unprecedented," Gorman said. He said costs of the rescue operation were minimal. Agency staff members at the scene would be working anyway, so travel is the only additional expense, Gorman said.

'Sort of traumatic'
Scores of onlookers, many with binoculars, watched expectantly near the base of Dungeness Spit as four vessels carrying around a dozen scientists gathered close to the male for the successful rescue. Said John Boyd, a member of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe: "I've never seen a whale beach itself before. They have a big place in our tradition. This is sort of traumatic."
Scientists slipped the canvas sling — with a hole for its dorsal and pectoral fins — over the orca. A buoy was attached to its tail so it couldn't dive and break free again. Marine-mammal consultant Jeff Foster climbed on the orca's back to steady it. When the rescue effort cleared Graveyard Spit, which protrudes from the south side of Dungeness Spit, the crowd cheered.
"Dynamite," shouted Kevin Ryan, manager of the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge after getting the call about the progress of the whale. "They cleared Graveyard." Retired marine-mammal veterinarian Pete Schroeder watched with his head buried in a telescope and felt goose bumps rise on his neck. The orca had spent the night near his backyard dock. "That's it. He's going," Schroeder whispered. "Oh, that's so cool. That's so good. Go. Go."
The orca reached the edge of Dungeness Spit at around 1:30 p.m., where the sling was removed, Gorman said.
The male then headed west.

Freed orca still can't be located; IDed in 1996

By Brian Gawley
© Peninsula Daily News

DUNGENESS -- Published Jan. 7, 2001
Scientists say they still don't know where the young male killer whale rescued from the Dungeness Spit's inner bay might be swimming. A small radio transmitter placed near the dorsal fin didn't work, or fell off, and the orca hasn't been seen since late Friday.

When last spotted, the five-ton, 22-foot orca was in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, apparently in reasonably good shape, heading west toward the open Pacific at speeds up to 7 or 8 knots.

"Where is it now? Nobody knows, we never did pick up a signal Friday night or Saturday afternoon," Brian Gorman, National Marine Fisheries Service spokesman, said Sunday.

After three days of efforts, the killer whale was towed by rescuers into the Strait on Friday after swimming lethargically in the bay, despite no apparent health problems, and repeatedly beaching itself near a dead female orca believed to be its mother.

Scientists are making arrangements for more studies on the dead female after a necropsy failed to turn up an apparent cause of death. Scientists also want to check DNA samples to see if the two whales are related, and studies will be conducted on the whale's head to see if the animal could have been injured by U.S. Navy sonar tests. There is no indication of any human link to the whale's death at Dungeness, however.

The dead female is destined to produce valuable information about the health of killer whales, according to researcher John Calambokidis, who helped collect tissue samples. It could take weeks to get test results back about disease and toxic chemicals.

Whales IDed
Meanwhile, the Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Cascadia Research identified the two orcas by the shape of spots near their dorsal fins. Both had been seen in a group of 10 whales in Coos Bay off Oregon on Sept. 12, 1996. They were recorded as CA-188 and CA-189.

They were coastal, transient whales — not belonging to any of the local pods that live in the Strait and Puget Sound — and were probably in Dungeness Bay hunting seals, said Kelley Balcomb, a researcher at the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor.

That they were seen together earlier bolstered researchers' theory that the stranded male became disoriented after the death of the female. Scientists don't like to use human terms such as "grieving" or "mourning," but they acknowledge that male orcas often form close bonds with their mothers that can last into adulthood.

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