Posted by: The ocean update | April 18, 2015

Orca beaches near Fort Bragg (California, USA)

Chris Calder - Advocate Photo Humboldt State biologist Jeffrey Jacobsen, the Marine Mammal Center's Christine Fontaine, and volunteer Sarah Grimes examine fishing gear wrapped around the tail of a beached orca near Fort Bragg Saturday. 

Chris Calder – Humboldt State biologist Jeffrey Jacobsen, the Marine Mammal Center’s Christine Fontaine, and volunteer Sarah Grimes examine fishing gear wrapped around the tail of a beached orca near Fort Bragg Saturday.

April 18th, 2015 (Chris Calder). A 26-foot orca was found washed up on a state park beach three miles north of Fort Bragg Saturday morning. The creature has a line and buoy from a crab-fishing pot wrapped around its tail and one side-fin, but researchers Sunday afternoon were only beginning to determine the cause of the animal’s death.

It was the second beaching of a large whale on a Northern California state park beach this week. Last Tuesday night, a 49-foot sperm whale was discovered on Sharp Park State Beach near Pacifica.

The male orca found near Fort Bragg Saturday was probably a young adult or a “sprouter” — a late juvenile — at least 17 years old, said orca specialist Jodi Smith of Naked Whale Research, who was at the site Sunday.

Male orcas’ dorsal fins grow quickly, or “sprout” when they reach adulthood.

Smith said the whale did not look underweight, and she was not sure that it died from getting entangled in the line. She said orcas around the San Juan Islands often encounter fishing gear and are normally able to free themselves.

Barbie Halaska, stranding coordinator for the Marine Mammal Rescue Center, had just completed work on the sperm whale beaching at Pacifica when she was called to MacKerricher State Park Sunday morning. Halaska was overseeing the orca’s necropsy and more than 200 tissue and organ samples to determine the animal’s health and genetics. Research and sample-taking on endangered species like the orca is especially extensive, she said.

Halaska was also working out how to move the carcass from the beach before sundown. Plans are to truck it to the Noyo Center for Marine Science’s facility on the vacant Georgia-Pacific millsite in Fort Bragg. The center there already has an 80-foot blue whale skeleton from an animal that beached near town in 2007. The science center’s Sheila Seimans said the orca skeleton may go on display there, too.

On Sunday, as word spread and onlookers gathered, researchers examined wounds and markings on the orca’s skin, the condition of its teeth, and its “fingerprint.” The saddle patch on each orca’s back is unique, and pictures of the beached animal’s patch will be compared to a photographic database kept by the California Academy of Sciences for possible identification, said Jeffrey Jacobsen, a biology instructor at Humboldt State University.

Jacobsen said the animal might be an ‘offshore’ orca, which typically roams the deep ocean, feeding mostly on sharks and salmon. He said those often have more rounded teeth from hunting larger prey, as this beached animal seems to have. Jacobsen added that offshore orcas are rarely seen and almost never beach.

Northern California waters are typically visited by the Southern Resident pod of orcas, a group of only 82 animals and a different type than the ‘offshore’ orca, Jacobsen said. The orca types can intrerbreed, he added, but never do in the wild. Most researchers Sunday thought the whale at MacKerricher was either a ‘transient’ or ‘offshore’ type, not a member of the Southern Resident pod.

Professor Christopher Callahan of College of the Redwoods in Eureka was one of the first biologists on the scene Saturday, directed his students as they plucked lice from the underside of one of the whale’s front fins.

“I focus on whale parasites,” Callahan said, “and I’ve never seen lice on an orca before.”

Callahan and other specialists acknowledged the orca’s death is tragic, but called it a “research gold mine.” Orca beachings are rare, he said, recalling one other on the North Coast of California coast in 2006. Jacobsen said an orca beached near Point Reyes in 2011. State parks rangers guarded the carcass from the time beach-goers called in the find about 7:45 a.m. Sunday. Regional Parks Superintendent Loren Rex said his department has a small excavator to help move the orca up the beach to a waiting flatbed truck.

Rex said, as far as he knew, the orca was a first on the Mendocino Coast.

“I’ve lived here all my life,” Rex said. I’ve never heard of an orca washing up.”

By Nadia El Adli

By Nadia El Adli

By Nadia El Adli

By Nadia El Adli

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