Killer Whale Tragedy

Male Orca washes up on MacKerricher Beach

April 5, 2015

orca2The Fort Bragg Orca

Orca beach strandings are rare. So rare, in fact, that there are fewer than 30 skeletons on display worldwide.

In April 2015, an Orca was found on the beach at MacKerricher State Park, just north of Ft. Bragg.

Spanning 26-feet, the Fort Bragg Orca will be the largest Orca skeleton on display in North America and second largest in the world.

Because it is so rare to work on an Orca, this stranding brought the Noyo Center for Marine Science staff together with scientists from The Marine Mammal Center, California Academy of Sciences, Humboldt State University, College of the Redwoods, and others to perform the necropsy on the beach. The necropsy report determined that this animal drowned from having been entangled in the fishing line from a crab pot.FullSizeRender

Jeffrey Jacobsen, a biology instructor at Humboldt State University and Noyo Center advisor, was among those researchers who helped orchestrate the process of safely salvaging and storing the bones, and conducting research. Incredibly enough, in his 30-year career as researcher and educator studying marine mammals, this was only his second occasion to work on an Orca.

One of nature’s top predators, we still know so little about the Orca. The Noyo Center is dedicated to making the most of this educational opportunity to learn about such a mysterious and formidable creature, and more so, how to prevent such tragedies in the future.

Though difficult to identify, consensus among the researchers pointed to the Fort Bragg Orca as a “transient” type from Alaska. It is rare for an Alaskan transient to travel our coastal waters.

Though scientists estimate the Orca at having been a young adult, the teeth are currently under analysis to reveal the exact age.

We are fortunate to be part of community committed to caring for and protecting nature’s creatures, and though unique, this event proved the rule; a local mortician helped to preserve one of the eyeballs, and a physician volunteered to x-ray a fin weighing around 400 lbs. Why the x-ray? Most people don’t realize that the fin is comprised of many tiny bones, making an X-ray critical for accurate placement when reconstructing the skeleton. Scientists also worked with a local contractor employing spray insulation to make a mold of the iconic dorsal fin, a key identifier and tracker of the Orca.

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Though deeply tragic, the Noyo Center will honor the Orca and serve science by conducting research that could not have been done otherwise. Unfortunately, with increased human presence on the world’s oceans, the more interactions between people and animal, the more common such heartbreaking occurrences. It is incumbent upon us to find solutions. Part of the Noyo Center’s mission is to explore how to live sustainably on the coast. The Orca specimen will aid us in furthering these goals.