Update – SeaWorld to be Involved in Orca Necropsies, Do They Want Alaska’s Young Killer Whale? (Updated 10/16/11)

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(The last orca was found dead, see updates below)

According to Alaska’s News Source, SeaWorld is sending a veterinarian along as scientists try to determine what caused two orca deaths.  Reports vary as to whether the SeaWorld veterinarian is actually in charge as this article states, or whether that vet is being allowed to participate on a lower level – but it is odd that SeaWorld is involved at all.


A killer whale expert from SeaWorld in San Diego will lead a team of four veterinarians headed to Southwest Alaska to perform necropsies on two orcas found dead in the Nushagak River near Dillingham.
According to witnesses, the trio of killer whales had been in the river for weeks, and biologists feared they would die of starvation or from spending too much time in freshwater.  The carcasses were discovered Saturday.

The team plans to perform the first necropsy on Tuesday on the whale that was found floating in the Nushagak and later moved to a bank near Dillingham.  Wednesday, the team will perform a necropsy on the other whale that was found beached further upriver.
The  third whale, a younger orca, is still missing.  It was last spotted on Saturday in the saltwater tidal area.

There are two likely explanations as to why SeaWorld would invest in sending staff to Alaska, and they are not mutually exclusive – SeaWorld may hope to somehow ensnare the missing juvenile whale for their amusement parks, and/or they may also hope to gain tissues for their artificial insemination project (see “SeaWorld Has a Vested Interest in Helping Stranded Whales and Dolphins“) from the dead animals.
Hopefully the young whale has managed to return to salt water and has already reunited with extended family members, but at this point no one knows about the type of orcas that went up the river, their culture, or their families.
One thing is certain, Alaskans aren’t likely to just let SeaWorld swoop in and take the juvenile if it comes to that, not without first getting legal documents assuring the return of the orca once it is rehabilitated.  The days when SeaWorld could just send vets in, pronounce an animal ‘non-releaseable’, then proceed to keep it without being held accountable are gone.
These whales are worth millions of dollars to amusement parks, but to Alaskans they are a priceless part of the natural world.

Update 10/15/2011, information from NOAA :

The first orca necropsied had been pregnant with a near term fetus.
Based on anatomy, the necropsy team believes the whales were of the ‘transient’, or mammal eating type.
When asked what types of tissues the SeaWorld veterinarian would take and whether Fisheries biologists would conduct independent tests, no information was available.
No information was available as to what circumstances would determine if the juvenile would be captured, other than it depends upon circumstance and the health of the whale.  When asked if a game plan had been established and if those details are available, that information was not known.

Nushagak Killer Whale Update,
Public Affairs Office
NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service
Thursday, October 13, 10:45 a.m.:
A team of six veterinarians Wednesday performed a necropsy on the second killer that was found dead along the Nushagak River last weekend. The necropsy took place near Black Point, downriver from Portage Creek on the Nushagak River. Veterinarians report the killer whale was an adult female which measured 6-meters, 45-centimeters (slightly larger than the adult female examined Tuesday, which measured 6-meters, 20-centimeters). It showed signs of moderate scavenging, but no signs of human interaction. The necropsy revealed no specific indication as to cause of death. The team collected a full range of samples from the animal.
At this time, there is no specific concern that ties the deaths of the two killer whales together, but that is a question that is under investigation.
There have been no reported sightings of the third killer whale, a smaller whale thought to be a juvenile, since it was last seen swimming downriver of Portage Creek on Saturday.
The team of veterinarians plans to depart from Dillingham today, taking with them over 100 samples to be analyzed. A full necropsy report is expected in 4-6 weeks.

The public affairs official at NOAA responded to my questions on the choice of veterinary staff for the necropsies as follows:

Basically, the decision to have [SeaWorld senior veterinarian] Dr. St. Leger participate was objective, and based on two factors:

  • Credentials (qualifications and expertise on killer whales)
  • Her availability on short notice

Dr. St. Leger is also a marine mammal stranding network member, and a stranding network pathologist.
When NOAA puts together a necropsy team, we draw participants from other government agencies, academia, etc., which aids in information sharing and provides diversity on the team.

Dr. Judy St. Leger is on the board of directors at SeaWorld Conservation Fund, more information about St. Leger and SeaWorld’s board of directors can be found here.
Update 10/16/11:
Sunday, October 16, 2011
Nushagak Killer Whales
The third of three killer whales that had spent at least three weeks
in the Nushagak River has been found dead. The carcass of the juvenile
killer whale was found Friday near Grass Island, an island in the
Nushagak River across from Dillingham in an area that is tidally
influenced. Based on the description of the location where the animal
was found by a local resident, biologists believe the juvenile whale
would’ve had to have swum there, rather than having been carried there
by the tide.
There is no word yet on plans for a necropsy or to collect samples
from the marine mammal carcass.

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