Death of a whale

When one of the few remaining females of reproductive age in the southern resident population of North Pacific killer whales was found dead near Comox B.C. in 2014, an investigation was launched. The results highlight the challenges of protecting our most iconic marine mammals.

  • Published Apr 17, 2020
  • Updated May 03, 2023
  • 2,341 words
  • 10 minutes
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On a stormy morning in December 2014, George Bates watched a changing tide play tug-of-war with a huge log just offshore from his Vancouver Island fishing lodge near Comox, B.C.

By early afternoon, the phone rang with the news that the dark object was not a tree. A retired government fisheries technician, Bates agreed to take one of his fishing boats out to investigate. 

“I could see right away it was a killer whale,” he says. What had appeared in the distance as a sickle-shaped branch was a dorsal fin. No signs of trauma were visible, but it was clear that the 4,700-kilogram whale was dead. Bates tightened a rope behind a pectoral fin and slowly towed the body to the shore.

News of the find travelled fast around the close-knit community, and by dusk there were 300 people, some visibly emotional, gathered around the body.

A friend of Bates took photographs of the so-called saddle patches around the dorsal fin, which are as unique to killer whales as fingerprints are to humans. Within hours, researchers in Washington state and at Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Nanaimo, B.C., office confirmed the body was that of J32, an 18-year-old female member of J pod, one of the three pods that make up the southern resident killer whale population of the North Pacific Ocean. She was better known to her many fans as Rhapsody.

Rhapsody’s death was met with alarm by the vast network of researchers, coastal residents and whale-watching businesses that share information about whale movements throughout British Columbia’s Strait of Georgia and Washington’s Puget Sound. She was one of about 12 remaining females of reproductive age in the southern resident population of North Pacific killer whales, which today numbers about 84. While other North Pacific killer whale populations have been thriving in recent decades, the southern residents have been on the wane since the mid-1990s. Declining numbers and a litany of ongoing human-induced threats have forced both Canada and the United States to list them as endangered.

Rhapsody’s demise was a double blow to this beleaguered population: in the last known photograph of her, taken near Washington’s Spieden Island in November 2014, she was pregnant with a near-term calf.

With the positive identification of the body, the wheels of a government-led investigation began to turn. The first step would be a necropsy, which would not only isolate a cause of death but probe for disease, contaminants and other contributing factors in the death of the mother and fetus, which the remains indicated had died and remained inside Rhapsody. Out of this tragedy came the promise that the investigation would provide new insight into why this extended family of endangered whales continues to struggle for survival.

By the time veterinarian pathologist Stephen Raverty walked onto the beach near Comox, Rhapsody had been dead for at least three days. Now the race had begun to complete a necropsy before important clues were lost to decomposition.

Raverty is to whales what a coroner is to humans. He’s also the closest thing his profession has to a celebrity in the Pacific Northwest. A former pathologist at the Bronx Zoo, Raverty works for British Columbia’s Ministry of Agriculture, where he has conducted thousands of necropsies, mostly on livestock and poultry but also on exotic pets and marine mammals. The latter are mostly stranded harbour seals and porpoises, but beginning in the late 1990s, Raverty began seeing a disturbing number of southern resident killer whales. That included the necropsy he performed in 2000 on Rhapsody’s uncle, J18, who died of a common but massive bacterial super-infection.

More than 300 members of the close-knit community gathered around the body of the whale after it was found.
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Concerned about the decline, Raverty developed a special protocol for doing post-mortem examinations on killer whales, a structure to provide what he calls “a baseline for the demographics of mortality.” Such a baseline provides a way to collect and analyze the kinds of “anthropogenic insults” — marine pollution, ship noise, etc. — preventing southern resident orcas from thriving.

A local Cowichan First Nation man staying at Bates’ resort performed an impromptu blessing of the whale before the necropsy began. Supported by a team of technicians and biologists from across the Pacific Northwest, including Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Raverty made a long cut from the level of the anus extending along the entire length of the body. Using a large kitchen knife, he peeled the skin and blubber away, exposing the underlying musculature and organs. The thinness and poor quality of the blubber layer and an unusually inflamed abdominal cavity indicated Rhapsody was on the verge of starvation.

The team explored organ by organ, collecting tissue samples and looking for any abnormalities such as evidence of inflammation or infection. Raverty was particularly interested in cetacean morbillivirus, a disease closely related to human measles that scientists believe has caused approximately 1,800 bottlenose dolphins to become stranded along the United States’ Atlantic coast since 2013.

The ears were to be sent for imaging studies to test for fracture or bleeding, to determine if there was damage from intense underwater noise, such as sonar or military activities from two nearby naval bases. But to do so, Raverty first had to sever the whale’s head, still using just a kitchen knife. Using certain “external landmarks” as a guide, he visualized the location of a critical joint accessible from the back of the head. 

“It’s really just a simple matter of cutting through that joint and the spinal cord,” he says. “Then the head comes off easily.” As a crowd of locals looked on, the head was scooped up by a front-end loader and rolled into the bed of a pickup truck.

The skeleton was sent to Salt Spring Island to be cleaned of its flesh by the elements before being shipped to the Royal BC Museum in Victoria for display. Life on the beach near Comox, meanwhile, returned to normal.

Just as a detective might probe a personal history to shed light on a suspicious death, a scan of Rhapsody’s formative years reveals how dire the plight of southern resident killer whales has become. Rhapsody’s mother, J20, died an untimely death in 1998, leaving two-year-old Rhapsody an orphan. Her grandmother took over her care, but died mysteriously the next year, aged 37. By 2000, her 23-year-old uncle was gone as well. All of these whales died well below the average lifespan of 50-plus years for females and 29 for males.

Care of the young J32 was then taken over by her aunt, J22, and J32 survived infancy to reach reproductive age by 13. She became known as an unusually vivacious member of the pod, adored by whale-watchers for her dramatic breaches. By May 2011, biologist and whale researcher Ken Balcomb at the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Wash., noted that Rhapsody appeared to be pregnant. She lost this fetus, but by June 2014, she was clearly pregnant again.

Perhaps no one in the Pacific Northwest knows Rhapsody’s extended family better than Balcomb. His five-decade career began as a government biologist at a commercial whaling station in San Francisco. In the mid-1970s, he established the centre, which is dedicated to the study and conservation of southern resident killer whales.

Our society’s love for all things orca is a recent development, he says. While killer whales largely escaped the commercial whaling that extirpated blue and right whales from local waters, they were routinely shot by commercial fishermen, who feared their voracious appetites for salmon. In 1960, sport-fishing lodges on Vancouver Island convinced the federal government to mount a 0.50-mm machine gun over-looking Seymour Narrows, north of Campbell River, to cull their numbers. No whales appeared that summer, and the gun was dismantled.

Attitudes about killer whales had changed by the late 1960s, around the time a wave of live orca captures began to populate theme parks across North America. Balcomb says that in the early years, a vast majority of these “kidnapped” whales were all from the Salish Sea, the inland waters shared by British Columbia and Washington; at least one of these whales, named Lolita, remains in captivity today in Miami. Virtually all of the killer whales on display in theme parks today are from around Iceland.

Wild orca numbers began to drop in the mid-1990s, mirroring the decline of chinook salmon, their prey of choice. According to John Ford, the head of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Cetacean Research Program and Canada’s foremost authority on killer whales, there is a direct relationship between the abundance of this single salmon species and mortality rates in resident killer whales across all ages. 

“They become very effective predators of certain kinds of prey, and that’s a viable strategy as long as the prey resource continues,” says Ford of the southern residents. “But if there’s a sudden shortfall in abundance, then they might become nutritionally stressed and suffer higher mortality. That’s the working hypothesis.”

Ford says the imperative to hunt and eat this single prey, at the cost of ignoring other possible food sources, is a cultural phenomenon as unique to southern residents as the whale call “dialects” they memorize and use to communicate exclusively within their extended families.

Numerous solutions have been put forward to ensure more chinook survive at sea, including the simple but controversial idea that people have to share more fish with other top predators. Another idea is to restrict commercial fishing to “terminal areas” closer to chinook natal streams, which would leave more fish alive in the ocean where killer whales hunt. This approach also prevents the overfishing of the many weaker chinook stocks that get caught indiscriminately as they mix with stronger stocks while swimming en masse at sea. Then there is the issue of dams. 

“If you took out four useless dams on the Snake River, you could have a million salmon a year added to the equation in a short time,” says Balcomb.

A lack of food is just the most pressing of cumulative threats that conspire against a female killer whale with a gestational calf. Back in 2000, Peter Ross, a global authority on marine mammal toxicology who today directs the Vancouver Aquarium’s ocean pollution research program, determined that southern resident killer whales were among the most contaminated marine mammals on Earth. This contaminant load — including a toxic cocktail of polychlorinated biphenyls (or PCBs), flame retardants and dioxins — is stored in the blubber, where it is slow to break down. A hungry whale like Rhapsody would be forced to metabolize this tainted blubber, releasing stored contaminants into her bloodstream. 

“So with a pregnant female that is having a food shortage, that would be a problem in two ways for the fetus,” says Ross. “One, it would increase the delivery of contaminants through the placenta, and two, the nutrition would not be there for the fetus.”

In the spring of 2015, the World Wildlife Fund said Rhapsody’s fetus “likely died from PCB poisoning,” a conclusion that Ross rejects. “Contaminants are not going to kill an individual,” he says. “What contaminants are going to do are make it more vulnerable.” This includes weakening the immune system and making any illness or disease more difficult to fend off.

The 65 kilometre whale-watching-boat journey from Vancouver to where Rhapsody’s family chase summer-run chinook salmon around the south arm of the Fraser River illustrates the gauntlet southern residents must run in order to feed.

Big trawlers and sport-fishing boats of all sizes are out in force. Adding to the underwater cacophony are dozens of ocean tankers serving Port Metro Vancouver, which is planning to double its container capacity in the next 15 years. Multiple plans are also afoot to expand the number of tankers, including the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline that would see an estimated 440 supertankers a year plying British Columbia’s waters to move bitumen to Asia. The route also crosses the muddy plumes of the Fraser River’s north and south arms, which drain into the Pacific, carrying the detritus of industry and at least 35 wastewater treatment plant outfalls.

When J41 appears with her new calf off the starboard side, the two dive and rise in unison, their only break occurring when the calf jumps fully out of the water three times in quick succession. In the 17 months after Rhapsody died, 11 southern resident killer whale calves were born; five are known to have survived and three have been confirmed dead; the fate of the other three, according to Balcomb, is unknown. J41’s calf was born less than a month after Rhapsody’s body was found near Comox.

The births bode well for the next generation, says Mike Campbell, the boat’s naturalist, before adding that only about 40 per cent of calves born today will survive. “We don’t give the little ones names until they’re at least a year old.”

Shortly after the necropsy was performed in 2014, a short press release appeared on the Fisheries and Oceans Canada website. Based on Raverty’s examination, Rhapsody died from “in utero fetal loss with secondary bacterial involvement, and eventually maternal septicemia.” In other words, the fetus died in the womb and could not be expelled, causing an infection that became systemic, ultimately killing Rhapsody.

The press release left many questions unanswered. It shed no light on what might have caused Rhapsody’s unborn calf to die so late in term. A greater understanding of why Rhapsody and her offspring died would have to wait for the official necropsy results, which more than a year and a half after the examination took place, have failed to materialize. Like the many possible explanations for the wider decline of southern residents, the circumstances that caused Rhapsody to die remain, as of this writing, a mystery.


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