Shortly after learning on Dec. 4 that a deceased killer whale had washed up on the shores of Bates Beach on Vancouver Island, the office phone rang. It was Dr. Stephen Raverty with the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture inviting me to join him for the killer whale necropsy procedure that would begin in the next few days. I couldn’t believe my ears. I had just been given another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity during the first five months of my fellowship at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre.

Unlike the rescue of Chester, the stranded false killer whale calf, this opportunity came at a huge cost to the southern resident killer whale population. I knew that everyone involved with the necropsy would be fighting the sad emotions of such a tragic loss, but the education, knowledge, and information to be obtained would be invaluable to the scientific community.

I joined a team from the University of British Columbia at 4:30 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 6 to drive over to Vancouver Island. It was in the queue for the ferry that we rendezvoused with pathologist Dr. Stephen Raverty and Dr. Brad Hanson from NOAA. We arrived on the beach in Comox shortly after the blessing ceremony by the K’omoks First Nation. Fisheries and Oceans Canada had already started obtaining morphometric measurements (length, girth and dorsal fin size), so we prepared the gear that would be needed to perform the necropsy and obtain samples for laboratory submission.

Killer Whale Death J-32

Blessing ceremony by the K’omoks First Nation. Photo Credit: Michelle Rachel

Having never worked with killer whales before, I was in awe. I was expecting to assist
Dr. Raverty with sample collection, but when he told me to lend a hand and participate, I was speechless. A necropsy is an in-depth evaluation of an animal to try to determine a cause of death. It starts with an external examination and then the skin and blubber are carefully removed to allow for additional measurements and access to the underlying musculature. It was an exhausting process! A complete internal examination is then performed and all internal organs are closely examined. Representative samples of all organs were obtained for microscopic examination (histopathology) and a variety of other tests.

Killer Whale Necropsy

Vancouver Aquarium veterinary fellow, Dr. Justin Rosenberg (left), participates in the necropsy of J-32. Photo Credit: Michelle Rachel.

In total, dozens of samples from J-32 were sent to eight different laboratories across Canada and the United States. It will take weeks to months before we’ll have all the pieces of the puzzle to hopefully solve why J-32 passed away. The initial findings suggest that her fetus passed away which then led to her becoming systemically ill and eventually resulted in her mortality.

The group — led by Dr. Raverty, and including DFO staff, NOAA, Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife and Vancouver Aquarium — took about three hours to complete the entire necropsy from start to finish. I am extremely grateful that I was allowed to participate in such a prominent case, albeit a terribly sad occurrence for killer whales in the B.C. waters. The learning and scientific findings from this opportunity are something I will remember for the rest of my life.

You can support killer whales in the wild by donating to the Vancouver Aquarium Killer Whale Adoption Program today. Learn more about our research and conservation efforts online at vanaqua.org.

Blog post submitted by Dr. Justin Rosenberg, veterinary fellow at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre.

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