Marine Matters – by Phil Coulthard
As featured in the South Western Times – 23/09/15
What a sad day for everyone involved in the baby Killer Whale (Orca) stranding on Father’s Day a few weeks ago. Arriving at the scene near Hungry Hollow around lunchtime, there were already dozens of locals doing their best to save the exhausted baby Orca. Early rescue attempts by those who first spotted the female calf were apparently in vain with the whale repeatedly washing back to shore by the huge surf. In desperation a couple of brave rescuers even attempted to swim the calf into deep water but to no avail with the large swell not only pushing her back into shore but also placing the would be rescuers at risk themselves. Fortunately they were able to make it back safely and assist the team from the Dolphin Discovery Centre to move her to a safer location higher up the beach where she would be clear of the pounding surf and maintain a clear airway. This was no mean feat with the baby weighing in at over 200kg’s and measuring 2.6m in length! The initial plan was to stabilise her on the beach using wet towels and buckets of water and then relocating her to a calm beach where she could recover from her ordeal before being returned back into the ocean. During this time we were hopeful that her mum and family may also still been in the area looking for her so a rescue Vessel was placed on stand-by and observers high on Back Beach were scanning the horizon. Unfortunately there was no sign of the baby’s family and tragically the little calf was declared deceased by a local vet shortly before equipment needed to move her had arrived.
Understanding that the orca calf was only a few days old and in relatively good condition the question now asked is why did she strand on Back Beach and die soon after? Unfortunately very little is known about the Orca population in this region and of the very few sightings ever reported in the South West, the majority have been well offshore or further south near Dunsborough and the Capes region. What we do know about the majority of Orca family pods is that they have a very complex Matrilineal social structure with a strong focuses on the care of their young. Therefore the theory of abandonment in this case is a difficult one to accept and may suggest the new mum either experienced complications during or following the birth, or the calf simply managed to separate herself from the family pod. Either way, the end result was a tragic loss of life for one of the oceans most impressive animals and a mystery that may never be solved. Fortunately a team from Murdoch University were on hand to assist with the stranding and collect standard tissue samples and measurements in an attempt to improve our understanding of the species in this area and to potentially shed some light on the reasons for this tragic event.
For those who spend time working resting or playing along our beautiful coastline, you can help scientists to better understand marine species such as the mysterious Killer Whale by reporting your sightings. Simply download the new marine sightings App called Coastal Walkabout, available for both Android and IOS and help to build our knowledge on where these animals are and why they might be there. Further, our ability to detect mortality events or instances of live stranding’s is dependent on reporting by members of the public. If you spot an animal that is either dead or distressed in the water or along the coast, please contact the local Department of Parks And Wildlife Office or call their Wildcare Helpline (08 9474 9055).