Last Thursday at around 9 a.m. local time, a boat off the eastern shore of Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska spotted a heart wrenching scene: a 20-foot killer whale stranded high and dry on the rocks of the island’s jagged coast. When the vessel reported the stranding, its crew swiftly received authorization to begin bathing the beached whale with seawater to keep its skin moist, reports Michelle Theriault Boots for the Anchorage Daily News. The crew also fought off encroaching birds, which had begun trying to gouge out beak-fulls of the still-living marine mammal’s flesh.
My niece Aroon is up here and found this stranded orca several miles from here. In all the years I've lived here I've never heard or seen anything like this. I have to wonder if the 8.2 #Earthquake was to blame. NOAA is on its way to try to save it. #offgrid #Alaska pic.twitter.com/m6GO1q8Vg1— Tara Neilson (@neilson_tara) July 29, 2021
The boat’s captain, Chance Strickland, tells Alyssa Lukpat and Jacey Fortin of the New York Times that he could hear this embattled whale calling out as he and his crew doused it with buckets of seawater.
“I don’t speak a lot of whale, but it didn’t seem real stoked,” Strickland tells the Times.
Strickland and his crew were able to depart from the scene once an officer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Alaska Wildlife Troopers arrived, report Alaa Elassar and Andy Rose of CNN. The goal was to keep the whale safe and its skin damp and cool until the tide got high for the animal to float and, eventually, swim to the safety of deeper waters.
Lovely people helping. pic.twitter.com/N02eQQY2eb— Tara Neilson (@neilson_tara) July 29, 2021
Per CNN, the whale was stuck on the rocks for around six hours before the water level rose high enough for it to swim off.
“Our officer and troopers report the whale was a bit slow at first, and meandered around a little before swimming away,” Julie Speegle, a NOAA spokeswoman, tells the Daily News.
Local conservation and research group Bay Cetology identified the individual whale as a 13-year-old juvenile code-named T146D by scientists. The group also noted that T146D is part of the West Coast population of what are known as transient or Bigg’s killer whales, which specialize in hunting marine mammals such as sea lions.
The group goes on to cite research showing that this type of killer whale has been known to strand itself on occasion, adding that some of the documented strandings occurred as a result of the whales’ pursuit of prey near shore. All but one of the killer whales in the prior strandings survived.
Jared Towers, a researcher at Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Bay Cetology, tells the Times that the stranded individual was probably part of a group “hunting seals or sea lions and just made a mistake and basically got stuck and then the tide went out.”
Crucially, because T146D was a juvenile, the whale was still light enough not to be crushed under its own weight once its bulk was no longer suspended in saltwater. Despite the ordeal, the whale escaped with minor cuts and abrasions and some lonely hours away from its pod.
“There’s a pretty good chance it’s met up with them now,” Towers tells the Times, “and it’s just carrying on a normal life after spending some time out of the water.”