What Happened to the Orca, L95?
By Rebecca Segal
What happened to L95, a 20-year-old male orca, may not be known with any certainty. He was discovered dead weeks after being tagged. The orca was swimming in the Olympic Peninsula area in Washington State at the time of tagging.
One theory, raised by scientists, is that the tag wasn't properly
Photo by NOAA L95 swimming in his home territory
sterilized before it was inserted into L95's fin, which caused an infection. What happened, according to an incident report and internal review, is a small but consequential misstep in procedure. When the dart was retrieved from the water after it failed to make contact, scientists wrestling with the wind and the waves, sterilized it with alcohol but neglected to further disinfect it with bleach before taking the second shot. The usual protocol before tagging orcas is to clean the tag with both alcohol and bleach.
Another possibility is that he died of something unrelated, such as an illness or an injury or his immune system may have been compromised. L95's body revealed a high pollutant load in his body tissue. When orcas feed, whether it's fish or mammals, they ingest persistent toxic chemicals caused by human activity on land. These toxic chemicals build up in long-living animals and are stored in body fat (blubber), organs and tissues.Orcas' bodies are often filled with an accumulation of persistent toxic chemicals. Because L95's body was so heavily decomposed when he washed onto shore, the results of the autopsy remain inconclusive.
The tagging program has been suspended while experts review the benefits and drawbacks of tagging orcas in the wild. Furthermore, they will monitor other orcas that have been tagged in the past to make sure they remain in good health.
There are only 84 Southern Resident killer whales today in the United States. They are made up of three different pods: J - which has 29 members, K - which has 19 members, and L - which has 36 members. These whales are commonly seen in and around the Salish Sea*, where they are protected by environmental legislation.
Because orcas are endangered, scientists believe it is imperative that they learn everything that they can about them. One way they can keep track of the animals and find out where they go is by using satellite tags.
To date, the kind of tag that L95 was tagged with has been used on 19 different species and 530 animals. Of those 530 animals, 56 have been used on orcas. No other incidences like what happened to L95 have been reported.
*The Salish Sea is the unified bi-national ecosystem that includes Washington State's Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the San Juan Islands as well as British Columbia's Gulf Islands and the Strait of Georgia.