The whale was located near Inner Point, about a mile and a half walk from where the necropsy team was dropped off.
At the work site, the killer whale carcass is on its side, with bright red flesh exposed to the open air. The intestines look like a pink fire hose, coiled inside the body. And the smell is strong – a sour, spoiled odor that seems to cut through the air in invisible channels. Two steps to the right or left can be the difference between smelling the fresh ocean air or choking on the stench.
Dr. Stephen Raverty is a veterinary pathologist and head of pathology for the Provincial Veterinary Diagnostic Lab in Abbotsford, British Columbia. He’s kneeling next to the carcass. His hair is sweaty and his waterproof overalls and gloves are covered in blood. He’s working quickly, racing against a rising tide. Eventually, the carcass is tied off with some green rope to prevent it from being carried away by the waves, which crash against the rocks, soaking some of the necropsy team.
During a break, Raverty sits on a log long enough to explain what he’s learned so far.
“This animal does have a low-grade infection in its abdominal cavity. It has fibrinous peritonitis,” Raverty says. “In people, it would be just a severe stomach pain or an abdominal pain. Essentially it would be an infection of the lining of the organs within the abdominal cavity.”
Raverty says finding out what role that might have played in the whale’s death will require more tests, and some serious time in front of a microscope. The data will be included in an ongoing survey of stranded killer whales worldwide. Raverty says more than 250 animals have been documented worldwide so far.
A short distance away, a smaller team is trying to get tissue off the skull, so it can be transported back to Sitka.
“At which point we’ll freeze it and then we’ll take the rest of the meat off,” says Shannon Atkinson, a professor in the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences for the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “The more we can get off now the less we have to carry. So it’s actually out of convenience that we’re doing this.”
Atkinson is based at the school’s Juneau Center. Her role in this is to recover the whale’s skeleton, which will be used as part of a class she leads called D.E.M.B.O.N.E.S., which stands for “Distinctive Education in Motion: Biodiversity Of Nature and Environmental Stewardship.”
In the class, high school and middle school students reassemble skeletons of marine mammals for college credit. Right now a lot depends on funding and timing as to who will reassemble it, but Atkinson wants it to be students in Sitka. She’s also hoping the reassembled skeleton will be displayed in Sitka.
The class, she says, covers multiple disciplines – from the biology and physiology of animals to their cultural significance to the policies about how they’re managed.
“It’s one of the special things that kids almost nowhere else in the world really have access to: the kinds of natural resources we have up here. So one of my focuses is trying to make sure kids get access to this. Otherwise, they really don’t learn much about their backyards. And when you have a backyard anything like coastal Alaska, it’s pretty fantastic. There’s a lot to learn here.”
As morning turns into afternoon, the skull gets cleaner and the carcass gets smaller. Up away from the tide, Dr. Rachel Dziuba is trying to get a tissue sample from the lungs. She’s using a knife to score them across the top like a loaf of bread.
“By 'breadloafing,' you’re just taking small sections and then you can look at the tissue in each section,” she says. Dziuba is a veterinarian representing the Alaska Sea Life Center. She has a lot of experience performing necropsies, on a lot of different species.
“This is my first orca,” she says. “I’ve been out on several humpback whales, many other marine mammals – Steller sea lions, harbor porpoise, a lot of harbor seals, but never an orca. It’s a pretty rare find around here.”
The rareness of this find translates into important opportunities for the scientists on scene – to see how the whale is put together, to take samples back for analysis, and for Atkinson from UAF, to offer more opportunities for students in Sitka and elsewhere.
The necropsy team also included local volunteers, UAS whale biologist Jan Straley and members of her team, representatives of the Sitka Sound Science Center, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and NOAA.
The whale was discovered by some recreational boaters on March 13. They immediately called it in. Officials urge anyone who finds a stranded marine mammal – dead or alive – to do the same thing. The marine mammal stranding hotline can be reached at 1-877-925-7773.
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