Biologists in Seattle are conducting tests to determine the cause of death of the newborn killer whale found beached near the light station on Dungeness Spit.
Brad Hanson, a wildlife biologist with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, said it may take a year or more to extract all the usable data from the carcass.
The beached whale was spotted Monday, Jan. 7, by employees of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. USFWS manages the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge, which includes the spit and its iconic light station.
Hanson said the find is important because it may be a southern resident killer whale. Southern resident whales are an endangered population.
Determining the genetic type of the recovered whale is difficult, he said, because it was just a few days old. He added that the genetic distinctions between killer whale populations are so slight that scientists have yet to determine if the southern resident is a distinct species.
He said there are distinctions between southern resident killer whales and transient killer whales, which also inhabit the strait. They include different dietary preferences, with southern resident whales preferring chinook, while the transients mostly feed on marine mammals.
Hanson said the two also have “very distinct dialects,” a reference to their vocalizations.
“We’re trying to find out what diseases are hurting the (southern residents),” he said. “Then we could take management action to help return the population to its former size.”
The killer whale is the first to wash up on local shores since “Hope,” a female discovered dead just offshore in Sequim Bay in 2002. Hope’s skeleton has been reconstructed and is on display at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. Libby Palmer, Orca Project manager at the center, said tests revealed Hope was “highly contaminated with DDT and PCBs.”
Hanson said a number of samples from the more recent carcass have been sent out for tests and more will be taken for study.