Editorial: When orcas die at our place

19:42, Feb 12 2014
One of the orcas found beached near Tuatapere. It was removed from the beach under DOC instruction.

The technical name is charmless, as they so often are.

In scientific terms the stranding of nine orcas near Tuatapere will be recorded worldwide as an "unusual mortality event".

By contrast, Dr Ingrid Visser uses the term "tragedy" and she will quite possibly be scolded by some of her peers, for neither the first nor last time, for making anthropomorphic value judgments.

Most people will know exactly what she means, though.

This is not something folk tend to behold blankly, or with dispassionate interest.

Well, some may. But more tend to make emotional connections to whale strandings because these are large, intelligent creatures and their distress is vivid.


More than that, they strike us as soulful. And cool.

Once orcas were demonised. Remember after the success of Jaws that flaccid cinematic ripoff Orca which sought to portray them as mankillers, even though no orca has killed anyone except in captivity?

Then the Free Willy series of family films made them endearing figures for younger audiences.

While that was pacifying their public image, any overly cute impressions were countered by some of the most celebrated footage from the landmark BBC series Trials of Life showing orcas hunting right up to the shoreline, lunging through the breaking surf to snatch sealions, then exultantly tossing them into the air before scarfing them down.

Apex predators, sure enough.

Mercifully for their fans but inconveniently for scientists, orcas don't show up dead that often. It is quite rare for them to strand, particularly in groups as those pitiable pilot whales so often do.

Which is why this particular unusual mortality event, regrettable in itself, potentially represents a useful research opportunity not only for clues about the cause of the stranding but also into the animals' genetics and health.

To that end a standardised necropsy (animal autopsy) system has recently been developed.

Dr Visser, who formed the Orca Research Trust, has found that most orca strandings are the direct result of risky foraging in the shallows rather than response to some suicidal instinct.

The immediate impression was that the Southland nine were in good condition. Their stranding represents a considerable jolt to the orca population around New Zealand, which is believed to number about 200.

If the deaths of these orcas can contribute something useful to our knowledge of the species or the dynamics and frailties of our coastal waters then that is no small thing.

For that matter, the Southland Museum and Art Gallery may need to consider adding a wee update to its recently opened display on whales and whaling.

And for the record, we are entitled to an emotional reaction to the deaths of these charismatic mega-fauna, such as we felt in 2003 when 121 pilot whales died on a beach at The Neck in Patersons Inlet, or in 1998 when nearly 300 perished at Doughboy Bay.

Not that we always felt that way. Back in 1948 The Southland Times reported a "large fish" beached at the Invercargill estuary had tried to struggle back out to sea "but fortunately people were able to form a ring and stop it escaping". Whatever this unidentified creature was, it died in front of them.

The Southland Times