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R.I.P. Rhapsody

A necropsy performed on Saturday, December 6th revealed some preliminary results about the death of Rhapsody (J32), a member of the critically endangered Southern Resident orca population.  Following a ceremony led by an indigenous representative to send Rhapsody on to rest and thank her for the opportunity to learn from her death, scientists from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, along with Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research and Dr. Stephen Raverty, a veterinary pathologist, began the procedure.  Her death is tragic, and another loss is the last thing these orcas need – their population is now down to just 77, 11 individuals fewer than they had in 2005, when they were declared endangered.  The numbers are going in the wrong direction.

Blessings and prayers for Rhapsody and her baby.

She was pregnant, as many who had seen her earlier this summer suspected from her rounded belly.  At only 18 years old, Rhapsody was just entering the age of motherhood for these orcas, and this was her first known calf.  The late term fetus appears to have died before Rhapsody, and an infection caused by the loss of the baby is currently thought to have led to Rhapsody’s death.  The fetus will be examined further in an attempt to determine the cause of death.  Toxicology results and testing will take another few weeks and may confirm or offer another explanation for her loss.

Orcas in the Pacific Northwest are among the most contaminated and polluted marine mammals in the world.  They share habitat with urban centers and a constant stream of toxins and pollutants enter Puget Sound, the Salish Sea, and their winter coastal waters.  These toxins, including DDT, PCPs, and PBDEs (flame retardants), can cause problems with the immune, endocrine, and reproductive systems of orcas, and can increase their susceptibility to infection and disease.  Southern Residents also suffer from huge shortages in their preferred prey – Chinook salmon.  When they can’t find enough to eat, they burn through their fat reserves, metabolizing the blubber where these toxins are stored and increasing the effects of these contaminants.

In first-time orca mothers, the toxins they have accumulated up till that point are metabolized from their blubber and passed on to the new baby as they use their fat stores and energy for the growth and development of their offspring.  We won’t know until the toxicology reports are finalized, but this is a very possible cause of death for Rhapsody and her calf.

It is rare for the bodies of dead whales and dolphins to end up on shore, as most are lost at sea.  Her death is tragic, but Rhapsody’s final gift to us is the chance to examine her and determine why she died, which can tell us what we need to do to improve the conditions for her surviving family.  Results from the necropsy will reveal her overall body condition, what she has been eating, her toxin load, and can give us an idea of how the rest of the Southern Residents are doing.  

Understanding how and why she died can help us recognize what we need to do to help this endangered population and may serve as a cry for action.  We know they need a steady and abundant food source, a clean and safe ocean habitat, and a reduction in the noise and harassment of vessel traffic.  Removing dams and restoring river habitats is one way to help the endangered Chinook salmon populations that the Southern Residents rely on – you can help us today by signing our Letter of Support for removing four dams on the Klamath River, and sharing this campaign with your friends and family.

Don’t let Rhapsody’s death be in vain – we must take action now to ensure her family’s survival and avoid any more heartbreaking deaths.

For more on the necropsy, please see Victoria Marine Science Association’salbum.  WARNING: photos contain graphic images – please view with caution.

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