Losing Killer Whale L95 and Trying to Find Hope

L95 Breach
Nigel on Oct. 24, 2015
Credit: Center for Whale Research, Photos taken under Federal Permits NMFS 15569 / DFO SARA 388

A deadly infection from a satellite research tag killed a 20 year old male Southern Resident killer whale called L95 (or Nigel), NOAA admitted this week. The details of Nigel’s death tell a heartbreaking story about a family of whales that has been studied for years—in Nigel’s case, studied to death—and now desperately needs all that science to translate into strong, swift action.

There are only 82 of these orcas left. Each whale matters. We can learn from the loss of Nigel, and together help ensure losing him was not for nothing. Here are three things Nigel taught me.

#1. In the winter, Nigel hunted for fish with his orca family at the mouth of the Columbia Basin. NOAA researchers attached a barbed tag to Nigel’s dorsal fin and then tracked him in order to get a better sense of where the whales go to forage in the winter months. In the summer, the whales mostly stay in Puget Sound. In the winter, the whales roam. Sighting data and underwater hydrophones have indicated that they move up and down the Pacific Northwest’s coast, but before the tags, their exact whereabouts during the winter were often unknown. On February 25, 2016—the last day Nigel was seen alive—we know that he was swimming with his family near the mouth of the Columbia River.

It makes sense that the whales would hang out near the Columbia River. Unlike other killer whales, this population eats only fish, and the Columbia River Basin was once one of the largest salmon producing river systems in the world. Today, those salmon runs are down to a small fraction of their historic levels.

#2. Nigel died hungry. In its incident report, NOAA noted that when they last saw him, Nigel’s ribs were showing. It makes me terribly sad to know that he died hungry, but at the time, the government research team didn’t especially worry about his emaciated condition. Why not? Because they know these whales are so often hungry. Indeed, the NOAA researchers in the boat that day noted that Nigel’s pod members L72 and L105 “also had rib outlines showing.”

A couple days after that encounter, the barbed tag detached and NOAA lost track of Nigel. About a month later, Nigel washed up dead. A necropsy by British Columbia pathologist Stephen Raverty found that fungi entered Nigel’s blood stream through the punctures in his skin made by the barbed tag. That fungi spread deep into Nigel’s lungs and killed him.

Nigel with tag
Credit: Northwest Fisheries Science Center for NOAA Fisheries

It is strange that an orca in the prime of his life would be killed by an infection. NOAA lists the fact that Nigel was hungry and in poor body condition as one possible reason for why his immune system was overcome.

#3. Now is the time to turn data collection into immediate action. NOAA research teams have used tags to follow this population of orcas since 2012. You can go to NOAA’s website and read a detailed blog full of pictures about their winter field seasons chasing these orcas along the coast of Washington and Oregon State. But only a fraction of the data collected has been analyzed and made publicly available. None of the data has been used to designate critical habitat off the coast or resulted in, for example, greater efforts to restore the Columbia Basin’s salmon runs.

In life, Nigel was wild, beautiful, and suffered. His awful death by infection feels tragic and unfair. There is, however, one small twist to his story. Nigel’s body washed up in Esperanza Inlet. In Spanish, “esperanza” means hope. My hope for the rest of Nigel's kin is that the agency will finally use all this science. NOAA please use what we’ve learned from Nigel to designate critical habitat for these orca off the coast and to fight harder to bring back their food, especially the Columbia Basin’s salmon runs.

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