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Far East Russia Orca Project expedition 2019
In 2019 part of our team worked in Avacha Gulf, and another part in the Commander Islands and in Chukotka.
One of the most unusual observations in the history of our project happened in Avacha Gilf on 6 August 2019.
We observed an orca male whose fin was covered by scars of fresh killer whale bites.
We noticed him not far from our camp. The male drifted at the surface, sometimes slowly moving its tail. The dorsal fin was covered in fresh marks left by killer whale teeth. Every orca has some of these scars, and we use them to distinguish animals individually. However, I have never seen so many fresh wounds at the same whale before. Some of them were reddish and slightly bleeding. None of them looked particularly deep, but the male could have other injuries. He was clearly in very poor condition and completely alone.
We observed him for six hours, trying not to disturb him. For all this time, he never dived. Sometimes he emitted echolocation clicks and quiet calls. Slowly he was moving away from our camp to the southern part of the bay.
We argued about whether to take a biopsy sample from him for genetic analysis or not. To do this, we needed to get closer to the whale and shoot an arrow with a small metal tip from a crossbow. The tip takes a piece of skin and fat about 0.5 cm in diameter and 1.5 cm long. Usually, when we take biopsy, orcas just wince or do not pay attention at all. The most unpleasant part of the procedure is that to shoot you need to get close to the whale. Orcas don’t like to be chased and get annoyed and scared. We realized that we could easily approach the exhausted male and take a sample. The male had no way to avoid us.
Our team divided into two camps: ethics and empathy for a particular whale against scientific interest and the value of scientific data. There was no crossbow in the boat, we had to return to the camp to get it, but the weather was getting worse. We did not take a sample.
In the evening we were looking at the male with binoculars from the shore. He moved further and further into the open sea. Our hearts were hard.
We did not find this whale in our catalog. So he was definitely not one of the local killer whales. We could not determine his ecotype from his appearance. His sounds were more similar to those of fish-eating killer whales, but he made only a few calls, which was not enough to determine it with certainty. If we had taken the sample, we would have definitely found out whether it is T-type (mammal-eating ‘transient’) or R-type (fish-eating ‘resident’).
The next day, we could not find the male. What happened to him? Why did other orcas bite him so badly? Did he survive? All these questions will remain a mystery.