WHAT KILLED RHAP­SODY?

When one of the few re­main­ing fe­males of re­pro­duc­tive age in the south­ern res­i­dent pop­u­la­tion of North Pa­cific killer whales was found dead near Co­mox, B.C., in late 2014, an in­ves­ti­ga­tion was launched. Are there lessons to be learned to help her en­dan­ger

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - By Christo­pher Pollen

When one of the few re­main­ing fe­males of re­pro­duc­tive age in the south­ern res­i­dent pop­u­la­tion of North Pa­cific killer whales was found dead near Co­mox, B.C., in late 2014, an in­ves­ti­ga­tion was launched. Are there lessons to be learned to help her en­dan­gered fam­ily?

ON A STORMY MORN­ING in De­cem­ber 2014, Ge­orge Bates watched a chang­ing tide play tug-of-war with a huge log just off­shore from his Van­cou­ver Is­land fish­ing lodge near Co­mox, B.C. By early af­ter­noon, the phone rang with the news that the dark ob­ject was not a tree. A re­tired gov­ern­ment fish­eries tech­ni­cian, Bates agreed to take one of his fish­ing boats out to in­ves­ti­gate. “I could see right away it was a killer whale,” he says. What had ap­peared in the dis­tance as a sickle-shaped branch was a dor­sal fin. No signs of trauma were vis­i­ble, but it was clear that the 4,700-kilo­gram whale was dead. Bates tight­ened a rope be­hind a pec­toral fin and slowly towed the body to the shore. News of the find trav­elled fast around the close-knit com­mu­nity, and by dusk there were 300 peo­ple, some vis­i­bly emo­tional, gath­ered around the body. A friend of Bates took pho­to­graphs of the so-called sad­dle patches around the dor­sal fin, which are as unique to killer whales as fin­ger­prints are to hu­mans. Within hours, re­searchers in Wash­ing­ton state and at Fish­eries and Oceans Canada’s Nanaimo, B.C., of­fice con­firmed the body was that of J32, an 18-year-old fe­male mem­ber of J pod, one of the three pods that make up the south­ern res­i­dent killer whale pop­u­la­tion of the North Pa­cific Ocean. She was bet­ter known to her many fans as Rhap­sody. Rhap­sody’s death was met with alarm by the vast net­work of re­searchers, coastal res­i­dents and whale-watch­ing busi­nesses that share in­for­ma­tion about whale move­ments through­out Bri­tish Columbia’s Strait of Ge­or­gia and Wash­ing­ton’s Puget Sound. She was one of about 12 re­main­ing fe­males of re­pro­duc­tive age in the south­ern res­i­dent pop­u­la­tion of North Pa­cific killer whales, which to­day num­bers about 84. While other North Pa­cific killer whale pop­u­la­tions have been thriv­ing in re­cent decades, the south­ern res­i­dents have been on the wane since the mid-1990s. De­clin­ing num­bers and a litany of on­go­ing hu­man-in­duced threats have forced both Canada and the United States to list them as en­dan­gered. Rhap­sody’s demise was a dou­ble blow to this be­lea­guered pop­u­la­tion: in the last known pho­to­graph of her, taken near Wash­ing­ton’s Spieden Is­land in Novem­ber 2014, she was preg­nant with a near-term calf. With the pos­i­tive iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the body, the wheels of a gov­ern­ment-led in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­gan to turn. The first step would be a necropsy, which would not only iso­late a cause of death but probe for dis­ease, con­tam­i­nants and other con­tribut­ing fac­tors in the death of the mother and fe­tus, which the re­mains in­di­cated had died and re­mained in­side Rhap­sody. Out of this tragedy came the prom­ise that the in­ves­ti­ga­tion would pro­vide new in­sight into why this ex­tended fam­ily of en­dan­gered whales con­tin­ues to strug­gle for sur­vival.

BY THE TIME vet­eri­nar­ian pathol­o­gist Stephen Raverty walked onto the beach near Co­mox, Rhap­sody had been dead for at least three days. Now the race had be­gun to com­plete a necropsy be­fore im­por­tant clues were lost to de­com­po­si­tion. Raverty is to whales what a coro­ner is to hu­mans. He’s also the clos­est thing his pro­fes­sion has to a celebrity in the Pa­cific North­west. A former pathol­o­gist at the Bronx Zoo, Raverty works for Bri­tish Columbia’s Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture, where he has con­ducted thou­sands of necrop­sies, mostly on live­stock and poul­try but also on ex­otic pets and marine mam­mals. The lat­ter have mostly com­prised stranded har­bour seals and por­poises, but be­gin­ning in the late 1990s, Raverty be­gan see­ing a dis­turb­ing num­ber of south­ern res­i­dent killer whales. That in­cluded the necropsy he per­formed in 2000 on Rhap­sody’s un­cle, J18, who died of a com­mon but mas­sive bac­te­rial su­per-in­fec­tion. Con­cerned about the de­cline, Raverty de­vel­oped a spe­cial pro­to­col for do­ing post-mortem ex­am­i­na­tions on killer whales, a struc­ture to pro­vide what he calls “a base­line for the de­mo­graph­ics of mor­tal­ity.” Such a base­line pro­vides a way to col­lect and an­a­lyze the kinds of “an­thro­pogenic in­sults” — marine pol­lu­tion, ship noise, etc. — pre­vent­ing south­ern res­i­dent or­cas from thriv­ing. A lo­cal Cowichan First Na­tion man stay­ing at Bates’ re­sort per­formed an im­promptu bless­ing of the whale be­fore the necropsy be­gan. Sup­ported by a team of tech­ni­cians and bi­ol­o­gists from across the Pa­cific North­west, in­clud­ing Fish­eries and Oceans Canada, Raverty made a long cut from the level of the anus ex­tend­ing along the en­tire length of the body. Us­ing a large kitchen knife, he peeled the skin and blub­ber away, ex­pos­ing the un­der­ly­ing mus­cu­la­ture and or­gans. The thin­ness and poor qual­ity of the blub­ber layer and an un­usu­ally in­flamed ab­dom­i­nal cav­ity in­di­cated Rhap­sody was on the verge of star­va­tion. The team ex­plored or­gan by or­gan, col­lect­ing tis­sue sam­ples and look­ing for any ab­nor­mal­i­ties such as ev­i­dence of in­flam­ma­tion or in­fec­tion. Raverty was par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in cetacean mor­bil­livirus, a dis­ease closely re­lated to hu­man measles that sci­en­tists be­lieve has caused ap­prox­i­mately 1,800 bot­tlenose dol­phins to be­come stranded along the United States’ At­lantic coast since 2013.

RHAP­SODY’S DEMISE WAS A DOU­BLE BLOW TO THIS BE­LEA­GUERED POP­U­LA­TION: in the last known pho­to­graph of her, she was preg­nant with a near-term calf.

The ears were to be sent for imag­ing stud­ies to test for frac­ture or bleed­ing, to de­ter­mine if there was dam­age from in­tense un­der­wa­ter noise, such as sonar or mil­i­tary ac­tiv­i­ties from two nearby naval bases. But to do so, Raverty first had to sever the whale’s head, still us­ing just a kitchen knife. Us­ing cer­tain “ex­ter­nal land­marks” as a guide, he vi­su­al­ized the lo­ca­tion of a crit­i­cal joint ac­ces­si­ble from the back of the head. “It’s re­ally just a sim­ple mat­ter of cut­ting through that joint and the spinal cord,” he says. “Then the head comes off eas­ily.” As a crowd of lo­cals looked on, the head was scooped up by a front-end loader and rolled into the bed of a pickup truck. The skele­ton was sent to Salt­spring Is­land to be cleaned of its flesh by the el­e­ments be­fore be­ing shipped to the Royal BC Mu­seum in Vic­to­ria for dis­play. Life on the beach near Co­mox, mean­while, re­turned to nor­mal.

JUST AS A DE­TEC­TIVE might probe a per­sonal his­tory to shed light on a sus­pi­cious death, a scan of Rhap­sody’s for­ma­tive years re­veals how dire the plight of south­ern res­i­dent killer whales has be­come. Rhap­sody’s mother, J20, died an un­timely death i n 1998, leav­ing

Christo­pher Pollon is a Van­cou­ver-based jour­nal­ist whose work has ap­peared in The Wal­rus, Reader’s Di­gest and the Globe and Mail. His first book, The Peace in Peril: The Real Cost of the Site C Dam, will be pub­lished in Oc­to­ber 2016. two-year-old Rhap­sody an or­phan. Her grand­mother took over her care, but died mys­te­ri­ously the next year, aged 37. By 2000, her 23-year-old un­cle was gone as well. All of these whales died well below the av­er­age life­span of 50-plus years for fe­males and 29 for males. Care of the young J32 was then taken over by her aunt, J22, and J32 sur­vived in­fancy to reach re­pro­duc­tive age by 13. She be­came known as an un­usu­ally vi­va­cious mem­ber of the pod, adored by whale-watch­ers for her dra­matic breaches. By May 2011, bi­ol­o­gist and whale re­searcher Ken Bal­comb at the Cen­ter for Whale Re­search in Fri­day Har­bor, Wash., noted that Rhap­sody ap­peared to be preg­nant. She lost this fe­tus, but by June 2014, she was clearly preg­nant again. Per­haps no one in the Pa­cific North­west knows Rhap­sody’s ex­tended fam­ily bet­ter than Bal­comb. His five-decade ca­reer be­gan as a gov­ern­ment bi­ol­o­gist at a com­mer­cial whal­ing sta­tion in San Fran­cisco. In the mid-1970s, he es­tab­lished the cen­tre, which is ded­i­cated to the study and con­ser­va­tion of south­ern res­i­dent killer whales. Our so­ci­ety’s love for all things orca is a re­cent de­vel­op­ment, he says. While killer whales largely es­caped the com­mer­cial whal­ing that ex­tir­pated blue and right whales from lo­cal wa­ters, they were rou­tinely shot by com­mer­cial fish­er­men, who feared their vo­ra­cious ap­petites for salmon. In 1960, sport­fish­ing lodges on Van­cou­ver Is­land con­vinced the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to A trio of on­look­ers pause near the re­mains of J32, the killer whale known as Rhap­sody, shortly af­ter its body was pulled ashore near Co­mox, B.C., in 2014. The orca was known for its dra­matic breaches pre­vi­ous pages).

mount a 0.50-mm ma­chine gun over­look­ing Sey­mour Nar­rows, north of Camp­bell River, to cull their num­bers. No whales ap­peared that sum­mer, and the gun was dis­man­tled. At­ti­tudes about killer whales had changed by the late 1960s, around the time a wave of live orca cap­tures be­gan to pop­u­late theme parks across North Amer­ica. Bal­comb says that in the early years, a vast ma­jor­ity of these “kid­napped” whales were all from the Sal­ish Sea, the in­land wa­ters shared by Bri­tish Columbia and Wash­ing­ton; at least one of these whales, named Lolita, re­mains in cap­tiv­ity to­day in Mi­ami. Vir­tu­ally all of the killer whales on dis­play in theme parks to­day are from around Ice­land. Wild orca num­bers be­gan to drop in the mid-1990s, mir­ror­ing the de­cline of chi­nook salmon, their prey of choice. Ac­cord­ing to John Ford, the head of Fish­eries and Oceans Canada’s Cetacean Re­search Pro­gram and Canada’s fore­most au­thor­ity on killer whales, there is a di­rect re­la­tion­ship be­tween the abun­dance of this sin­gle salmon species and mor­tal­ity rates in res­i­dent killer whales across all ages. “They be­come very ef­fec­tive preda­tors of cer­tain kinds of prey, and that’s a vi­able strat­egy as long as the prey re­source con­tin­ues,” says Ford of the south­ern res­i­dents. “But if there’s a sud­den short­fall in

abun­dance, then they might be­come nu­tri­tion­ally stressed and suf­fer higher mor­tal­ity. That’s the work­ing hy­poth­e­sis.” Ford says the im­per­a­tive to hunt and eat this sin­gle prey, at the cost of ig­nor­ing other pos­si­ble food sources, is a cul­tural phe­nom­e­non as unique to south­ern res­i­dents as the whale call “di­alects” they mem­o­rize and use to com­mu­ni­cate ex­clu­sively within their ex­tended fam­i­lies. Nu­mer­ous solutions have been put for­ward to en­sure more chi­nook sur­vive at sea, in­clud­ing the sim­ple but con­tro­ver­sial idea that peo­ple have to share more fish with other top preda­tors. Another idea is to re­strict com­mer­cial fish­ing to “ter­mi­nal ar­eas” closer to chi­nook natal streams, which would leave more fish alive in the ocean where killer whales hunt. This ap­proach also pre­vents the over­fish­ing of the many weaker chi­nook stocks that get caught in­dis­crim­i­nately as they mix with stronger stocks while swim­ming en masse at sea. Then there is the is­sue of dams. “If you took out four use­less dams on the Snake River, you could have a mil­lion salmon a year added to the equa­tion in a short time,” says Bal­comb. A lack of food is just the most press­ing of cu­mu­la­tive threats that con­spire against a fe­male killer whale with a ges­ta­tional calf. Back in 2000, Peter Ross, a global au­thor­ity on marine mam­mal tox­i­col­ogy who to­day di­rects the Van­cou­ver Aquar­ium’s ocean pol­lu­tion re­search pro­gram, de­ter­mined that south­ern res­i­dent killer whales were among the most con­tam­i­nated marine mam­mals on Earth. This con­tam­i­nant load — in­clud­ing a toxic cock­tail of poly­chlo­ri­nated biphenyls (or PCBS), flame re­tar­dants and diox­ins — is stored in the blub­ber, where it is slow to break down. A hun­gry whale like Rhap­sody would be forced to me­tab­o­lize this tainted blub­ber, re­leas­ing stored con­tam­i­nants into her blood­stream. “So with a preg­nant fe­male that is hav­ing a food short­age, that would be a prob­lem in two ways for the fe­tus,” says Ross. “One, it would in­crease the de­liv­ery of con­tam­i­nants through the pla­centa, and two, the nu­tri­tion would not be there for the fe­tus.” In the spring of 2015, the World Wildlife Fund said Rhap­sody’s fe­tus “likely died from PCB poi­son­ing,” a con­clu­sion that Ross re­jects. “Con­tam­i­nants are not go­ing to kill an in­di­vid­ual,” he says. “What con­tam­i­nants are go­ing to do are make it more vul­ner­a­ble.” This in­cludes weak­en­ing the im­mune sys­tem and mak­ing any ill­ness or dis­ease more dif­fi­cult to fend off.

THE 65-KILO­ME­TRE whale-watch­ing­boat jour­ney from Van­cou­ver to where Rhap­sody’s fam­ily chase sum­mer-run chi­nook salmon around the south arm of the Fraser River il­lus­trates the gaunt­let south­ern res­i­dents must run in or­der to feed. Big trawlers and sport-fish­ing boats of all sizes are out in force. Adding to the un­der­wa­ter ca­coph­ony are dozens of ocean tankers serving Port Metro Van­cou­ver, which is plan­ning to dou­ble its con­tainer ca­pac­ity in the next 15 years. Mul­ti­ple plans are also afoot to ex­pand the num­ber of tankers, in­clud­ing the En­bridge North­ern Gate­way pipe­line that would see an es­ti­mated 440 su­per­tankers a year ply­ing Bri­tish Columbia’s wa­ters to move bi­tu­men to Asia. The route also crosses the muddy plumes of the Fraser River’s north and south arms, which drain into the Pa­cific, car­ry­ing the de­tri­tus of in­dus­try and at least 35 waste­water treat­ment plant out­falls. When J41 ap­pears with her new calf off the star­board side, the two dive and rise in uni­son, their only break oc­cur­ring when the calf jumps fully out of the wa­ter three times in quick suc­ces­sion. In the 17 months af­ter Rhap­sody died, 11 south­ern res­i­dent killer whale calves were born; five are known to have sur­vived and three have been con­firmed dead; the fate of the other three, ac­cord­ing to Bal­comb, is un­known. J41’s calf was born less than a month af­ter Rhap­sody’s body was found near Co­mox. The births bode well for the next gen­er­a­tion, says Mike Camp­bell, the boat’s nat­u­ral­ist, be­fore adding that only about 40 per cent of calves born to­day will sur­vive. “We don’t give the lit­tle ones names un­til they’re at least a year old.”

SHORTLY AF­TER the necropsy was per­formed in 2014, a short press re­lease ap­peared on the Fish­eries and Oceans Canada web­site. Based on Raverty’s ex­am­i­na­tion, Rhap­sody died from “in utero fe­tal loss with sec­ondary bac­te­rial in­volve­ment, and even­tu­ally ma­ter­nal sep­ticemia.” In other words, the fe­tus died in the womb and could not be ex­pelled, caus­ing an in­fec­tion that be­came sys­temic, ul­ti­mately killing Rhap­sody. The press re­lease left many ques­tions unan­swered. It shed no light on what might have caused Rhap­sody’s un­born calf to die so late in term. A greater un­der­stand­ing of why Rhap­sody and her off­spring died would have to wait for the of­fi­cial necropsy re­sults, which more than a year and a half af­ter the ex­am­i­na­tion took place, have failed to ma­te­ri­al­ize. Like the many pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tions for the wider de­cline of south­ern res­i­dents, the cir­cum­stances that caused Rhap­sody to die re­main, as of this writ­ing, a mys­tery.

THE NECROPSY RE­VEALED THE THIN­NESS AND POOR QUAL­ITY of the blub­ber layer and an un­usu­ally in­flamed ab­dom­i­nal cav­ity, in­di­cat­ing Rhap­sody was on the verge of star­va­tion.

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