A 20-year-old killer whale tagged by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researchers in Washington state in February was found dead in British Columbia the next month, the CBC reported. Killer whales in the wild are believed to have an average life expectancy of 30-50 years, although males can live into their seventies and females up to 100 or so.
A satellite tracking dart is being blamed for the animal’s death, which resulted from what researchers think was a fungal infection, according to a report released on the incident. It is believed that the dart fell in the water during an unsuccessful attempt to tag the animal. Researchers recovered the dart but failed to sterilize it before successfully tagging the whale on their second attempt.
An NOAA panel investigating the animal’s death also found that pieces of the tag remained in the wound site after it detached and may have caused the infection, KNKX reported. The satellite-linked devices are intended to detach completely.
Though the results of the inquiry into the animal’s death are not conclusive, NOAA has suspended the tracking program and is reviewing less invasive tracking methods. It is also planning a special workshop for all 88 countries in the International Whaling Commission to discuss tagging, National Geographic reports.
"This would absolutely be painful. Killer whales have sensitive skin, similar to the sensitivity of our skin,” commented Anna Hall, a marine biologist, in a CTV news report on the death. "This is a very invasive way of studying animals."
Experts from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans noted that this seems to be the the first case of a tracking tag contributing to an animal death.
National Geographic says the death has raised questions about the safety of using the common research technique of tagging large marine mammals.
With the death of this orca, known as L95, there are only 82 orcas left in the Southern Resident orca population. "It was a tragic death, perhaps a preventable death," Hall said. "There is nothing we can do now that will ever bring that animal back. What we can do is learn from this."