World / 15 January 2020, 10:53am / VICTORIA ALLEN SCIENCE CORRESPONDENT
They are a majestic – but rare – sight as they soar above the waves with glorious ease.
But the latest killer whale to be spotted in Britain was a desperately sad sight – the young orca died after being stranded in a salt marsh nearly half a mile inland.
It is thought to have swum there as the tide came in but became stranded as the water went out again.
It was the first orca to be washed up on the coast of the UK since 2001.
A bird warden spotted the 15ft-long creature and whale experts used a drone to locate the body beside The Wash near Holbeach, Lincolnshire.
They found a 15in piece of plastic in its stomach, but this is not thought to have been the cause of death. It is not known where the whale came from, with the British resident orca population now fewer than ten living off the coast of Scotland. Other migrating orcas are known to pass through UK waters hunting for prey and have been spotted in the Channel in the past.
It is possible the young orca came from a different breeding ground and got lost before being stranded in The Wash.
Experts from the Zoological Society of London are carrying out an investigation on the whale, which is thought to have been dead for several weeks before the warden called the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme hotline. ZSL scientist Rob Deaville wrote on Twitter: ‘Interesting day out yesterday.
‘Examination of a juvenile male killer whale in The Wash – difficult terrain and access issues. First we’ve examined in England for nearly 20 years.’
He and colleague Matt Perkins have collected blubber, liver, muscle and kidney samples.
Tests will analyse the remains for harmful PCB chemicals which build up in whale blubber and can damage the immune system. They were banned in the EU in the 1980s, but they degrade slowly and will be in the oceans for decades to come. It is not yet known exactly how old the orca was – but they can live for up to 90 years.
Experts believe that whales may get stranded when they are unwell or because they know they are going to die – but it may also happen through confusion. The scientists will analyse the orca’s teeth to determine its age and conduct a genetic analysis to work out which population it came from.
They said there was no evidence of recent feeding as the orca’s stomach compartments were largely empty
Orcas are currently said to be thriving in areas of lower pollution around the world such as the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Norway, Alaska and the Antarctic.