A killer whale beached itself and died on a Florida beach Wednesday morning, an event that researchers say they’ve never encountered in the Southeastern United States.
Tourists and locals in Palm Coast, Florida, 30 miles north of Daytona Beach, were given the opportunity to see a massive 21-foot female orca up close as waves crashed into it. The orca, also known as a killer whale, is the “ocean’s top predator,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“This is extremely rare,” NOAA’s Blaire Mase said, adding “We’ve never had a record of a stranded killer whale in Florida or the Southeast United States.”
A man was taking a morning walk on the beach around 6 a.m. when he came across the orca estimated to weigh three-and-a-half tons. The man believed it was alive but was unsure because it was still dark outside, so he called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), WESH 2 reports.
“We saw something large in the water. It was about 25 feet off the shore,” the man told the outlet. He added that the white color on its underside was a sign that it was an orca, so he sent a picture to a biologist who confirmed his suspicion.
Authorities arrived on the scene to attempt to save the orca, but it died before they could reach it. The Flagler County Sheriff’s office shared that SeaWorld and the FWC would perform a necropsy, an autopsy for animals, on the large marine mammal. Video and pictures shared by the Flagler Sheriff show the orca lying on the shore with waves crashing into it. They cautioned people to avoid the area and even closed the road because of the large crowds that gathered to catch a glimpse of the rare sight.
Deputies are on scene south of Jungle Hut Park in Palm Coast after a 21-foot orca whale beached itself this morning. It has since lost its life. @SeaWorld and @MyFWC are also assisting with its necropsy and removal. Please avoid the area at this time.#FlaglerCounty #FCSO pic.twitter.com/HcDx0ns225
— FlaglerSheriff (@FlaglerSheriff) January 11, 2023
It was quite a task getting the orca off the beach, requiring dozens of people, a bulldozer, and compact loaders, according to ABC News. Video shared on Twitter shows the killer whale arriving at SeaWorld in Orlando, riding in the back of a trailer with its tail hanging off.
It looks like the orca that beached in Flagler County has arrived at SeaWorld in Orlando pic.twitter.com/ZcgfB9bSTs
— Hayley Crombleholme (@HayleyHolme) January 11, 2023
Researchers have so far been unable to determine what might have caused the orca to beach itself, as there were no immediate signs of a shark attack or a collision with a boat. But an NOAA official has said it did show “signs of various illnesses” according to the Daytona Beach News Journal. The skeleton of the orca may one day be displayed in the Smithsonian Institution, the outlet says.
The Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida notes that whales and other animals often beach themselves due to sickness, injury, bad weather, navigational errors, or hunting too close to shore. Orcas “very rarely become beached unintentionally,” the group notes.
Killer whales are found in every ocean in the world and are the largest member of the dolphin family with 50,000 across the world, according to NOAA. Most of them are found in colder waters around Alaska, Norway, and Antarctica, but they can also be found in subtropical and tropical waters.