Sad story emerges of Plett's stranded orca

Cape Town – Scientists have had a rare opportunity to inspect a dead killer whale (orca) that washed up at Plettenberg Bay this week. And its stomach contents have painted a sad story of how she may have spent her last days.

Yoghurt pots, a shoe sole and food wrappers were some of the items that Plett Stranding Network co-ordinator, Dr Gwenith Penry, found in the animal’s stomach.

She said the 5.7m whale had very little real food in her stomach. 

She said the stomach was "a very interesting thing to look at".

"It gives you a good idea of what was happening to the animal before the other tests are done," she told News24 on Thursday.

She has been studying whales for 12 years.

It was believed the whale had been ill and separated from her pod because she was not able to keep up.

The plastic, sea grass and tube organisms in her stomach suggested she had been trying to feed in the shallow waters of the bay.

"We're not sure whether it’s cause or effect, but she might have been trying to pick up anything she could. Or she swallowed something earlier on and it blocked her passages, so she felt full, but wasn’t digesting.”

(Supplied, Gwenith Penry)

Organ and blood samples would still need to be analysed to determine the exact cause of death.

Residents were delighted to see the uncommon animal in their bay during the last week or so.

When the orca first beached on Friday night, they used buckets of water to keep it wet.

'Rare specimen'

A rescue crew was eventually able to get the whale into deeper water and it swam off.

Penry said that when dolphins or whales stranded there was a 90% chance that there was something wrong with them.

In the case of this orca, she said people had swum and kayaked out to see the animal. Commercial whale boats had also edged in.

The dead whale was found beached on the Lookout rocks on Monday. It was towed to the nearby rubbish dump for dissection.

As volunteers, with no facility or funding, there was little other choice.

(Orca Foundation)

Penry said the dissection was "back-breaking" because it was difficult to get through layers of muscle and bone. 

Working until dark, around six people cut open the body cavity to retrieve and bag vital organs.

Staff from Bayworld in Port Elizabeth arrived the next day for the skeleton. The skull of the "rare specimen" would likely be displayed in the museum.

Penry thanked the National Sea Rescue Institute for towing the whale off the rocks.

She said the municipality was "wonderful", as it had sent employees to dig a hole and bury the whale at the dump.

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