Weakened orca was sick and had severe gum disease

Photo: Bas Niemans

The orca that stranded and eventually died near Cadzand last Saturday had severe gum inflammation. The female also had inflammation in several internal organs and had not eaten for some time. This is according to initial investigations by Utrecht University and Wageningen Marine Research. According to biologist Lonneke IJsseldijk of Utrecht University, the orca was emaciated: 'all the orca's teeth were loose and rotting. The animal must certainly have been in real pain when eating food.'

In addition to the gum inflammation, inflammation was found in several internal organs, including on a heart valve, in the meninges and in the reproductional organ. So it can be said with certainty that this was a seriously ill and debilitated animal. To find out whether all the inflammations had the same or different causes, additional research is needed. Thus, organ pieces are being cultured and several other tests will be performed. 

Empty stomach 

When stranded, the more than five-meter-long orca looked malnourished. That the orca was actually malnourished was evident from the stomach and intestinal examination by biologist Mardik Leopold of Wageningen Marine Research. 'In the stomach there were no food remains. We found only a small plastic sheet, but that had no bearing on the cause of death. The more than 30-meter-long intestine was also empty. This orca had not eaten anything for days.'

Known orca in Spanish waters 

Proyecto O.R.CA - Cadiz, a Spanish animal welfare organization dedicated to the conservation of protected orca whales, recognized the orca from footage. She has not been seen off the Spanish coast for the past three years, but according to Proyecto O.R.CA, the orca must have been at least 20 years old. The orca had not been sighted this far north until she was off the Dutch coast last weekend. It is possible that she has strayed from her normal environment due to disease.

Stranded alive

In addition, the research shows that the orca had muscle damage, IJsseldijk says. 'A marine mammal is fully adapted to a life underwater. The gravity that presses on an animal when it is stranded is very heavy. That has all kinds of consequences for blood circulation, breathing and thus overall survival. Being stranded alive was therefore ultimately fatal to the orca.'

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