K44 Swims at the surface.
Photo courtesy of Melisa Pinnow.

In June 2022, a fisherman reported an orca entangled in crab fishing gear off the Oregon coast. Unfortunately, before anyone could respond, both had drifted with the tide. A few weeks later, a fisherman reported the sad pairing farther south. By this time, decomposition was too advanced for a necropsy (whale autopsy) to determine the cause of death. Still, the fisherman cut off some of the floats and ropes to help identify their owner.

It is not uncommon for whales to become entangled after death, making causation less sure. However, so-called ‘ghost fishing’ that continues through lost or abandoned gear is a significant hazard to marine life worldwide, causing injury and death. The owner or origin of this particular gear remains unknown.

As K pod were in Oregon waters corresponding with the first sighting of this entangled whale, speculation began that this could be missing K44, based on markings and body size estimated from photographs. However, an enterprising scientist extracted skin samples and tissue from the rescued rope and eventually found enough genetic material for DNA analysis. He ultimately determined that this was not a member of the Southern Resident killer whales but a mammal-eating “transient.” So now we have two mysteries, who was this young transient, and what happened to K44?

K44 swims at the surface.
Photo courtesy of Melisa Pinnow.

Juvenile male K44 near the San Juan Islands in 2014.

Two Southern Resident killer whales died in 2022, both males. L89 Solstice was in the prime of his life at 28. While K44 was not yet full-grown, his loss is still significant, as genetic diversity is essential for a healthy population. Yet, in the year leading up to their deaths, researchers familiar with these whales did not report signs of ill health, such as visible emaciation with “peanut head.” Nor did they appear on Washington State’s watchlist of vulnerable whales.

These unexplained deaths are always of concern. Yet we know enough to identify that malnutrition is highly detrimental to their health when coupled with constant exposure to contaminants and noise. Sufficient Chinook salmon would protect them from these environmental harms and prevent stress-related diseases and premature deaths. While we can’t say for sure what killed K44, we can say that providing these whales with enough food is their best hope for survival.