Posts Tagged ‘J34’

When will ferries in British Columbia stop killing orcas?

Call to action: email the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans in Canada, the Honourable Jonathan Wilkinson, at and ask him to publish the full necropsy report and all other information known to the Canadian government to be related to the death of Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) J34!

A ship’s propeller likely did this damage to the dorsal fin of a female northern resident killer whale (A1) known as “Stubbs” (well prior to her death in 1974).

Most folks think that killer whales — top predators of the ocean — are too fast and smart to get hit by big ships. But, if you look back through the history of salmon-seeking orcas over decades of growing human population and vessel traffic, a long list of injury and death reveals that they are sometimes struck by big ships (as well as by small boats), including within the Salish Sea. The starkest example is a collision in 1973 with a B.C. ferry that killed a young orca.

The Comox ferry incident (1973)

A clear case in which a ferry in B.C. struck a resident orca was an incident described in the 2nd edition of a book called “Killer Whales” (Ford et al., 2000; see excerpt below & this photo album with the relevant pages). On 26 December 1973, en route from Comox on Vancouver Island to Powell River on the BC mainland (see #17 on the map below), the BC Ferry “M/V Comox” struck a juvenile northern resident killer whale (A21).

Excerpt from “Killer Whales” (Ford et al., 2000)

No whales were sighted prior to the collision of the orca and the ship’s propeller, but conditions are rarely optimal for marine mammal observers in the northern Strait of Georgia in late December. The Captain noted that there was a lot of debris in the water that day. And based on the hourly weather report that day in 1973 (see below), there was some rain in the morning, and by late afternoon (3:45 pm) it was overcast with rising light winds, probably resulting in some chop.

It was also late in the day, that close to the winter solstice (December 21). According to a sunset calculator, that Wednesday the sun set at 16:24, just ~45 minutes after the strike occurred. Since the ferry was bound for Powell River (heading west-northwest), any low-angle sunlight would have been coming over the port stern quarter, making visibility in that direction more difficult. Some direct light from the setting sun slipping under the overhead clouds seems likely given that the winds were out of the west that afternoon and evening, and the skies cleared some 4 hours later. In any case, in the direction the ferry was headed (to the east) there was no backlighting from the sun — a situation which often makes killer whale blows much easier to see at a distance.

An example of how back-lighting can reveal orcas, especially when there’s a dark background or rough water. (Credit: Barbara Bender, All Aboard Sailing)

Somehow, the Captain and crew failed to observe the 4 killer whales until after the impact of one of the two calves with the propeller was heard. Maybe visibility was too low, maybe they were distracted (they mention conversing at the time), or maybe the orcas converged from an aft quarter hidden by the glare of the setting sun. What was observed when the ferry returned to the scene was a lot of blood in the water, propeller lacerations along the injured orca’s flank, and the parents trying to keep their calf upright.


The Captain assumed that the injured orca would soon die and the ferry continued on to Powell River. Surprisingly, it was observed 15 days later, still being assisted by its parents. This is another example of the persistent, strong bonds in orca families, and the duration of the parent’s efforts bears an uncanny resemblance to the 17-day “tour of grief” by J35 with her dead calf last summer. Unfortunately, A21 was never sighted again, so we can safely conclude that the collision was fatal.

That’s the strongest evidence that salmon-seeking orcas are sometimes killed by big ships within the Salish Sea, in this case specifically by a BC Ferry. But there are many other strikes of orcas that have been documented in BC and Washington State (e.g. Williams & O’Hara, 2010). Here is a working list of vessel strikes on killer whales, as well as other cetaceans, in the region:

The case of southern resident killer whale J34 (2016)

The most recent possible strike of a fish-eating killer whale is the stranding of J34 (aka “Doublestuf”) an adult male endangered southern resident discovered floating dead just north of Vancouver, BC, in December, 2016. While all available information about the death of J34 is currently insufficient to determine the cause of the “blunt force trauma” that killed him, the most parsimonious interpretation is that he was struck by a vessel.

The hypothesis that J34 was killed by a vessel was proposed very early in the DFO response to the incident. Just a day after J34’s body had been towed to a beach near Sechelt for a necropsy, DFO Pacific Region Marine Mammal Coordinator Paul Cottrell said in an interview with CTV (at 1:00): “Vessel strike could be a potential… and something we’ll be investigating going forward.”

That investigation has been on-going for 2.5 years now, with no final necropsy report available to the public and scientists. Such a report typically would contain important information about the health of the animal prior to injury, condition of the carcass, the mechanisms of injuries, and the most probable cause(s) of death. Beam Reach has made multiple requests for the report, but only a summary has been released. It’s starting to seem like science is being suppressed by some part of the Canadian Government well above the dedicated mariners, First Nations volunteers, and scientists who recovered the body and undertook a prompt, thorough necropsy and many important follow-up investigations, like a CAT scan of the skull to look for fractures, as well as tissue and blood analyses. It likely contains information that should be considered in important on-going conservation processes — like Canada’s Technical Working Groups and the environmental reviews of both the Transmountain pipeline and Roberts Bank container ship terminal expansions.

But even without the final necropsy report, under the assumption that J34 was struck by a vessel, we can make some initial inferences about what type of vessel it was. Here’s a synopsis of what we know and can infer:

  1. The location of J34 floating just south of the Trail Islands is established by the AIS/GPS location of the Canadian Coast Guard vessel that towed the body to shore.
  2. The drift of J34 to the point of discovery can be assumed to have been north-northwestward, based on predominant winds (from the south-southeast) measured during the previous week.
  3. This drift direction suggest that vessels that commonly ply routes south of Sechelt would have been most likely to strike J34.
  4. The object responsible for the blunt force trauma suffered by J34 along his side and head was powerful enough to shatter the bone on the inside of his skull, leaving “spicules and sheaves up to 3-4 cm long” within his brain cavity.
  5. By far the most prevalent type of powerful vessel in the direction of drift are the B.C. Ferries that traverse the Strait of Georgia many times per day on three major east-west routes. The closest is the Horseshoe Bay to Departure Bay route, only 20 km to the south of the discovery site (with ~10 transits/day at that time of year, according to the December 2019 schedule)

The spatial relationship of these observations, including the estimated drift direction and inferred (hypothetical) collision sites within B.C. ferry routes are indicated in this static version of the J34 stranding map:

The J34 stranding map with the 3 major B.C. Ferry routes (white dotted lines) that are located south of where J34 was discovered (orange circles) — the direction from which J34 most likely drifted (along the orange line) in the wind and currents prior to his discovery.

The intersection of the ferry routes by a linear extension of the orange drift line occur at about 20, 40, & 70 km, respectively for the Horseshoe Bay – Departure Bay, Tsawwassen – Duke Point, & Tsawwassen – Swartz Bay routes. An important constraint that the final necropsy report could offer is how long J34 had been drifting before he was discovered. All we know now — again from the CTV interview with Paul Cottrell — is that “This animal was very fresh…” With no quantitative estimate of the number of hours or days J34 was adrift, this qualitative condition suggests the the collision could have been local — possibly indicating that the closest ferry route was the most-likely location of a potential strike.

One depiction of the local traffic density in the period just prior to J34’s discovery is this map of AIS tracks:

Archived AIS tracks (from siitech) from a ~1 day period just before J34 was discovered.

Note the typically high traffic density along the routes of the B.C. Ferries, as well as vessel traffic associated with Burrard Inlet in Vancouver. Now take a look at this example of the best information we have about how SRKWs travel into and out of the northern Strait of Georgia during the winter months (Dec – Feb, based on satellite tags deployed by NOAA in 2014 and 2015):

02 Jan 2014 L87 (+J +K pods) satellite tag track

What jumps out at me is that during the winter, they tend to travel north-south while staying west of the commercial shipping lanes. This means that if J34 (in December) was following this pattern, his path would more-likely have crossed the east-west ferry lanes than the shipping lanes associated with Vancouver Island.

A sudden (suspicious?) interest in thermal cameras for BC Ferries

After many years of minimal action on both sides of the border, 2018 witnessed a tremendous acceleration in public and governmental will to help the SRKWs recover. Spurred in part by the global media attention garnered by J35’s tragedy, and catalyzed by a Washington Governor with Presidential aspirations and the political machinations of the Trudeau administration’s Ocean Protection Plan, a wave of new policy developments and investments rolled through the Salish Sea. The wave was propelled in WA by the SRKW Task Force (which met intensively in 2018 along with its Work Groups) while in Canada there were Technical Working Groups hard at work through the winter of 2018-19.

Amid this policy-making maelstrom in the Pacific Northwest, a detail at the very end of this news article from the East Coast of the U.S. made me stop in my tracks and think of J34:

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution announces a test of thermal imaging cameras in BC to prevent ship strike

June 13, 2019 Featured Project, WHOI online news & insights

The backstory and motivation of the research project — to avoid “ship strike” — made a lot of sense to me. It was a little ambiguous if by “ship” the young WHOI principal investigator, Dan Zitterbart, meant big vessels like commercial ships, or small vessels like recreational and whale watch boats, or both. But he was at least talking about strikes against the right types of Salish Sea whales: humpbacks, killer whales, etc. Perhaps Dan and the WHOI news editor were just not quite clear about which types of vessels have struck which types of Salish Sea whales in recent decades?

I started to feel a little more cognitive dissonance when I read that WHOI was “working with Transport Canada and B.C. Ferries” (emphasis added), though. “Wait. Why isn’t this a DFO research project?” I thought. “Isn’t DFO being funded through the Ocean Protection Plan for this sort of research?” Esteemed colleagues at DFO like Harald Yurk were quoted, though, arguing that an inter-comparison of thermal imaging and acoustic detection rates would be fruitful. As a coordinator of the Orcasound hydrophone network, this was starting to make good sense again. I began to think that maybe Transport Canada was funding the project and the involvement of the B.C. Ferries was limited to hosting the cameras on Galiano Island at the Sturdies Bay terminal — a site which I know provides a good vantage point for observing the busy summertime SRKW, boat, ship, and ferry traffic at the northeast end of Active Pass.

Cognitive dissonance was abating for me at this point in the article, because I knew that Paul Cottrell of DFO had put an enormous effort in improving DFO’s internal acoustic detection capabilities in the Gulf Islands and beyond. Plus, the article mentioned one of the DFO hydrophones being co-located with the camera study site.

But then, at the very end of the article, came the zinger. Dan was quoted as saying:

if the detection is effective enough, we could eventually think about mounting infrared cameras directly on the bow of ferry ships and having a real-time feedback loop where mariners are alerted to slow down if whales are present

Dan Zitterbart, assistant scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
(See also attribution in this 6/27/19 derivative piece in New Atlas)

Why would a young investigator from Massachusetts volunteer that his advanced automated detection system should specifically be mounted on the bow of ferry ships” as opposed to vessels in general? I can only surmise that B.C. Ferries is driving the development of this technology for their own ships — not just hosting a study that could supplement DFO’s acoustic tracking of whales or reduce vessel strikes in general.

Connecting the dots has disturbing implications. Did B.C. Ferries strike J34 in December 2016, pressure DFO to retain the final necropsy report for the last 2.5 years, and concurrently collaborate with DFO using Ocean Protection Funds (provided via Transport Canada) to develop high-tech detection systems? Did they do this to avoid a public relations nightmare in 2016-17 and instead appear in 2018-19 to be proactively engaged in preventing future SRKW mortality?

I hope this most-parsimonious interpretation is wrong, but I’m looking at all the data, struggling to understand why the necropsy report still remains unpublished, and sensing that…

Something smells increasingly fishy.
Possibly disgustingly fishy… like rotting Chinook in a long-dead orca.

Call to action: your last of Orca ACTION Month!

Researching and writing this post was my last action for the month of June — declared in Washington State to be “Orca Action Month.” As we ease into July and hope the SRKWs return to grace our urban estuary, I hope you’ll take one more action, too, regardless of whether you’re in WA, BC, or beyond.

Call to action: email the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans in Canada, the Honourable Jonathan Wilkinson, at and ask him to publish the full necropsy report and all other information known to the Canadian government to be related to the death of SRKW J34!

Do it for science. Do it for J34.

J34 breaching in the Salish Sea.
(Credit: Barbara Bender, All Aboard Sailing)

Post-script: A future without ferries?

Whether or not a ferry killed J34, there are many reasons to reconsider whether status quo (unquestioned growth of B.C. and Washington ferry traffic):

  • The Tsawwassen ferry terminal has a problematic location and history. Due to an early 20th-century strike of private ferry workers, the Province took over the ferry service, and the terminal was hastily placed within the Fraser River delta with no environmental review. Now we know that area is summertime critical habitat of the SRKWs, as well as for the Fraser Chinook salmon the SRKWs prefer.
  • Active Pass is a particularly terrible juxtaposition of SRKW habitat and dense vessel traffic.
  • The prevalence of E-W ferry traffic in both Canadian and U.S. critical habitat for SRKWs (who mostly travel N-S) and other whales (like humpacks that are notoriously unpredictable in their surfacing patterns) constitutes a significant strike risk that may grow (e.g. as ferry traffic and/or humpback populations increase, or as SRKW population recovers).
  • In our rush to get more people more places faster and faster, we should at least think about alternatives to motorized ferries — like bridges and tunnels. While the bathymetry of the Strait of Georgia — 50 km wide & 200 m deep — makes a bridge look difficult, there are bridges that are longer and support structures that reach deeper.
  • A tunnel under the Strait of Georgia seems feasible, too, possibly more so. For example, a tunnel from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay would need to be 43 km long and ~300 m at the deepest point (~100m below the bottom of the Strait). Two comparable sub-sea tunnels are the Seikan tunnel (54 km & 240 m below sea level) in Japan and the Chunnel between England and France (spanning 37 km of the Strait of Dover with a maximum depth of 115 m below sea level).

NOTE: This blog post presents the personal opinions of Scott Veirs, President of Beam Reach, a social purpose corporation based in Seattle, WA. These ideas are in no way related to or endorsed by the marine mammal work group of the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program, which Scott currently chairs.

Read More

What killed orca J34?

Cause of blunt force trauma still unclear in endangered killer whales

Annual status updates (in remembrance):

  • 20 Dec 2020: Final necropsy report not yet released
  • 20 Dec 2019: Final necropsy report not yet released
  • 20 Dec 2018: Final necropsy report not yet released
  • 20 Dec 2017: Final necropsy report not yet released
  • 20 Dec 2016: Sechelt Band members spot J34 floating dead off the Trail Islands (B.C., Canada)

2020 call to action:

Ask DFO to release the final necropsy report so we can all learn as much as possible about how to prevent death by blunt force trauma in endangered southern resident killer whales like J34.

Specific unanswered questions:

  1. Given the proximity of the Nanoose Range, in what ways was acoustic trauma assessed, and what was the condition of J34’s auditory system?
  2. Does the nature of the blunt force trauma suggest the mechanism of injury was a vessel, and if so what type of boat or ship operating in what way(s)?
  3. If the investigation assessed any video of a potential strike of a killer whale in the days immediately prior to J34’s stranding, what were the results?

Two years ago today, on Tuesday 20 Dec 2016, the dead body of a southern resident killer whale (SRKW) known as J34 was discovered floating in the Strait of Georgia just north of Vancouver (BC, Canada). Also known as Double Stuf, J34 was a beloved adult (18 y.o.) male member of J pod who suffered “blunt force trauma” from a still unknown or unspecified source. We should ask every year, on December 20: what killed J34 and how we can prevent such tragic losses from happening again?

This post serves as a place to aggregate what we know about the stranding of J34. It is revised whenever new information surfaces from the investigation of his death, and as we learn generally about the nature and causes of blunt force trauma in cetaceans. The post is organized into three sections: evidence; discussion; and conclusions.

Please add your contributions in the comments. We’ll intermittently incorporate new information and ideas into this post. Citizen scientists are welcome to process, re-analyze, or contribute to the J34 stranding raw data archive. We also maintain a similar on-going blog post regarding the stranding of SRKW L112 in February, 2012, which may provide valuable comparisons to the case of J34.

J22 and J34 chatting with J38 off the west side of San Juan Island (01 Sep 2007). See animation of their localized communication below…

Here at Beam Reach we are especially motivated to learn as much as we can from J34’s death because as a younger whale (in 2007), he and his immediate family gave us bioacousticians a very rare opportunity to spatially document communication of SRKWs by using an array of hydrophones to localize each call. While J34 and his mother, J22, traveled along the west side of San Juan Island, his four-year-old brother J38 (a particularly curious juvenile?) strayed away and made a rare, close approach to an array of hydrophones we were towing behind our hybrid-electric research catamaran.

In the animation, you can listen to these family members calling back and forth as you watch the moving dots which indicate the relative locations of J38 and J34/J22. We don’t know if the responses to J38 came from his mother or his sibling (because the stay closer together than the precision of our localizations), but on dark days like December 20 it’s heart-warming to think of J34 as an attentive and talkative older brother.

WARNING: Graphic material!

This remainder of the blog post contains photographs and videos of dead orcas and the necropsy of killer whales, including J34. A necropsy, also known as an autopsy, is a postmortem examination that often includes anatomical dissection. Please don’t read on if you would rather not view these media which can be upsetting, but contain essential information for understanding what mechanisms injure and/or kill wildlife that we all value and want to conserve.

The results of J34’s necropsy will feed into a growing body of knowledge to assist in assessing the threats to Southern Resident killer whales…

Initial Necropsy Results SRKW J34, Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Aug 23, 2020 screen capture of DFO necropsy results page for J34.
Still no details… Where is the actual report?

This 4-paragraph notice stands in stark contrast to the report that NOAA has provided for L-112… or the synopsis of L112’s case provided by the SeaDoc Society and the summary of the gross necropsy by Cascadia Research.


The following sections present the various lines of evidence that are pertinent to understanding the stranding and injuries of J34. To understand each line, it may be helpful to refer to the J34 stranding map and/or the J34 stranding chronology.

Pre- and post-stranding distributions of SRKWs and other marine life

Historic distribution from NOAA satellite tags

If you look at the maps of critical habitat for SRKWs in the U.S. and Canada, you might easily conclude that SRKWs rarely if ever travel north of the Fraser River delta. However, these maps — even if corrected for effort — are heavily biased to the summertime distribution.

One important insight from the NOAA-led satellite tagging program is that during the winter months (Dec-Feb) the entire Strait of Georgia is was traversed by SRKWs. Based on tags deployed during the winters of 2014 and 2015, J pod commonly circumnavigates Texada Island (based on tagged individuals L87 who travels with J pod and J27). The typical route taken by J pod to or from the northern Strait of Georgia is via the Active Pass and in the main basin (between the Gulf Islands and the Vancouver mainland). Interestingly, during the winter the Fraser delta does not seem to be a point of interest as it is during the summertime.

Pre-stranding distributions

The J34 stranding map shows the last sighting of J34 (in Puget Sound) on 12/14/16. It also depicts the progression of acoustic detections of J pod from Haro Strait (at 3 am on 12/17) to the Fraser river delta (~9 hours later, just after noon on 12/17). The map below suggests that if J pod took their typical route via Active Pass, the distance traveled in those 9 hours is about 50 km, suggesting their speed was 5 kph (a typical mean speed for SRKWs). If they had continued into the Strait of Georgia at that pace, they could have reached the vicinity of the stranding (another 70 km along the estimated track below) in about 14 hours, hypothetically arriving around 4 a.m. on Sunday 12/18/16.

The U.S. sighting networks observed and identified many of the J pod whales that J34 was with when in Puget Sound and in San Juan County on the Dec 10th and the 14th. On 12/14/2016 ~14:00:00, Orca Network reported J pod at Point Robinson (see photo below). The pod went as far south as Point Dalco and turned back east and then north at 16:35.

One of the final photos of J34 taken on 14 Dec 2016 ~1330 at Pt-Robinson, WA. (Credit: Keenan via Orca Network)

Distributions simultaneous to the stranding?

Are there any sightings or hearings of SRKWs and/or other marine mammals during the possible period of the stranding (roughly first 12/18-20/2016)?

Post-stranding distributions

At almost exactly the same time that J34 was located off Sechelt, J pod went south through Haro Strait (on 21 Dec ~10:00) along the west side of San Juan Island. Three days later (12/24 ~16:10) J and K calls were heard on the Lime Kiln hydrophones (lasted 2 hours).

Also on 12/24/2016, Jeanne Hyde reported hearing T018/T019 matrilines on the Orcasound Lab hydrophone (5 km north of Lime Kiln). Were any other Bigg’s KWs sighted to the north or south, before, during, or after the stranding?

Pre-stranding environmental conditions


A southerly wind off Sechelet was significant (~15 kph) and rising as the body of J34 was secured and towed to shore in the late morning of 21 Dec 2016. Prior to that southerly wind event, however, the previous 24 hours experienced light northerly winds (<~5 kph). Earlier in the week — between Dec 18 and mid-morning on Dec 20 — similar light northerly winds were interrupted by 2-3 other strong southerly events. The most significant southerly storm had peak wind speeds of almost 30 kph and was sustained near 20 kph for ~18 hours, blowing consistently out of the southeast (from ~120 degrees true; towards ~300 degrees true) .

Wind speed observations from the Sechelt station (86 m elevation). Blue wind speed (in km/hr) and green wind direction (in degrees true divided by 10) are also depicted as black wind vectors. You can see the southerly that was building as J34 was towed to shore just before noon on Dec 21, as well as the previous southerly events interspersed with northerly or confused light winds.

Tidal currents

We should be able to pull a surface current vector time series out of some or all of these Canadian observed data sources:

  • Ocean Networks Canada ADCPs and/or other current sensors on the Venus line (nodes off the Fraser delta)
  • Drifters?

In the interim, here’s a synopsis by Mofjeld & Larsen (1984) of the dominant (M2) tidal current component depicted as current ellipses:

While currents are strong off of Victoria in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, they mostly slosh back and forth in the Strait of Georgia north of the Gulf Islands in NW-SE alignment with the general bathymetry.

While a trajectory model should integrate net transport from surface currents, our current assumption (pun intended) is that the net transport was negligible and therefore the drift trajectory of J34 was governed mostly by the wind.

Tidal height

Tidal height is probably not relevant as the dominant wind direction suggests the carcass likely did not encounter the shoreline prior to being discovered. For the record, though, here is a time series from a local tidal station.

Discovery of J34 carcass

The best description of how J34 was first discovered floating dead north of Vancouver, BC, comes from an excellent synopsis written by the Sechelt First Nation [archived link | original link (broken in 2018)]. They reported that a killer whale “had been spotted floating off the Trail Islands within our territory on Tuesday evening, December 20th, 2016.” The synopsis also includes these helpful details:

“Immediately, shíshálh Nation member Vern Joe on his gillnet vessel “Sechelt Renegade” sprang into action to try to recover the whale however, was unable to locate the mammal in darkness. Paul Cottrell arrived at the shíshálh Nation offices the following morning, December 21st, 2016 and travelled with Resource Management Director Sid Quinn and Fisheries Technician Dwayne Paul to search the last known location. Despite challenging sea conditions, the 26-foot aluminum crew vessel owned by the Nation was able to assist in the recovery of the whale. The whale had been spotted during our search by a passing tug at approximately 11:00AM, two nautical miles off the southern most Trail Island.”

“Coast guard vessel, Cape Cockburn, towed the whale into the breakwater area located in Selma Park after it had been secured with a rope from the FOC zodiac operated by Fisheries Officers out of Powell River, BC.”

In their initial necropsy results (see below), DFO, described the discovery in a consistent, but more succinct way:

An approximately 18 year old male killer whale, identified as J34 was found dead near Sechelt, B.C. on December 20th, 2016.

shíshálh Nation members with Paul Cottrell (far right) and others. (Credit: shíshálh Nation)

Vessel traffic records

These text-based descriptions of the discovery led us in late December 2016 to query a Automated Identification System database (Siitech) for vessel location information. We searched the results for tugs and Canadian governmental vessels in the vicinity of Sechelt. We also noticed a strange pattern of AIS vessels (stationary?) showing up and disappearing within the Whiskey Golf area near Nanoose Bay (present ~12/17; absent until ~12/19 20:30; present intermittently between 12/20 9:00; details in the chronology spreadsheet).

The following screen shots summarize the relevant results. (Need to add captions and re-order more logically…)

The key findings were multiple tugs in the vicinity around 10 a.m. on 12/21 that could have reported the sighting first that morning. About the same time the Canadian Coast Guard vessel Cape Cockburn appeared to search inshore of the Trail Islands and then intercept one of the path of one of the tugs. Afterwards the Cape Cockburn track is nearly stationary (indicating the period when they were securing the carcass for a tow), and then it proceeds directly to the mainland indicating the approximate position of the beach where the necropsy was performed.

Probable trajectory of the carcass

Pending more detailed analysis with the best available current observations, we take the prevalence of southerly wind events in the days prior to the stranding as sufficient justification to add a rough direction of drift to the J34 stranding map. The yellow line (screen shot below) represents the trajectory and is extending from the first high-confidence carcass location (the Cape Cockburn AIS lat/lon on 21 Dec 2016 at 10:42).

Rough estimate of the trajectory of J34 (yellow line), assuming that drift was governed predominantly by wind. The red fish connected to the yellow line represents first known location of J34 (where the carcass was secured; based on AIS positions for Canadian Coast Guard vessel Cape Cockburn. The ruler shows a 10 km (6 mi) distance for scale, though we have not yet attempted to estimate a drift speed for the carcass.

An important future step will be to review the literature regarding drift modeling for other killer whales or cetaceans. What is best methodology for modeling post-mortem transport? Was it used and was it consistent between the J34 and L112 strandings? What role could advances in 3D hydrodynamic current models of the Salish Sea (PNNL | WA Dept. of Ecology) play in stranding investigations — past and future?

It will be very valuable to learn what indications, if any, in the final necropsy report can constrain how long J34 may have drifted, and how long and fast he may have swum after being injured. With this added information we may be able to determine if the trajectory overlaps with the Whiskey Golf naval testing/training area, the Horseshoe Bay – Nanaimo ferry route, other regions of high vessel-density around Vancouver, and/or distributions of other marine mammals.

Acoustic observations

Due to proximity of the stranding location and preliminary trajectory to the Whiskey Golf area, and to acoustically establish presence/absence of marine mammals, we completed an initial evaluation of a subset of the hydrophone data that might help inform the stranding of J34. Most importantly we detected the calls of SRKWs on 12/17/2016 at ~12:11:02 off Fraser River mouth, BC. The calls were faint, but very likely from J pod based on confirmation of call (S1, S2, S3s, possibly an S7, and a S17 later) by Monika Wieland.

Map of the Venus cabled ocean observatory, including hydrophone locations off the Fraser delta. Credit: Ocean Networks Canada

On 12/17/2016 at 11:31:02 we noted strange tonal sounds that may have been a distant power boat, but could also have possibly been related to mid-frequency active sonar. And on 12/18/2016 at 22:01:02 we heard a low-frequency rumble — which might possibly be interpreted as a reverberating detonation. These potential military noise signals, however, were very faint and we have little confidence in their interpretation at this point. Finally, we heard humpback calls on 12/19/2016 at ~9:41:02, indicating the presence of other marine mammals in the vicinity of the Fraser river delta two days before J34 was secured.

In addition to a more thorough acquisition and careful analysis of ONC hydrophone data, it would be valuable to ascertain whether other hydrophone systems may have gathered additional information about the case of J34. Possible sources to investigate include:

  • SIMRES data from their hydrophones on Saturna Island
  • Any autonomous recorders that may have been deployed at the time (e.g. SMRU or JASCO mooring(s) related to the Terminal 2 expansion?)
  • Any DFO hydrophones in the vicinity (e.g. in/near Active Pass, or in/near Nanaimo)
  • Any Naval recordings from the relevant time period (e.g. assets associated with the Whiskey Golf area and/or Nanoose?)

Any military testing/training activities planned? Were there any other intense sonic events reported in the week prior to the stranding, like earthquakes or lightning strikes?

Necropsy report(s)

An impressive team of experts conducted a necropsy on the beach more-or-less immediately. The necropsy was performed by Dr. Stephen Raverty. Also present were DFO Pacific Region Marine Mammal Coordinator Paul Cottrell, other DFO staff and biologists, as well as staff from the Vancouver Aquarium.

20 Dec 2018 note:
Because the final necropsy report has not been published, despite repeated requests by Beam Reach for updates from DFO, this section currently presents only the initial results, a summary of the final report, observations from other experts, and diverse photographic and video documentation from all sources that we’ve been able to find. Luckily there were some excellent videos taken by some of those present on the beach, but we’re eager for a full assessment of the necropsy results as soon as possible. As Canada is currently forming multiple Technical Working Groups to make short- and long-term recommendations for the conservation of endangered SRKWs, now is a good time to learn as much as we can from J34 and ensure that prevention of further “blunt force trauma” to SRKWs is included in the 2019 conservation efforts.

DFO Initial Necropsy Results

The DFO “Initial Necropsy Results” were available online, both via the DFO web page (via this link; broken in 2018) and the NOAA stranding page (via the same link; broken in 2018). Luckily, we archived it at the time so can provide it here — both as text & a screen shot (both below), as well as a PDF.

An approximately 18 year old male killer whale, identified as J34 was found dead near Sechelt, B.C. on December 20th, 2016. J34 was a Southern Resident killer whale, a population listed as endangered under the Species at Risk Act in Canada. A necropsy was performed to determine the cause of the animal’s death.

Initial examination indicates that the animal appears to have blunt trauma to the dorsal side, and a hematoma indicating that J34 was alive at the time of injury. A CAT scan will be conducted on the skull to determine if there are any fractures. Additional information from tissue and blood analysis can take 2-8 weeks. DFO is investigating what may have caused the blunt trauma to the animal. Anyone with information please call our Observe Record Report line at 1-800-465-4336.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada would like to acknowledge the Sechelt First Nation, whose efforts and collaboration were central to locating the animal and facilitating a successful necropsy. We would also like to thank the BC Ministry of Agriculture (and in particular, Dr. Stephen Raverty, Veterinary Pathologist who performed the necropsy exam), Vancouver Aquarium staff, as well as numerous dedicated DFO staff and biologists.

The results of J34’s necropsy will feed into a growing body of knowledge to assist in assessing the threats to Southern Resident killer whales from a population health perspective. This data allows us to look at trends, pathogens, or other indicators that may affect their survival.

This page will be updated as new information comes in.
Date modified:

Screenshot of the initial necropsy results.

As of December 20, 2018, the URL of the initial necropsy results appears to be broken, e.g.:

Dec 20, 2018 screenshot of DFO web page search results for “necropsy.”

Clicking on the links to the initial report currently resolves to the general Canada-wide DFO home page — both either the relevant DFO web site, or the NOAA West Coast SRKW stranding site (where the link was promptly posted and was functional in December, 2016).

Observations from Ken Balcomb (via email)

Based on a review of the initial necropsy results and associated video, and possibly other press sources, Ken Balcomb volunteered the following in an email (03 Jan 2017):

“I would not characterize the blubber thickness as being “normal” as reported, based upon what I see in the video; but, I presume that blubber thickness was measured at numerous locations and samples taken for lipid content analysis. The blubber looks a bit thin to me, and dry? similar to J32. The discoloration that is apparent ventrally is similar to that I have previously previously observed for L112 and L60 (the former from photos and the latter from participation in the necropsy).”

Insights from emails with Stephen Raverty and Paul Cottrell (2016-2018)

  • 27 Dec 2016: “DFO has enforcement officers investigating this event and additional information may come to light.  We plan to have CT scans conducted of J34’s skull to assess for possible ear pathology and have harvested 1 ear for diagnostic evaluation.” “The necropsy is complete and all samples collected.”
  • 05 Jan 2017: “There are still some aspects of the investigation that are underway and we need the additional findings to complete the document…. we are trying to retrieve buried bones to evaluate.”
  • 21 Mar 2018: “animal had a significant dorsolateral hemorrhage on the left side, indicating blunt force trauma. See broad summary below.”

Summary of the final report by Paul Cottrell

The gross lesions are consistent with blunt force trauma and based on the anatomic site of impact, the sustained injuries would have contributed significantly to the demise of this animal. The tracking hemorrhage throughout the subcutis of the head suggests that the animal would have survived the initial trauma for a period time, prior to death. Although the brain was too autolyzed to assess for hemorrhage (coup contra-coup), a few bone spicules and sheaves up to 3-4 cm long were interspersed within the brain tissue. Based on qualitative assessment, the animal was considered in moderate to good body condition and there were no apparent lesions or abnormalities which may have predisposed this animal to injury.


1). Thorax, left dorsolateral: Hemorrhage, subcutaneous, muscular, fascial and paravertebral, severe, segmental, acute with variable amounts of edema fluid

2). Skull: Hemorrhage, subcutaneous, marked, bilateral to circumferential, tracking

3). Occipital region, rostrolateral blowhole, and acoustic fat: Hemorrhage, marked, multifocally extensive, acute

2016 DFO list of SARA incidents

The stranding of J34 was not noted in the 2016 annual report of DFO’s Marine Mammal Response Program (PDF).


Photographs (and video screen shots)

These images are either screen grabs from videos or photographs put into the public domain. We will try to caption and credit them appropriately in future revisions of this post.

Towing to shore

Necropsy images

Press coverage


Hypotheses to discuss w/differential evidence

  • Vessel strike causes blunt force trauma and death
  • Another mechanism (antagonistic or defensive whale?) causes blunt force trauma and death
  • Blast (or sonar?) causes initial injury (blast trauma) and death
  • Blast, sonar, or other damaging sound causes initial injury (PTS), reducing animal’s ability to avoid strikes; vessel causes second injury (blunt force trauma) and death
  • Loud noise causes initial injury (TTS), reducing animal’s ability to avoid strikes; vessel causes additional injury (blunt force trauma) and death
  • Which of the non-acoustic causes could result in evidence that is also consistent with blast trauma, and/or PTS, and/or TTS?!

A major outstanding task is to aggregate and review the literature on: underwater blast trauma in marine mammals; the signs of TTS and/or PTS in killer whale hearing systems; blunt force and other trauma caused by ships and/or boats striking marine mammals. [When/why is there blood in the pan bone’s acoustic fat? What resolution of CT scan is needed to resolve damage to ears/bullae due to blunt force trauma versus acoustic trauma?]

Key evidence to discuss

  • Initial necropsy report: “blunt trauma to the dorsal side, and a hematoma indicating that J34 was alive at the time of injury.”
  • Final necropsy (summary): “gross lesions are consistent with blunt force trauma and based on the anatomic site of impact, the sustained injuries would have contributed significantly to the demise of this animal”

Overall J34 map

Link: interactive Google map

Overall J34 chronology

Link: J34 stranding interactive Google spreadsheet


Without the final necropsy report published and fully reviewed, it is too soon to draw any conclusions about what killed J34…


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