Gavin Hanke is the Royal BC Museum’s curator of vertebrate zoology, which includes a collection of 22 orca skeletons.
“If I’m not mistaken it’s the largest collection of killer whales on the Pacific coast,” Hanke said. “These are available for scientists around the world. They can take DNA. They can take material for toxicology studies. You could split a tooth and look at stable isotopes in the tooth, and that would tell you the animal’s ecology through its life, and how it’s changing.”
Each whale, found dead somewhere along our coastline, has a unique story. Like southern orca resident J-32.
“She was found December 4, 2014, floating off the Courtenay-Comox area, and she was towed to shore. She had quite a following, and a lot of people were very upset to find that she’d died,” Hanke said.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada performed the necropsy to learn how the orca, known as Rhapsody, died. When their work was completed, the Royal BC Museum received the skeleton. And also, the skeleton of Rhapsody’s calf.
“She had a full term fetus that probably was in a bad position, and it died, and that subsequent infection killed her,” Hanke said.
“Unfortunately, when she was sitting on the beach awaiting necropsy, someone snuck down to the beach and I suppose used a hacksaw or something and cut a bunch of her teeth for trophies or Perhaps to sell them. I don’t know.
“Fisheries and Oceans asked if I wanted replicas made to replace these teeth, but I actually think that’s a significant part of her sad story.”
Orcas have about the same lifespan as humans. Rhapsody was 18 years old.
“In the prime of her life” Hanke points out. “It’s very sad that she’s gone. Her calf was also a female, and so that’s a significant blow to the southern residents, so she could have had several calves in her lifetime. She could have gone on to teach many generations of orcas what she knows, but unfortunately no.”
Hanke is planning a travelling exhibit on orcas.
“J-32 and her fetus will be part of that, so they will be reunited in the display, and they will travel the world. The exhibit will deal with our changing opinions regarding the killer whales – orcas – and how they’ve gone from mindless savage killers to the darlings of our tourist industry,” Hanke said.