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Sea life organisations question handling of orca that died in Seine

Sea Shepherd France and an expert scientific group were disappointed not to be consulted, saying their solutions could have increased the chances of saving the whale

The orca whale was spotted floating dead by Sea Shepherd’s boats on May 30 Pic: Sea Shepherd France

A non-governmental organisation and an independent wildlife protection body say they are disappointed not to have been included in this week’s failed rescue operation on a sick orca stuck in the Seine. 

They told The Connexion about two solutions that could potentially have prevented its death, adding that they hoped the experience would lead to progress in the scientific community. 

“We could have maximised its chance of survival if we had been consulted,” said Lamya Essemlali, president of the NGO Sea Shepherd France, adding that she lamented the fact that the solution proposed by her organisation was not taken into account.

The whale was found dead on Monday (May 30) after being spotted in difficulty in the river over a period of nearly two weeks. It is thought to have been suffering from a fungal infection mucormycosis.

Read more: Video: Orca whale seen in Seine river but authorities cannot intervene 

Read more: Update: sick orca whale trapped in the Seine found dead

Sea Shepherd France and the president of the Groupe de recherche sur les cétacés (Grec) questioned the way in which the rare event was handled by the experts advising the Seine-Maritime prefecture.

The Connexion was also given yesterday (May 31) the first conclusions from an ongoing autopsy on the orca whale by the Groupe d’études des cétacés du Cotentin (Gecc), a scientific group with knowledge of whales, which advised the prefecture.

They confirm the orca was undernourished, weighing 1.2 tonnes while it should be closer to 2.5, and showed signs of weakness.

Studies on the creature’s stomach showed only hair and teeth from sea lions and seals consumed several weeks ago, suggesting the orca had come from Norway or Scotland.

The scientific and medical experts involved in the failed rescue and, now, the autopsy operation include officials from the Gecc, members of the Office français de la biodiversité (OFB), officials at the Pélagis laboratory and the Cerema centre, among others. 

The whale was discovered dead by Sea Shepherd’s boat on May 30 after the experts mandated by the prefecture carried out three days of different intervention techniques. 

It came a day after the scientists announced they had chosen to euthanise the animal because of its deteriorating health.

‘A fiasco happened’

Ms Essemlali said Sea Shepherd France had advised officials to carry out a ‘drive’ intervention – a technique in which boats are orientated to prompt the animal to swim towards the Channel and back to its natural habitat – on May 26.

Sea Shepherd France said the manoeuvre had been done successfully in the past with groups of dolphins although it had never been carried out on an isolated and injured animal.

Ms Essemlali regretted that the first attempt to save the orca only happened on Saturday when the animal’s condition was already worrying. 

The orca was already sick when it swam into the Seine, the Gecc said, adding that it would have proven difficult to act any quicker. 

The whale was first spotted on May 16 near the Pont de Normandie – between Honfleur and Le Havre and only a few miles from the Channel. 

Read more: Normandy fisherman films orca whale 30kms off Channel coastline

“Each additional day in the Seine deteriorated its health condition,” said Ms Essemlali, whose observation aligns with the first conclusions drawn by the Gecc.

Sea Shepherd France said it would now like the consortium of experts advising the prefecture to be enlarged to include other scientific experts and associations – including itself – and for the possibility of an emergency protocol be implemented as soon as possible. 

Ms Assemlali suggested Sea Shepherd France was not part of the expert consortium for this operation due to reluctance within the scientific community which was advising the prefecture.

“It bothers me because a fiasco happened. I don’t think that the orca should have died from mucormycosis in the Seine, 80 kilometres from the Channel,” said Alexandre Gannier, president of the Grec, which has 30 years of experience in researching and assisting with whale and dolphin rescue missions.  

Mr Gannier said he would have advised the prefecture to try to intervene in the early days of the rescue operation, adding the Grec was never consulted and only found out about the  orca on May 25.

“An intervention aimed at helping [the animal] should have taken place in the first days,” he said, adding that he did not know which would have been used at this point.

Mr Gannier based his comments on three successful interventions on dolphins and whales conducted by the Grec and a quick overview of the orca’s health condition through videos showing “an acceptable tonicity and behaviour.”

‘Condemned when it entered the Seine’

However,  Delphine Eloi, president of the Gecc, said the experts had not lost time. ‘We handled the situation pretty quickly, obviously. We cannot intervene just like that.” 

Ms Eloi said the Gecc was informed of the orca situation on May 17 – the day after it was spotted – and chose not to intervene because it appeared close to the Channel in Honfleur and may have found its way back to the sea. 

She added that the Gecc noted the animal looked depleted of energy and that its dorsal fin was drooping, a sign of bad health. 

Ms Eloi said the Gecc had problems tracking the animal until May 24, relying on onlooker reports to gendarmeries. 

The Gecc tried to guide the whale out of the river and back to sea by using whale sounds played from a safe distance, using a drone to monitor it. 

This was the first experiment with this technique in France, although the process has been tested previously on orcas in good health in Norway. 

Read more: Efforts underway to guide Orca whale in Seine river to sea using sound

Sea Shepherd president Ms Essemlali questioned which type of sounds were used by the boats, saying using calls of a different pod could distress the orca and increase its disorientation. 

Ms Eloi said more analysis will be conducted in the days ahead to confirm the mucormycosis hypothesis, but said that swimming in the Seine undeniably contributed to its worsening health.

“It was condemned when it entered the Seine,” she said.

The official autopsy conclusions will be released by the end of the week, the Gecc said.

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