‘Extremely rare’: 21-foot orca dies after washing ashore in Palm Coast

Adult female killer whale weighing about 6,000 pounds is first recorded stranding in Florida, NOAA says

PALM COAST, Fla. – A 21-foot adult killer whale died Wednesday morning after it washed up on the beach at Jungle Hut Park in Palm Coast.

According to Blair Mase of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the event is “extremely rare” as there has never been a recorded incident of an orca becoming stranded anywhere in Florida or the Southeast.

Marine biologists with SeaWorld and officials with MyFWC Florida Fish and Wildlife were assisting with the adult female’s necropsy and removal into Wednesday afternoon.

Derek Pence was walking near Jungle Hut Park early Wednesday morning when he stumbled upon the rare scene.

“We saw something large in the water, it was about 25-feet offshore, stuck on the sandbar and it was larger than anything I’d ever seen stuck on the sandbar before,” Pence said. “It was awful. When I called, I was really hoping for a rescue instead of a recovery.”

Officials said the orca appeared to be alive when she was first found.

NOAA said its goal now is to find out how she died. Mase said whales normally travel in pods and they will have to determine what happened to her to understand why she separated herself.

“I’m very curious because as I was as close to it as anyone. I saw no injuries, I saw no rutter marks, you know, nothing that would indicate that there was something wrong,” Pence said.

Mase said the approximately 6,000-pound orca believed to be over six years old will be taken to SeaWorld for further examination.

Mase said the results of the necropsy can be varied and it typically takes weeks or months for results.

“We won’t really know if it’s something natural or human cause, so that’s our job,” Mase said.

Officials said to avoid the area Wednesday afternoon. It took hours to move the carcass off the beach, after which it was hauled off to a research facility at SeaWorld for more examination.

The mammals, also known as killer whales, are primarily Pacific Ocean species.

According to NOAA, they are found in every ocean in the world but are most abundant in colder waters like Antarctica, Norway, and Alaska. In rare cases, they are also found in tropical and subtropical waters, according to NOAA.

Crews work to remove orca from beach in Flagler County. (Copyright 2023 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

Orcas have been seen in warm water areas such as Florida, Hawaii, Australia, the Galapagos Islands, the Bahamas, and the Gulf of Mexico, and more temperate waters such as New Zealand and South Africa, according to Sea World.

For years, they’ve been spotted in the Gulf of Mexico and a pod of orcas was seen in the Gulf in 2016.

World map providing approximate representation of the killer whale's range. (NOAA) (Copyright 2023 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

About the Authors:

Brie Isom joined the News4JAX team in January 2021 after spending three years covering news in South Bend, Indiana.

Ashley Harding joined the Channel 4 news team in March 2013 and reports every weekday for The Morning Show.