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Scientists excited at find of rare orca carcass in Marin County

NOVATO -- The killer whale that washed up on a West Marin beach over Thanksgiving is turning out to be a boon for scientists looking to glean new information about orcas, as well as for educators who may see all the skeletal remains reassembled and displayed at a local museum.

A display of this type of killer whale could be the first in the world, experts said.

Last weekend, volunteer crews of up to 20 people worked to dissect the multi-ton mammal to extract its bones, which were brought to the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

The male orca was about 18 feet long and washed up along Driftwood Beach, just north of McClure's Beach.

There are three ecotypes of killer whales: "offshore," "transient" and "resident." The West Marin orca was the offshore type, and little is known about that type because the orcas tend to be active 20 to 30 miles offshore. When they die at sea their carcasses usually are scavenged and sink to the ocean floor.

'If they do make it to shore they are so decomposed we often can't tell what type of whale we have," said Moe Flannery, collections manager at the Academy of Sciences.

The last time an offshore orca is known to have washed ashore was in 1994 at Barnes Lake in southeast Alaska, Hanson said.

"There is not a lot known about these animals. Killer whales are still viewed as one species worldwide, but there are these unique ecotypes," Hanson said.

Flannery said that if the offshore orca skeleton is reconstructed and displayed it would likely be a first.

"It is very exciting," he said.

Such a display would be a year or two off. Money would have to be raised for a project. Right now the bones are soaking in salt water, which will strip them of any more of the muscle or blubber that was left. They will then be cleaned and de-greased.

A display of this orca also would be educational because biologists have gathered data on this particular killer whale.

Through visual identification of the whale's unique physical markings, the animal was pegged as orca No. 0319 by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Nanaimo, British Columbia, and its photo had been taken. It had been seen off the coast of British Columbia as recently as September.

"To have it in a museum where people can read about the orca, see its skeleton and see a picture of it would make for a fascinating story," Flannery said.

Contact Mark Prado via email at mprado@marinij.com ------ (c)2011 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.) Visit The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.) at www.marinij.com Distributed by MCT Information Services AP-WS-AP-WF-12-10-11 1319GMT

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