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Two orcas sighted off Lanai, one later stranded and died
By Edwin Tanji - City Editor

The Maui News

9th April 2004

Two orcas, or killer whales, were sighted off Lanai on Tuesday afternoon, but one of the creatures stranded itself in shallow water along the southeast coast of the island and died, federal officials reported Thursday.

The whales also were sighted by a whale-watch tour group, which heard about the whales as it was touring off Lanai at about 3 p.m.

A visitor on the whale-watch cruise, Helen Jean Hamernick of Fridley, Minnesota, said the captain on her vessel heard a report from a Lanai fishing boat and from a crew on a research vessel for the Center for Whale Studies.

"We just abandoned our cruise and headed there," she said. "When we got there, the other boats were all there, the researchers. Then the whale breached between the two boats and actually swam right under our boat."

The whale researchers were not available to discuss their observations, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a report Thursday on the sightings and the death of one of the whales.

According to the NOAA report, the dead animal was an adult female, weighing more than 4,000 pounds. The second orca swam away and has not been seen since.

The researchers observing the whales reported the sightings at 4:40 p.m. Tuesday when a scientist said the one of the whales appeared to be stranded in the shallows off the southeast side of Lanai, the NOAA said.

A crew of marine mammal specialists was preparing to conduct a rescue attempt, but the whale died before they could get to the scene. The cause of death was not determined, but tissue samples were taken for examination and possible DNA identification, NOAA said.

The remains of the whale were buried on Lanai with assistance of Lanai residents, according to Brad Ryon, an NOAA official. Although the orca could not be saved, he said there was "excellent cooperation from government rescue partners and the Lanai community."

Hamernick said she was told that it was the first time anyone had photographed an orca around Hawaii, but Ryon said there are reports of sightings about once a year.

While the whales are not commonly seen around Hawaii, he said they are sighted in all of the oceans around the world. Studies of orcas indicate they prefer colder waters, such as the seas off the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

Hamernick said her tour group had been told the pair were a male and female, but she had not been told that one of the whales had become stranded and died.

"I have a degree in biology myself and I've done marine work, so I was excited to be there," she said.

Edwin Tanji can be reached at