Dying Orca Trapped in Shallows For a Month Makes Miracle Recovery

A dying orca that had been trapped in the shallows of Denmark for four weeks has miraculously started swimming again.

After observing the stranded whale for a month, researchers were certain the orca would die. Birds had even begun feasting on its immobile body.

However, as researchers when to check on his condition, on May 9—as they had done regularly ever since the whale became stranded—they discovered he was gone.

The whale was first spotted by researchers in October, swimming close to the shore in the north of Denmark, David Lusseau—a Professor of marine sustainability at Technical University of Denmark, who has been closely following the case—said on Twitter.

The events occurred just 10 kilometers away from Lusseau's home.

Stranded orca
A picture shows a different orca, stranded in shallow water. It is usually illness that causes this. Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

The young male orca appeared to be in poor health as he moved closer to the shore. Eventually, he entered the Limfjord—a shallow sea located in North Jutland.

The whale appeared to be staying in just one spot, and spending more time than usual at the surface of the water. In early April, he stopped swimming altogether.

Lusseau said on Twitter his body was "partially out of the water and not moving at all." His dorsal fin flopped—this happens to whales who spend a lot of time at the surface, as their tissue is less able to support it staying upright. When seen in the wild, it often means the whale is emaciated.

It is not clear what made the whale unwell. Marine wildlife strandings are not uncommon, however whales almost always die if trapped out of deep water for a large amount of time.

When Lusseau saw the whale, he "feared it was over." Yet, as the days passed over the month of April, the stranded whale did not die—despite sea gulls beginning to prey on him, discovering he was an easy meal.

When it was discovered he was gone, sightings of the whale nearby confirmed that he was swimming again and engaging in normal behavior.

Lusseau said his gull wounds appeared to be healing, and as he began eating again, his body size grew back to normal. While the whale is still in poor condition, researchers will continue monitoring him over the coming months.

Lusseau told Newsweek that scientists already know that whales have "a lot of cognitive abilities" and are "great problem solvers."

"For me, it is not so much whether it means the whale is intelligent—it is such a hard notion to define in the first place, even with humans! It is more whether this was intentional behaviour emerging from a reasoned decision," he said.

"When any species is sick, there are a lot of bodily responses which force us to slow down and try to recover (when you get a high fever and have cold-like symptoms, you are not feeling like running a marathon). It is tricky when you are a dolphin because you can't really lay low somewhere until you get better. Well, looks like this whale could."

Lusseau said the whale may have ended up in this place "by chance," but he also could have sought it out intentionally. If the whale did in fact intentionally seek out a place to rest while sick, this indicates "complex planning behavior."

To Lusseau's knowledge, this sort of behavior has not been observed before.

"Many of the places where people have been studying killer whales more intensively have much steeper shorelines. Live strandings happen rarely (and then it is hard to know whether it is intentional or not).

"I do not know of a similar case with any species of dolphins or whales for that matter. I fear it would take a full necropsy to find out [what happened]. So part of me hopes we never get to find out," he said.