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Wildlife

Researchers fear it may be too late to save J50, the ailing orca

  • Author: Lynda V. Mapes, The Seattle Times
  • Updated: August 8
  • Published August 8

As days tick by, it may already be too late to help J50, an ailing baby whale in the critically endangered clan of southern-resident killer whales.

"We are hopeful that there is a chance that we may be able to assist her with medical treatment, that we may be able to get her nourishment and treat her," said Teri Rowles, director of the marine mammal health and stranding program for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The 3 ½-year-old killer whale this past week was feared to have only days to live. Not seen for days, she was finally spotted late Tuesday off the south end of Vancouver Island.

Her condition continues to deteriorate. She is so emaciated, her cranium is visible and researchers fear she may also have an infection. On the good side, a worrisome white patch at her blowhole seen in photographs turned out to be just air bubbles.

The last sighting of the pod was Friday, in Canadian waters. Fog was bedeviling efforts to spot the whales Tuesday morning, and officials in Canada and the United States did not know the pod's location for days.

Veterinarians and biologists from both countries are standing by to help the young whale. They are ready to do a health assessment to determine how well she is swimming and how she is behaving. That may occur as soon as Wednesday.

Biologists also are standing by with a dart loaded with a long-acting antibiotic, if she comes in range. Other biologists are also hoping to sample her scat, and her breath.

Depending on the outcome of their health assessment, the team will advise NOAA officials whether to attempt to feed her live chinook salmon — and even salmon dosed with drugs to help her.

NOAA has the permits in hand from Washington, D.C., headquarters to do so if the decision is made to try feeding her.

However, if the whale remains out of U.S. waters, she is at least for now beyond help — Canada has yet to provide any clearance to assist the whale, but is working on it, said Paul Cottrell, marine mammal coordinator for the Fisheries and Oceans Canada's Pacific Region.

The Lummi Nation is standing by to catch and provide fish for J50, if the decision is made to feed her. A trial of the maneuver Monday by the Lummi was successful.

The plan, if it goes forward, is to put the fish in front of J50, alive and swimming in the water. The question is whether she would even take the fish, or be able to keep them down.

The fish would be placed 50 to 100 meters in front of J50, depending on conditions. The feeding would initially consist of only a few fish, which would not be medicated.

"We want to determine how she reacts," Rowles said. "This will by no means meet her nutritional needs but it would enable us to administer oral medication that can't be administered in any other way to a free-swimming animal."

The agency is not even sure if the whale would consume the prey at this point, Rowles said.

The southern residents have declined to just 75 animals. At least three problems are threatening their survival: lack of chinook salmon, the southern residents' primary food source; toxins; and vessel noise.

There also was no update on Tahlequah, J35, the mother orca carrying her dead calf. That sad sight ignited world interest in the state of the whales.

Tahlequah was last seen Aug. 2 carrying her dead calf for a 10th straight day.

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