Sick killer whale J-50 could be cared for in Canadian waters


An emergency effort to feed and treat an ailing young member of the endangered southern resident killer whales made headway on Thursday, according to rescuers. The J Pod was seen earlier Thursday, but neither J50 nor J35, the orca carrying her dead calf, were immediately seen. Experts gave her antibiotics through a dart and took a breath sample to help figure out whether she has an infection.

Brad Hanson of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says hard conditions have prevented the teams from collecting breath and fecal samples but they are hoping weather conditions improve by Sunday. The team of experts who followed the whale on the water for about six hours Thursday got a breath sample to analyze whether she might have bacteria or fungus in her airway.

"This is completely unprecedented, and honestly your guess is as good as ours as far as what is going on here", Deborah Giles, a research scientist at the University of Washington's Center for Conservation Biology, said in a phone interview.

Center for Whale Research's Ken Balcomb estimates the orca swam while carrying the calf for about a thousand miles since the baby died.

Tahlequah is part of the Southern Resident population which the NOAA Fisheries says is critically endangered. If she eats the salmon, researchers will discuss delivering more medication through live fish. She was still holding her dead calf, marking day 17 of her "tour of grief".

She said it became evident that "we needed to intervene to determine potentially what was the cause and whether there was anything we could do to assist her". Yet still she clings to the body of her baby.

"A female killer whale ... could probably fast for about four weeks before it gets into a detrimental state", Noren said.

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They also face overlapping threats from toxic pollution and noise and disturbances from boats.

Scientists have been concerned about J50, saying she has a white patch by her blow hole, her cranium is showing, and her flukes are discolored, all signs of malnutrition.

"The big question is, can we craft public policy that can make a difference in the future of the orca, and by doing so make a positive difference in how we live in Puget Sound", Purce said in an interview Monday. "So we've been standing by here, hoping that the southern residents will come back in".

Rowles said injections of antibiotics or sedatives have been given to other free-swimming whales or dolphins that were injured or entangled but it hasn't been done for free-swimming whales in this area. That data has documented orcas that declined and then disappeared.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has set up a task force to find solutions to help increase the number of killer whales. A final report is due in November. It was fed live salmon in the pen.

While the other whales were actively foraging for food, Haulena said they couldn't tell if she had been eating.