Sat, Aug 11, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Experts rush to help orca off N American coast


Southern Resident killer whale J50 and her mother, J16, swim off Vancouver Island, British Columbia, on Tuesday.

Photo: AP

Teams of whale experts on Thursday raced out to sea to help an ailing young killer whale spotted off Canada, but they did not plan to intervene to help a mother orca in the same critically endangered pod that has been pushing the body of her dead calf for more than two weeks.

The young orca J50 was spotted off British Columbia and teams were preparing to do a health assessment if conditions in the waters between the US and Canada allowed, US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries spokesman Michael Milstein said.

An international team of experts had been waiting for an opportunity to get close to the female killer whale so they could carry out an emergency plan that included giving her antibiotics or feeding her live salmon at sea.

The three-and-a-half-year-old orca is thin, in poor body condition and might have an infection.

The rescue team had approval in both US and Canadian waters to give J50 medication, but there was no such plan for another member of the population of southern resident killer whales that has scientists worried.

The female orca known as J35 has been clinging to her calf since it died on July 24, an image of grief that has struck an emotional chord worldwide. She was last spotted on Wednesday.

US and Canadian scientists said that they were concerned about the mother’s condition and would keep monitoring her, but have no immediate plans to help her or remove the calf.

Sheila Thornton, lead killer-whale research scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said they are worried that the time and energy she spends carrying the body could take away from foraging or feeding.

“Removing the calf would be a very, very difficult decision, and obviously we would have to take many factors into consideration, so that’s currently not on the table,” Thornton said.

Brad Hanson, a wildlife biologist with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, said: “It would be very challenging and perhaps not in the best interest of the animal to go in and remove the calf. I’m not even sure we would be successful.”

The fish-eating orcas that frequent the inland waters of Washington State are down to 75 and no successful birth has been recorded since 2015.

They face nutritional stress over a lack of their preferred food source, Chinook salmon, as well as threats from toxic contamination and vessel noise, as well as disturbances that disrupt their ability to communicate and forage.

Veterinarians were to try to assess J50 and decide whether to give it antibiotics using either a dart injector or a long-pole syringe.

The team then could move ahead with feeding the orca live salmon from a boat moving ahead of the whale. The orca would initially get just a few fish to see whether she takes it and how she and members of her pod respond before deciding whether to give her salmon dosed with medication, officials have said.

“This is a novel undertaking,” Hanson said.

The possibility of giving medicated fish to a free-swimming whale in the wild would be a first, officials said.

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