High levels of Contracaecum, a nematode parasite that is commonly found in killer whales and other marine mammals, was found in the fecal sample collected from a group of Southern Resident Killer Whales - J50, J16, J42 - last weekend in the Salish Sea. The parasite is not usually a problem in healthy animals, however, in an orca in an emaciated condition such as J50 the parasite can penetrate the stomach lining, introducing bacterial infection to the bloodstream, or it can bore into internal organs.
Researchers gathering breath sample from J50 earlier this month.
The sample was collected by the NOAA Response team that is working to save the ailing three-year-old female orca. While researchers cannot be sure the sample came from J50, the veterinary team has updated her treatment priorities to include antibiotics and a dewormer. Both have proven successful and safe in other cetaceans.
Aerial images of Southern Resident killer whale juvenile J50, taken in 2017 (left) and August 1st 2018 (right) for comparison. Note in the recent image she has lost body condition revealing a very thin profile, and noticeable loss of fat behind the head creating a “peanut head” appearance. Images obtained with an unmanned drone, piloted non-invasively (greater than )100 ft above the whales under NMFS research permit #19091.
The proposed treatment should help J50 by reducing bacterial and parasitic burdens on her system so she can start regaining the weight she has lost. As of Friday, August 17, the whales remain in open waters off the west side of Vancouver Island, beyond the reach of the response teams.
An antibiotic was injected using a dart gun earlier this month. The syringe bounced a bit and about half the dosage was successfully injected.
A fish-feeding trial - dropping live Chinook salmon through a tube into the water about 100 meters in front of J50 - was performed August 12. Members of the Lummi Nation released eight salmon.
NOAA Fisheries Research Biologist Brad Hanson said, "We did not see her directly taking fish. We just saw her continue to buck into the tide." The fish may have gone past her too fast due to the strong current, he said.
The test was conducted to determine if medication could be given to J50 through medicated fish.
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