Eleven of 13 whales exhibiting "peanut head", extreme loss of fat around the head, have died according to Dr. Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian with UC Davis SeaDoc Society. J50 the emaciated three-year-old female member of the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population has exhibited peanut head for more than a month. "I don't think she has long," Gaydos said in a teleconference Wednesday, September 12, 2018.
J50 near San Juan Island on September 7, 2018. Photo by Katy Foster/NOAA Fisheries, under permit 18786-03
Gaydos observed her on Friday, September 7 and said it was striking how much thinner she is than when he saw her two weeks earlier. The loss of fat affects her insulation and her buoyancy meaning she has to work harder to keep up.
J50, known for being a very active calf, is still "like a little energizer bunny" according to Gaydos.
J50 as a younger calf. Photo provided by Pacific Whale Watch Association
An international effort has been underway this summer by Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) to help the young orcas. She has received two doses of a broad spectrum antibiotic and a fish feeding trial was conducted to see if that would be a means of providing medication.
The survival of J50 is critical to the future of her pod according to NOAA SRKW Recovery Coordinator Lynne Barre. The three SRKW pods - J, K, L - had 98 members in 1995 and are down to 75 in 2018. Females are especially important in the continuing survival of the population.
J50 swims with other J Pod whales on August 8, 2018. Photo by Candace Emmons/NOAA Fisheries, under permit 18786
Barre says the scientists and veterinarians have seen J50's condition decline in recent weeks. "We've exhausted remote rehabilitative options," she said.
Fecal samples and breath samples were collected in August. A fecal sample from J16, J50's mother, showed evidence of a parasitic infection. A dewormer injection is still planned if the opportunity arises.
Chris Yates, NOAA Assistant Regional Administrator, The Protected Resource Division explained the goals of a possible rescue of J50 and the circumstances under which it would be attempted.
The objective is focused on J50's contribution to the recovery of the SRKW population. "We don't intend to intervene or capture contrary to that objective," he said.
The rescue will take place only if the young orca is stranded or if she is separated from her pod. She has been known to fall miles behind her pod, but still be in acoustic contact. By separation from her pod, NOAA is referring to situations such as her being in an area far from her pod and showing no movement in their direction.
During the teleconference, NOAA and DFO stressed that any rescue has the goal of diagnosis, rehabilitation if possible, and returning her to her pod even if nothing can be done to improve her health.
"If she were to be rescued, remaining in captivity does not meet the objective," said Yates.
Barre said NOAA has access to a net pen at their Manchester Laboratory facility.
The rescue will only occur if it can be done in a way that does not put other whales at risk, said Barre.
Gaydos said the veterinarians have put together a contingency plan if the whale is rescued and a physical exam is possible. It includes an endoscopy, ultrasound, blood work, hearing test. If an obstruction - such as plastic bags in her stomach - was found, the veterinarians would be able to remove it.
If congenital malformations were found, surgery is not an option as it is very difficult to operate on such large mammals. Their ability to hold their breath for long periods makes anasthesia very difficult.
J Pod was seen near the Fraser River in British Columbia on Tuesday. Crews are out looking for J50 Wednesday, September 12. Barre said placing a suction-type geo tag on J50 in order to keep track of her whereabouts is not possible.
A large number of boat crews are keeping an eye out for the whale including those from DFO, NOAA, Soundwatch, Straitwatch, UW, CWR, whale watching boats and enforcement.
PUBLIC MEETINGS: The public has a stake in the J50 response and the recovery of Southern Resident killer whales and NOAA understands many people are concerned. NOAA wants to know what people in the region think about this effort and potential steps so they are holding two public meetings in Washington State to hear the public’s views:
San Juan Island: at 7 p.m. Saturday, September 15 at Friday Harbor High School
Seattle: at 1 p.m. Sunday, September 16 at University of Washington, Haggett Hall Cascade Room