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Update August 9 on efforts to assess/medicate J50

A foul odor noted when taking a breath sample from J50 a few weeks ago triggered NOAA's efforts to help J50, the three-year-old emaciated member of the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population.

J50 when she was six-months-old July 2015. Photograph by Naturalist Clint "Showtime" RIvers, Eagle Wing Tours, Victoria, BC courtesy of PWWA

"That's something we've detected in other killer whales that have gone out of the population previously." said NOAA Wildlife Biologist Brad Hanson.  "When they are metabolizing their fat it smells like ketones or paint thinner. It's very, very distinctive." 

While they can't get a blood sample, other aspects such as the whale's behavior, the way it surfaces, the extent of peanut head (a depression near the base of the skull that indicates severe malnutrition and fat loss), and its skin condition  will help in the assessment of the orca's health.

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.

At a teleconference Thursday, August 8, Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Regional Director of Fisheries Management Branch Andrew Thomson said DFO received an application for a permit from NOAA on Wednesday for assessment and prophylactic treatment of J50. It was reviewed that night, and Thursday morning and was going to be issued Thursday. The permit allows veterinarians  to take breath and fecal samples from the whale in Canadian waters and to inject her with a broad spectrum antibiotic if determined to be appropriate.

NOAA has permission to do the same activities in U.S. waters.

J50 was sighted swimming with her mother J-16 in Canadian waters on Wednesday, August 8, 2018 by DFO researchers. The Center for Whale Research saw members of J-pod in Haro Strait on Thursday, August 9.

DFO Research Scientist Dr. Sheila Thornton described the Wednesday sighting, she said, "J50 was keeping up well with the group. She was for the most part resting. She seems to be keeping up with J16 and J42." She said J50 exhibited social behaviors. 

Weather is a big factor in determining when the intervention with the whale will be attempted. 

Hanson said, "It looks like we will get brushed by wind tomorrow. We have to get within five meters of the whale. The weather patterns are expected to be back to somewhat normal Sunday through Tuesday. Looking like Sunday might be our earliest opportunity. It’s best if it is quite calm. We can operate in light wind. Part of problem is trying to keep track of whales.  For close approaches we try to match the course and speed of the animals and then very slowly and cautiously move in. For breath samples we have six-meter long pole with petri dish attached."

Another challenge is the blow hole is only about 18 inches above the water. 

Asked if there were any plans to separate J-50 and put her in a sea pen to be treated. The person asking the question cited Springer as an example. Hanson said the idea isn't even on the table at this point. 

Springer was a member of the Northern Resident pods who became separated from all the other members 15 years ago. Intervention was necessary after her behavior became dangerous to both her and the boats and people she grew used to interacting with. She was successfully reunited with her pod and has produced two offspring since then. 

Thornton said. "Springer was an isolated animal. The impact on the rest of the animals would be substantial if we were to remove her from her family group. That would be a very important consideration and quite detrimental to the other animals. As you can see from J35 the connections between these animals are very strong. To remove an animal from her familial group would  have very serious repercussions for the other animals.

The plan continues to be to conduct a health assessment, take breath and fecal samples, make decision in the field whether to inject the ailing whale with a broad spectrum antibiotic.

Another teleconference is set for Friday, August 10.

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