Forecast troubling for crews attempting to reach sick orca
UPDATE: It may be several more days before a team of researchers and scientists will have the opportunity to get close enough to a sick orca to assess its health and administer medication.
“We have a 6 meter long carbon fiber pole that has a Petri Dish attached to, so we basically have to get within 5 meters of the whale,” said Jim Milbury with NOAA.
Due to the weather system expected to move in Friday and Saturday, it’s possible the team may not be able to get close enough to the Southern Resident Orca known as J50 until at least Sunday, NOAA ecologist Brad Hanson said Thursday morning.
Safely approaching a pod in open water requires a vessel to move in during the orca’s appropriate behavioral state, in relatively calm weather, without disturbing the pod.
The Canadian government has given the team of scientists the go-ahead to assess the health of the ill orca calf known as J50 if it returns to Canadian waters.
Previously, the team was waiting for clearance from Canada to intervene if the sick calf was spotted in Canadian waters.
J pod, including J50 and her mother, was spotted off the Olympic Peninsula on Wednesday afternoon. NOAA says J35 was still carrying her dead calf — more than two weeks after it died.
By the time the pod was spotted, it was too far away for crews to get out and back safely before dark, according to NOAA.
J50, an ailing orca whale that veterinarians are preparing to treat with medication, was spotted near the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca with her pod on Tuesday.
NOAA Fisheries West Coast said the sighting off Port Renfrew by Fisheries and Oceans Canada is promising news. Response teams are staging supplies and readying themselves for a chance to assess J50.
Teri Rowles with NOAA Fisheries said early Tuesday that veterinarians will do a health assessment when they get access to the 3.5-year-old female killer whale. They’ll decide then whether to administer antibiotics using a dart injector or a long pole syringe.
“If then things are going well and the behavior of the group and her responses to the (medication) is going OK, then they could move forward with the fish feeding trial,” Rowles said.
The fish feeding trial includes feeding the orca live salmon from a boat, which has never been attempted in the wild. The Lummi Nation has conducted a test run:
J50’s pod feeds primarily on Chinook Salmon returning to the Fraser River in the summer, unlike transient whales that will prey on other marine mammals such as sea lions and seals. Outside of summer, the whales will expand their diet to include other species, like chum salmon, halibut, and groundfish. Some whales have been spotted as far south as San Francisco where they will follow Chinook in the winter months.
Former head of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, Michael Harris, believes the plan will work.
“The good news is that we’ve got a federal agency — NOAA Fisheries — [that said] we’re going to do something about it and went out and put together this plan to rescue her, feed her fish, get her hydrated, get some meds in her. See if we can save this whale.”
The orca is part of a population of critically endangered orcas that’s dwindled to just 75 whales.
Scientists worry that she only has days to live.
“We are hopeful that there’s still a chance that we will be able to assist her,” Rowles said.
Another female orca from the group attracted global attention as she tried to keep her dead baby afloat.
NOAA says the J pod is made up of 23 whales, including 14 males and nine females. The pod is one of three pods that make up the Southern Resident whale population. The K pod has 18 whales and the L pod consists of 35 whales. The Southern Residents were listed as endangered in 2005 under the Endangered Species Act. NOAA says a recovery plan was completed in 2008. Its population has declined by 10 percent since 2005.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.