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What vets observed when they found ailing orca J50

Researchers take breath samples of the orca known as J50 on July 21, 2018. (Katy Foster/NOAA Fisheries)

Response teams were able to administer a dose of antibiotics to the young Southern Resident orca they say is at risk of dying.

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According to the Orca Network, J50, also known as Scarlet, was given the antibiotics via a dart as she and her pod entered U.S. waters near the San Juan Islands on Thursday.

Researchers were also able to obtain a breath sample to further assess the 3-year-old orca’s health and determine if the calf has an infection. It is among a handful of tests they are running. It will take up to a week to get results. After ruling out respiratory diseases as causes of her condition, they are now focusing how how well the orca is eating.

“We want to know whether she’s eating, we want to know whether she regurgitates or vomits after she eats, we want to know whether she is defecating and the character of those defecations,” said Marty Haulena, a veterinarian with the Vancouver Aquarium who has been helping with the effort.

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The next step is to determine whether the teams will move forward with feeding J50, who is “very skinny and small.” The idea is to do a trial run with live salmon, releasing the fish through a chute about 50 to 100 yards in front of the orca. If she eats the salmon, researchers will discuss delivering more medication through live fish.

“Having not laid eyes on her personally before, it was dramatic how thin she is,” Haulena said. “It struck me very dramatically. She was just a very, very skinny whale … that first meeting with this very skinny whale, who was by herself, was very worrisome. She did demonstrate pretty good swimming ability. She was quite adept as moving around. She rejoined her group. There was no sign of the groups waiting for her … she was mostly with her mom as well as her siblings.”

Haulena said that he does not suspect that respiratory disease is a factor in J50’s illness.

“She was breathing very well; her respiratory rate was normal,” he said. “She was diving for prolonged periods of time, then would come up for a breath, and do it again several times in a row. She was easily keeping up with her group. That is good news … the pneumonia side of things is slipping down the list of why she is in the condition she is in.”

Attention turned to J50 after another calf in her pod died on July 24. The dead calf’s mother, J35, has carried its carcass for more than two weeks as it appears to grieve. Ken Balcomb with the Center for Whale Research told The Seattle Times J35 has carried the carcass of her calf more approximately 1,000 miles or more.

Further interaction with J Pod could be hampered over the next few days by a weather system moving into the area. There’s a possibility researchers won’t be able to get close enough to the pod until Sunday at the earliest.

“The facts remain that other whales that have been in this condition have not survived. To us, she is still a critical whale,” Haulena said. “…. We don’t have a great diagnosis on her. We know she has something significant going on. She has a body condition that is far different than the rest of the animals in her group. We need to try our best to figure that out. And to try and treat what is treatable.”

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