There has been no sign of J Pod, J50's family, in San Juan Island waters since Thursday. The pod has been keeping to the outer coast and west end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and environs.
An emergency health assessment and feeding operation are in the works Monday for a starving 4-year-old southern resident killer whale who may also have an infection.
The Lummi Nation is ready to supply fresh chinook salmon, served bright, alive and swimming, said Chairman Jay Julius. King County has provided the SoundGuardian, a new research boat with crew to help, according to Executive Dow Constantine. Biologists and veterinarians are standing by to do a health assessment, including taking samples of the whale’s breath, and collecting her scat from the water. Side-by-side drone photographs of the whale taken over the last week compared with photos last year show a severe loss of condition due to starvation.
There is a worrisome white patch by the blow hole of the orca, named J50. She’s skinny, her cranium is showing, and her flukes are discolored; all are signs of malnutrition.
The effort to save J50 has gained momentum after another member of her family, a 20-year-old mother named J35, or Tahlequah, riveted the attention of people around the world as she swam hundreds of miles carrying a dead calf that she gave birth to last month. The ordeal went on for at least 10 days, drawing attention to the plight of the animals due to the shortage of chinook their diets rely on.
The goal Monday is to determine if J50 is in shape for an emergency provision of live fish, sluiced off the back of a boat, said Michael Milstein, spokesman for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. J50 needs the nutrition not only for the calories, but to rehydrate her. If she takes the fish and keeps it down, biologists may also try to medicate fish before feeding her.
But there are lots of uncertainties: Rescuers must develop a precise protocol and attain final permits from the federal government. Most of all, the whales have to show up.
The family of orcas was last seen on Thursday. As of late morning Monday, there was no sign of them, said Lynne Barre, NOAA’s recovery coordinator for the southern resident killer whales.
The agency’s approach remains to assess J50’s condition and provide assistance, Barre said. The earliest fish might be provided to J50 on Tuesday. A practice run without fish or whales may take place later this afternoon.
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Rescuers may attempt to dose J50 with a long-lasting antibiotic, administered from a pole while sampling her breath, Barre said. That may take the place of any attempt to feed live fish because it is difficult to maintain access to the whale.
“We have a strong sense of urgency,” she said.
The pod has been keeping to the outer coast and west end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and environs. Biologists don’t know how the ailing orca was faring, nor whether Tahlequah is still carrying her dead calf, according to Soundwatch, a nonprofit group that’s been monitoring the animals and helping keep boaters away from them.
The southern residents are critically endangered, with just 75 animals in the J, K, and L pods that frequent the region’s waters following the chinook on which they feed. Those waters include Puget Sound, the trans-boundary waters of the outer coast, and the outer coast of Washington, Oregon and California.
The orcas have declined along with the chinook runs in Washington, Oregon and California, as well as the Fraser River in B.C.
A task force on orca recovery, convened by Gov. Jay Inslee in March, will meet Tuesday in Wenatchee. It is charged with examining the threats and conditions that have depleted the southern-resident killer whales, and recommending a recovery program.