Federal authorities withdrew resources for finding the whale Friday night, after a massive search by air, sea, and on land Thursday and Friday.

Share story

An exhaustive search all week by land, sea and air for orca whale J50 — dead or alive — did not turn up the whale.

Federal authorities withdrew resources for finding the whale Friday night, said Michael Milstein, agency spokesman.

J50 — last seen alive Sept. 8, with her mother and possibly her sister at the Fraser River delta in British Columbia, has been presumed dead by the Center for Whale Research since Thursday. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) continued a massive search by air, sea, and on land Thursday and Friday.

”It would be unprecedented for her to still be alive,” Milstein  said late Friday, adding that J50’s family was seen three times this week without J50 — the standard for concluding she was dead.

“Everyone was really hopeful, but we are passing that window.”

Many researchers on the water will continue to keep an eye out for the whale’s carcass — which would be invaluable in the quest to learn what happened with her health — and could be going on with the southern residents, Milstein said.

Two helicopters and a plane took part in Friday’s search, as did multiple vessels on the water and searchers walking the beaches, using maps of whale-sighting hot spots and ocean currents to track the probable drift of her carcass if she had died.

The southern-resident population of killer whales is critically endangered, now with just 74 animals. On July 24, Tahlequah, or J35, lost her calf, which lived for only a half-hour. The mother’s behavior following the calf’s death — carrying the body for more than two weeks — drew worldwide attention to the southern residents’ struggle for survival.

Some said they had been convinced for days that J50 was dead because of the changed behavior of her family. Instead of lagging behind to wait for J50, as they had been, they surged through the water this week, taking the lead among J pod whales, said Jeff Foster, who like many scientists doing research with the southern residents this summer was out on the water all week helping with the search.

Foster, with other researchers, also obtained a feces sample from J16, J50’s mother, on Thursday. It will help determine if her stress hormones have been elevated with the loss of her daughter.

The search Friday included the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife law-enforcement boat and the agency’s fixed-wing plane, and two Coast Guard helicopters that surveyed the Olympic Peninsula shorelines and bays as well as the San Juan Islands. Scientists at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada too part, as well.

J50’s has been in decline since 2017, growing thinner and thinner. This summer NOAA initiated a stepped-up response to save her, beginning with medication shot from a dart and an attempt at feeding her live fish, progressing all the way to plans to capture her for rehabilitation, if possible, and release to her family.

Lynne Barre, who leads killer-whale recovery for NOAA, said the agency could not attempt a capture sooner because J50 was with her mother. The agency did not want to do more harm than good by separating her from her family, Barre said.

The agency has planned public meetings on its killer-whale recovery program this weekend to hear the public’s concerns and thoughts. The first meeting is at 7 p.m. Saturday on San Juan Island at Friday Harbor High School. The second is at 1 p.m. Sunday in Seattle at the University of Washington Haggett Hall Cascade Room.

“J50 has focused us on recovery at a time when that is especially important,” Milstein said.  “As much as we care about J50, lasting recovery is much larger, and it’s important right now that we pay attention to how people feel and what they have to say.”