Concern is heightened for the survival of J17, an endangered southern resident orca who is continuing to decline, new photos show.

Researcher John Durban, of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in his spring survey of the southern residents detected further emaciation in J17 since his last survey in fall 2018. The survey was conducted in conjunction with Sealife Response, Rehabilitation and Research.

The whale, a matriarch in her clan, now has a pronounced “peanut head.” The condition indicates severe loss of body fat, such that the whale’s neck shows.

Her daughter, J53, also has deteriorated since last fall, according to the body condition survey, which is done non-invasively, by drone photography.

There are only 75 southern residents left, and the lives of matriarchs are critical to the success of their family.

“I’m concerned,” said Lynne Barre, director of orca recovery for NOAA. “We have been tracking the decline in her (J17) condition ever since she had J53.”


Barre said she hopes J17’s condition reflects the demands of a lean winter and that spring will bring more fish for the whales.

Hostile Waters: Orcas in Peril

ABOUT THIS SERIES “Hostile Waters” exposes the plight of Puget Sound's southern resident killer whales, among our region's most enduring symbols and most endangered animals. The Seattle Times examines the role humans have played in their decline, what can be done about it and why it matters.

These whales take leadership positions in the pod, helping to find salmon, particularly when they are scarce, and sharing food, even to their own detriment.

There is no plan at this time to intervene in the situation, but NOAA is following it closely, according to an update from the agency posted today.

The agency described her body condition as “very poor.”

The agency launched an unprecedented intervention in 2018 trying to save the life of another emaciated whale, J50, who died anyway.

J17 is the mother of Tahlequah, or J35, who raised worldwide concern for the plight of the southern residents when she carried her calf that lived only one half-hour throughout the Salish Sea for 17 days and more than 1,000 miles.

The southern residents are struggling to survive amid three main threats: lack of adequate, available prey, particularly chinook salmon; vessel noise and disturbance, which interferes with orca hunting; and contaminants.


New measures also are soon to be in place in Canada and Washington intended to give the endangered southern residents quieter waters for foraging and more fish to catch.

Those measures include new sanctuaries with no boat traffic in Canada, and both voluntary and mandatory vessel slowdowns and fishing closures in Canada and Washington.

Canada also has doubled the distance whale watchers must keep from the southern residents to 400 meters, the most anywhere.