Antibiotic delivered to wild killer whale in international rescue operation

by Fredrick Graves August 13, 2018, 3:31
Antibiotic delivered to wild killer whale in international rescue operation

The female orca known as J35 has been clinging to its calf since it died July 24, an image of grief that has struck an emotional chord worldwide.

Scientists are also anxious about another member of the endangered orcas.

Scientists on both sides of the border have been working together on an emergency rescue plan for a young female orca known as J50, that appears emaciated but continues to swim alongside her mother.

"It is very possible that she has succumbed at this point and that we may never see her again", Teri Rowles, marine mammal health and stranding coordinator for National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, told journalists during a press phone briefing Tuesday.

A team of veterinarians is now waiting in the state of Washington to try to approach the J-50 killer whale to give him antibiotics in U.S. waters. Scientists had no plans to take the calf away from J35 or her pod, noting the "tight bond, "reports The Seattle Times". In addition, she has a depression on the back of her head which is indicative of a condition called "peanut head", a syndrome which has reportedly killed 11 of the 13 orcas researchers have found with it.

Michael Milstein with NOAA Fisheries says experts plan to do a health assessment of the young whale if conditions allow.

Veterinarians in the field will decide whether to give the ailing orca antibiotics, which would last between 10 and 14 days, using either a dart injector or a long pole syringe.

"This is completely unprecedented, and honestly your guess is as good as ours as far as what is going on here", Deborah Giles, a research scientist at the University of Washington's Center for Conservation Biology, said in a phone interview.

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But they don't plan to intervene to help a mother orca in the same critically endangered pod that also has them anxious.

"We've been saying it for 20 years, the humans who have been studying these animals", Giles said, before noting that now "the animals themselves in the last three weeks, it's nearly like they've taken the torch".

An global team of experts has been waiting for an opportunity to get close to the female killer whale so they can carry out an emergency plan that includes giving her antibiotics or feeding her live salmon at sea. Researchers with the Whale Sanctuary Project took a sample of the fish scales so they can later genetically track whether the whales consume that fish, while other crews with the Lummi tribe scooped the salmon out of a large bin and sent it into the water.

The young whale is one of just 75 of the fish-eating orcas that frequent the inland waters of Washington state. He said the whale is incredibly skinny but was swimming well and there were no obvious signs of abnormality with her skin.

They face nutritional stress over a lack of their preferred food source, Chinook salmon, as well as threats from toxic contamination and vessel noise and disturbances that disrupt their ability to communicate and forage.

"Having not laid eyes on her personally before, it was dramatic how thin she is", Haulena said. 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.

The Puget Sound calf was the first in three years to be born to the dwindling population of endangered southern resident killer whales. She returned to her family of whales in Canada later that year and was seen with her calf in 2013.

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