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Ailing Orca Gets Emergency Shot of Antibiotics From International Team

Katy Foster
NOAA Fisheries, permit #18786.
J50 is still keeping up with her pod, Aug. 9, 2018.

An international team of whale researchers has administered an emergency shot of antibiotics to an endangered, wild killer whale.

The highly unusual move took place near San Juan Island on Thursday during an observation session that lasted about six hours.

The researchers have been tracking the young Orca known as J-50, or Scarlet, for several months now. Federal scientists from the U.S. and Canada say she’s emaciated and may have an infection.  

After not seeing her for a few days, they feared she had died. But then a break in the fog and rough water allowed them to get close enough to shoot a dart into her, containing long-lasting antibiotics. They also took a breath sample to help assess whether she has an infection

Marty Haulena, a vet with the Vancouver Aquarium who observed her for several hours, said the young orca appeared to be swimming well and that her skin looked relatively healthy. But they fear an infection because she is still emaciated – at a time of year when they would expect orca whales to be bulking up after a summer of feeding on local salmon.  

“This is a very thin whale. The facts remain that other whales that have been in this condition have not survived,” he said.

Haulena says they administered the dart of broad-spectrum antibiotics because it’s a low-risk procedure with high potential for payoff.

“A lot of what we’re doing is trying to treat things that have been the cause of morbidity and mortality in whales that are either under human care or based on pathology from stranded killer whales,” he said.

Now, they’re awaiting results from the breath sample, to see if any pathogens are present. And if the weather cooperates, they’ll be observing her feeding behavior and trying to get a fecal sample to assess her digestion.    
After that, if J-50 remains in U.S. waters, a next step could be feeding her live chinook salmon. If she takes it, the emergency plan from NOAA scientists includes possibly adding medication to the fish. Canadian authorities have not granted permission for feeding the endangered orcas under their Species at Risk Act.

J-50 is one of just 75 remaining Southern Resident killer whales, which frequent the waters of the Salish Sea from spring through fall and are listed as endangered species in both the US and Canada.

Another member of J-50’s pod, a grieving mother known as J-35 or Tahlequah, has made international headlines for continuing to carry her deceased calf for more than 2 weeks. The researchers said they spotted her Thursday as well. She was still clinging to her calf, for the 17th day.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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