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Health database for endangered orcas could help struggling Southern Resident population

Brian Gisborne, Fisheries and Oceans Canada
AP file
In this Aug. 7, 2018, photo, Southern resident orca J-50 and her mother, J-16, swim off the west cost of Vancouver Island. J-50 disappeared late last year, and is presumed dead after suffering from "peanut head," a condition caused by starvation.

The population of critically endangered orca whales seems to have reached a tipping point. Just 74 Southern Residents are left in the wild, a number that will likely drop this year after news broke this week of two more starving orcas.  

A wildlife veterinarian on Orcas Island has one idea that could help: a comprehensive health database to enable intensive care to each and every member of the J, K and L pods.

Joe Gaydos is chief scientist at Orcas Island-based SeaDoc Society. His organization has taken inspiration from a program that provides personalized veterinary care to endangered mountain gorillas in Africa.Using a database to closely track every animal, Gaydos says vets there have helped grow that population — to its highest level in nearly a century.

He’s working on a similar project for the Southern Resident orca whales, consolidating all the records on each individual.

“And so everything from necropsy findings to photogrammetry findings to observations on behavioral things can go into this medical record,” Gaydos said. “You know, just like if you go to the doctor you have your radiology, you have your bloodwork, you have other exam stuff that’s all in one place.”

Gaydos is a member of Gov. Inslee’s orca task force, which convened in May last year and released an extensive list of recommendations in November. He also was one of the vets who volunteered to help this summer, when federal scientists from the U.S. and Canada launched an emergency intervention to attempt to save the life of J-50, an emaciated young whale who ultimately disappeared and is presumed dead.

Despite the loss, Gaydos says J-50’s story shows that attitudes about intervention are shifting. He thinks it’s important to push the envelope. And he says there’s a lot about the success with the mountain gorillas' health database in Africa that points to possible successes with orcas here.  

“You have to know animals as individuals to be able to do this. And you have to be able to get to those animals," he said. "And those are two things that we do have going on with the Southern Resident killer whales. We know them all individually.

“It’s different because they’re aquatic as opposed to terrestrial. They’re larger than mountain gorillas. But at least those two really important factors are there. So, let’s see what we can do.”   

One challenge is the marine environment, which makes individual intervention more difficult than with wild gorillas. But Gaydos thinks an effective operation could be fully functional in a year or two.

The database has some startup funding from Microsoft, but still is a work in progress. Gaydos says they’re storing preliminary information in the cloud but still figuring out the front end, to make sure researchers' data can be safely shared and protected.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to