Capture and treatment being considered for young emaciated orca

A young orca, said to be on the threshold of death, could be captured for examination and possible medical treatment under a plan devised by federal biologists and other experts.

Scarlet, or J-50, follows close behind her mother Slick, or J-16, in this photo taken Aug. 18.
Photo: Katy Foster, NOAA Fisheries, under federal permit

The capture would be carried out when the 3-year-old female whale, known as J-50 or Scarlet, is found alone at some distance from her pod, according to officials with NOAA Fisheries. One option would be a quick examination and immediate treatment, but preparations also are being made for a possible relocation to an open-water netpen near Manchester in South Kitsap, where she would receive more extensive rehabilitation.

The idea of removing Scarlet from her close-knit family and orca community has received mixed reactions from a team of marine mammal experts, who were called together Monday to advise the federal agency. Meanwhile, some whale-advocacy groups have expressed strong opposition to the plan.

Researcher Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who has studied the Southern Resident killer whales for more than 40 years, said he is advising against a capture.

“A capture is not only going to be stressful for the little whale, but if she starts doing some distress calling, will that distress her mom and her sister and others?” Ken asked. “And what if they come to help her?”

Conditions that would trigger a rescue operation are still under development, but one idea is to wait until Scarlet is isolated in a cove or miles away from her mother and the other whales in J pod, so the likelihood of her rejoining the group would be small. If she strands herself alive on land, rescuers are prepared to move in quickly.

A condition known as “peanut head,” caused by a loss of blubber behind the blowhole, can be seen in this photo of J-50 taken Friday.
Photo: Katy Foster, NOAA Fisheries, under federal permit

Scarlet’s emaciated condition has declined so severely that nobody can be sure that she won’t die from the stress of a capture operation, according to Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian with the SeaDoc Society and an adviser to NOAA. But if she dies during the rescue, she would not have survived anyway.

Joe, who observed Scarlett from a boat on Friday, reported that she was even thinner than two weeks earlier when experts were surprised that she was still alive. Her loss of body fat means that she is less insulated against the cold water and also less buoyant, so she must work harder than ever to keep up with her pod, he said.

Lynn Barre, NOAA’s recovery coordinator for the Southern Resident killer whales, says there is little more that the medical team can do from a boat, and hands-on intervention may be Scarlett’s only hope for survival. So far, the young whale has received antibiotics delivered with a dart gun, which has resulted in no apparent improvement in her condition. She may still receive a dose of deworming medication if that can be safely delivered through a dart.

Public meetings are planned for Saturday in the San Juan Islands and Sunday in Seattle for officials to listen to the concerns and ideas of anyone who wishes to issue an opinion on the matter.

In a press briefing this morning, officials spelled out the goals of a potential rescue operation, including saving Scarlet’s life so she can contribute to the recovery of the endangered Southern Resident orcas. She is, after all, a young female who potentially could have several babies in the future. But just as important in the overall strategy is avoiding harm to the other orcas, officials stressed.

“Response teams would act to rescue J-50 only if she becomes stranded or separated from the rest of J Pod such that any risks of the intervention to the rest of J Pod are minimized,” states a news release issued yesterday by NOAA Fisheries.

“The overriding priority of any rescue intervention would be to evaluate, treat, and rehabilitate J-50 in a manner that would support the greatest chance of her survival while ensuring her return and reunification with her family as soon as possible so she can contribute to long-term recovery of the population,” according to the news release.

The conditions under which such a rescue operation might proceed would be up to NOAA officials in consultation with experts in the U.S. and Canada, according to Chris Yates, who oversees protected resources for NOAA on the West Coast.

Scarlet and her mother Slick, Aug. 18.
Photo: Katy Foster, NOAA Fisheries, under federal permit

Scarlett has been separated from her pod for quite a distance at times, but she has always caught up in the past, he acknowledged during this morning’s press briefing. She would need to exhibit a more extreme separation than she has before to allow the capture to proceed, he added.

“It is impossible to state with absolute certainty every scenario that could come up in the future,” he said, “but I want to be clear that for J-50, if she were to be rescued, remaining in captivity permanently does not meet our objective.”

Joe Gaydos told me that his recommendation would be for the expert team to determine before moving in that Scarlet has become separated from her pod without hope of being reunited. To be much more explicit about the necessary conditions could hinder the group from taking the right action, he said.

Orca Network, an organization that keeps track of whale sightings throughout Puget Sound, issued a statement opposing further intervention involving Scarlet. The statement recalled the recent death of a newborn orca calf, whose mother (J-35 or Tahlequah) carried her dead baby around for 17 days (AP story by Phuong Le).

“NOAA did the right thing with J-35, and did not take her newborn calf from her after it died, and J-35 did not let go,” according to the statement. “What would J-16/Slick do, if her live, nearly 4-year-old calf were taken from her? How would the rest of J-50’s pod and extended family react?

“NOAA has stated they would only capture J-50 if she live-stranded or was separated from her pod. J-50 has been seen often traveling with her family, but at times falling behind, sometimes by a mile. However, if Scarlet is captured and her family is within about ten miles, they will hear her distressed calls and respond.

“We ask that you think about what is best for J-50 and her family,” the statement continues. “We all need to ask questions to make sure that whatever the plan is for J-50, that it considers the ongoing trauma and stress on her and her family and the odds of whether or not treatment will actually help her survive.”

If Scarlet were captured for more extensive treatment, the process could proceed in a similar fashion to what happened in 2002 with Springer, a Northern Resident killer whale who ended up in Puget Sound far from her family that normally ranges off the northern end of Vancouver Island in Canada. One big difference is that Springer was alone and considered an orphan at the time.

Still, the treatment could be similar to that of Springer, who was fed live fish during her rehabilitation at NOAA’s lab near Manchester. (See Kitsap Sun, June 20, 2002.) Springer was eventually taken by boat back to her home waters up north, where she rejoined her family. Since the reunion, she has given birth to two calves so far.

Many of the experts involved in Springer’s rescue are still around to help in some way, according to Lynn Barre.

While Springer was a little thin before capture, Scarlet’s condition appears to be much more dire. For weeks, she has been observed with a severe condition known as “peanut head,” in which her body has lost so much blubber that the area behind her head has become indented.

Of 13 killer whales known to develop peanut head, 11 have died, according to Joe Gaydos. “She has had this for over a month now and continues to get thinner,” he said.

Updates on NOAA’s actions regarding J-50 — including the time and location of this weekend’s meetings — can be found on the website of the West Coast Region of NOAA Fisheries.

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