Scarlett, the young orca, has gone missing and is presumed to be dead

A tenacious young orca named Scarlet, gravely emaciated for several weeks, has gone missing and is presumed dead.

Scarlet and her mother Slick head toward San Juan Island on Aug. 18. Scarlet is now missing.
Photo: Katy Foster, NOAA Fisheries, under federal permit

Scarlet, designated J-50, was last seen on Friday with her mother and other family members. Since then, observers have encountered her close relatives several times. Yet Scarlet, who was nearly 4 years old, has been nowhere to be found.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who maintains the official census of the Southern Resident killer whales, announced her death late yesterday.

“J-50 is missing and now presumed dead,” Ken wrote in a press release. “Her last known sighting was Friday, September 7, by our colleagues at NOAA, SeaDoc, and others. The Center for Whale Research has had a vessel on the water looking for J-50 for the past three days. We have seen all the other members of her family (i.e., J-16s) during these outings.”

The search for Scarlet continues on both sides of the Canadian border under the guidance of NOAA Fisheries. It includes a Coast Guard helicopter, NOAA researchers in various vessels, numerous whale-watching boats, the Soundwatch boater-education program and participants in the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network, according to Michael Milstein, public affairs officer for NOAA. Similar operations also are taking place on the Canadian side of the border.

“The Coast Guard dedicated a helicopter again today,” Michael told me this morning, adding that modeling of the tides and currents have focused the search along the Strait of Juan de Fuca near the Olympic Peninsula.

Even if Scarlet is dead, much could be learned if her body were recovered. The history of Southern Resident orca deaths, however, suggests that it is not likely that she will be found, dead or alive.

“Watching J-50 during the past three months is what extinction looks like,” Ken said in the press release, “when survival is threatened for all by food deprivation and lack of reproduction. Not only are the Southern Resident killer whales dying and unable to reproduce sufficiently, but also their scarce presence in the Salish Sea is an indication that adequate food is no longer available for them here, or along the coast.”

He goes on to lament the lack of action to increase the number of Chinook salmon — the whales’ primary food — in the Salish Sea and coastal waters.

Meetings planned for Saturday and Sunday will go on as planned, Michael Milstein said. People should be given a chance to say whether they think the rescue operation, as carried out and as planned, was too much or not enough. Scarlet was treated with medication delivered by dart, and officials were planning to capture her and treat her medically if and when she became isolated from her pod. (Review yesterday’s post in Water Ways.)

Even expert opinions are all over the board when it comes to what actions should have been taken — from those who believe Scarlet should have been captured and treated much earlier to those who contend that nature should be allowed to run its course with no human intervention.

People are also welcome to talk about what actions should be taken to save the entire Southern Resident populations, Michael said.

The meetings will be at 7 p.m. Saturday at Friday Harbor High School on San Juan Island and at 1 p.m. Sunday at Haggett Hall Cascade Room at the University of Washington in Seattle .

Scarlet was born into a bit of controversy in December 2014, as researchers were not certain at first who her mother might be. Her sister — old enough to give birth — was nearby when she was first spotted, and observers debated who the mom might be, as I reported in Water Ways in January 2015, when Scarlet was three weeks old.

There was also an issue of the clear “rake marks” on Scarlet’s back, most likely caused when an adult whale used its teeth to pull the baby from the birth canal. The name “Scarlet” refers to the scars from the rake marks, as I described in Water Ways Sept. 20, 2015.

Scarlet was the first calf born into what became known as the “baby boom” from December 2014 to January 2016. Of nine calves born during that period, only four are still alive. (See Orca Network, births and deaths.)

Scarlet’s death reduces the number of Southern Resident killer whales to 74, with 22 in J pod, 18 in K pod and 34 in L pod, the latter having dropped from nearly 60 whales in the early 1990s.

While the search for Scarlet continued yesterday, naturalist Bart Rulon of Puget Sound Express was observing a rare “superpod,” in which all three pods intermingle amidst high-energy activities — including breaching, cartwheels, splashing, spy hops (in which a whale sticks its head out of water) and tail-lobbing (in which a whale slaps the water with its fluke).

The event occurred near Race Rocks, south of Vancouver Island, where Bart was aboard the whale-watching boat MV Saratoga. Scarlet’s mother, Slick or J-16, was among the group, Bart said.

“August and September used to be the best time of the year to see J, K and L pods all traveling together in superpods,” he wrote on the Puget Sound Express website. “It was a common occurrence when I first started watching orcas 18 years ago.

“Now that the Chinook salmon numbers are down, our resident orcas tend to separate into their individual pods more than they used to in order to spread out the resources so that each animal can catch enough salmon. Some pods are even splitting up into subpods much more than they used to.”

The video on this page shows the superpod, as filmed by Ben Tomson from the Saratoga. Whether yesterday’s superpod has anything to do with Scarlet’s death, we may never know. But Bart says the “celebration” reminds him of the way things used to be for the Southern Resident orcas.

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