Starving orca with perhaps days to live focus of emergency rescue plan

Starving orca with perhaps days to live focus of emergency rescue plan

Outdoors

Starving orca with perhaps days to live focus of emergency rescue plan

As a grieving female orca gains increasing notoriety for refusing to let go of her dead calf, another member of her pod is starving to death and experts are hoping to implement a first-of-its-kind plan to try to save its life.

Both stories are playing out in the Pacific Northwest, involving members of the critically endangered southern resident killer whales.

The first pertains to an orca cataloged as J35. Thursday marked the 10th day that she had been seen carrying a calf that died shortly after it was born on July 24. (Mourning the loss of a newborn is not unusual among orcas, but such a prolonged period of mourning might be considered rare.)

J50, a.k.a. Scarlet (left), swims with her mom in 2016. Photo courtesy of Melisa Pinnow/San Juan Excursions

The lesser-known story is the plight of J50, also named Scarlet, who might have only days to live. Scarlet is a 4-year-old female who, during the past several weeks, has become so emaciated that part of her cranium is visible.

Her condition is so dire that the federal government is considering an emergency operation that involves feeding live Chinook salmon laced with medicine to the young orca. (Southern residents prey largely on Chinook salmon, or king salmon, and their struggles are largely because of diminished salmon runs.)

J50, a.k.a. Scarlet (right), pictured as a 2-year-old in 2016. Photo courtesy of Melisa Pinnow/San Juan Excursions

The Seattle Times reports that Scarlet, who is small for her age to begin with, has lost 20 percent of her body weight, and that feeding her would also help rehydrate the mammal.

“There are a lot of ifs, whether or not she will even take fish,” said Brad Hanson of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. “Her survival could be only a few days. She has continued to decline.”

J35 carries her dead calf off the Pacific Northwest on July 25. Photo courtesy of Ken Balcomb/Center for Whale Research

Scientists this week collected noninvasive samples for analysis. “Analysis of a small sample of her breath did not definitively indicate an infection or illness, although it does not rule one out either,” NOAA said in a news release.

The plan to feed live salmon to Scarlet awaits approval from Washington, D.C. headquarters. Meanwhile, logistical planning was underway.

The southern resident population consists of three pods that total only 75 orcas, according to the Center for Whale Research. J Pod consists of 23 orcas; L Pod has 34 orcas, and K Pod has 18 orcas.

In 1995, the overall southern resident population numbered 98 orcas.

–Top two images show J50, a.k.a. Scarlet, alongside her mother in 2016. Credit Melisa Pinnow/San Juan Excursions; third image shows J35 balancing her dead calf on her snout. Credit: ©Ken Balcomb/Center for Whale Research

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