Another orca calf is sick; scientists consider intervening to save her life

The death of an orca calf in J pod and her mother's mourning -- carrying her baby's body for more than 10 days -- sparked grief felt around the world.

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But now Seattle-area scientists said another southern resident orca calf's life is in danger, and they are considering intervening to save her life -- an extremely rare move.

The 4-year-old calf, J50, still travels with her mother.

Mike Ford, the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, said J50 is so sick that she could die within a couple of weeks or even days.

She’s been small since birth, but he said, in the last month researchers noticed a serious decline in her health.

“She appeared to be emaciated and in some photos, looking like she’s lost 15 to 20 percent of her body weight,” Ford said.

Another concern is that researchers said a white patch has developed near her blowhole, which could be a sign of infection.

“She’s clearly in pretty bad shape. Other whales that have looked like this have typically only survived for maybe a period of several weeks. So if there's going to be some sort of intervention, it would clearly have to happen pretty soon,” Ford said.

Two groups of scientists are monitoring her by boat. A team from Canada helps out when the pod is in its waters.

NOAA’s team leads the research.

Scientists are collecting breath sprays and fecal samples from J50 and using drones to take photos to try to figure out what's making her sick.

The work continues at NOAA’S Northwest Fisheries labs.

Research microbiologist Linda Rhodes showed KIRO7 a petri dish covered with a thin nylon mesh that’s used to collect breath samples from the orca.

“Mesh that's meant to capture as much exhaled breath droplet moisture on it as possible,” Rhodes said.

She extracted DNA from organisms on the mesh and found a fungus. She said it’s a type that can cause illness in people -- typically, people who already have an underlying condition.

Rhodes said it’s hard to say if the fungus is what’s causing J50’s illness, but the work will help veterinarians and marine biologists develop a potential treatment plan.

Some options include feeding her chinook salmon or even medicated salmon.

But the hyper-focused concern for our southern residents and the extra attention coming from researchers has some worried about whether all the continuous boat noise is making things worse.

Donna Sandstrom is on Gov. Jay Inslee’s Orca Recovery Task Force.

“We’re in a dicey situation. We're intervening with a species that should be left on its own as much as possible. To that end, rather than artificially give her salmon, I'd rather we give space to those whales so they can find the salmon that's there,” Sandstorm said.

Researchers say doing nothing is one of the options, but the monitoring now is necessary.

“It’s a lot of noise, but I think it needs to be made,” Rhodes said.

Researchers will be tracking the pod over the weekend, and NOAA said it hopes to have an action plan approved by Monday.

Including J50, there are only 75 orcas left in J pod.

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