It was the break scientists were hoping for.
After days of tracking the killer whale known as J50, or ‘Scarlet’, Vancouver Aquarium head veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena was finally able to get close enough to her on Thursday to administer of a dose of antibiotic through a dart.
“This was our first opportunity in at least a week of really trying hard to get near the whale. So that was a big issue. Conditions were quite good,” said Haulena.
“Even after following the whale for six hours there was only really one or two opportunities to deliver the medication.”
The team of scientists, veterinarians and support crew were also able to obtain a breath sample that will help assess whether J50 has an infection.
Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and the the U.S.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) will now determine whether to proceed with trial feeding, depending on conditions and the location of the whales.
The samples were processed last night and shipped to the lab. The comprehensive results are not expected until next week. There are still concerns about J50’s weight and Haulena described “her body condition is incredibly concerning.”
“The facts remain that other whales that have been in this condition have not survived,” said Haulena.
“To us she is still a critical whale. Some of things that are going in her favour, I suppose, is she has a been a thin whale for a relatively long time, so we are looking at an acute disease process.”
What makes this whale so important for scientists is that it is part of the endangered population of southern resident killer whales, and there are just 75 remaining in the J-pod.
The population of southern resident killer whales in the Salish Sea was recorded at 98 in 1995, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“We have been working for over a decade to better understand the threats, the issues around is there enough prey for these whales, are there vessel sounds and disturbance that effects the ability to get the prey that is out there and also the high levels of contaminants and how they can effect the health,” said Lynne Barre, recovery coordinator for the Southern Resident Killer Whale Program at NOAA.
“This is an important opportunity for us to learn more about the condition of a whale.”
Based on the test results for J50, who has been observed swimming closely to its mother, the scientists could decide different types of treatment.
One option for the nearly four-year-old whale is to feed it a medicated fish, but that technique has never been done on B.C.’s coast.
The whale has been seen along the coast near Sooke and Port Renfrew off Vancouver Island. Scientists say so much time is being invested in tracking this whale is an attempt to figure out how to best help her.
“As a veterinarian, at the end of the day it’s caring about animals, which is my driver and the big driver for all the folks that have come to aid J50,” said Haulena.
“It is why I do what I do, to come to the aid of an animal, in particular an endangered species living right in our back yard.”
Scientists want to do everything possible to keep J50 alive because of her reproductive potential. The whale has always been smaller and shorter than a typical orca whale at her age, but has not gained weight as expected.
“When we first sighted her in June she was showing signs of what we refer to as ‘peanut head,’ tissue loss to the point when you start to get shadows and divots behind the skull and we are not seeing improvement,” said DFO killer whale researcher Sheila Thornton.
“Not only is she not improving, it looks like she is deteriorating in a period where we would expect her to improve.”