August 11, 2018 5:06 pm

Peter Watts: Orca research, relief efforts bring new meaning to ‘whale watching’


Those of you who have had a chance to go whale watching will be fascinated, I’m sure, by the stories unfolding on the West Coast.

One story concerns a mother orca — or killer whale — which refuses to let go of her dead baby.  She’s been keeping it by her side for a couple of weeks.  It’s like she’s depressed that her baby is gone and she’s unwilling to move on.

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The other story is about another killer whale, known as “J50.”  She’s developed some type of illness and her ailment has caught the interest of researchers and veterinarians from all over the world.

READ MORE: Concern growing for killer whale carrying dead baby for more than two weeks

J50 is part of a pod of 23 killer whales which has been moving back and forth through the waters of Canada and the United States.  On Thursday evening, a team from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was able to get close enough to inject a dart of antibiotics into the animal and to gather air and tissue samples in an effort to find out what is wrong with her.

“So far as we know, this is something that has never been tried before,” NOAA spokesman Michael Milstein told me.  “There are only about 75 killer whales left in the world, so it’s important when any one of them, particularly a young female, is sick.  We’re getting a lot of co-operation from a variety of international agencies and researchers as we try to determine how to help her get well.”

Just to be able to find the pod at sea, to identify a particular killer whale, and to get close enough to examine her seems to me to be a particular achievement.

READ MORE: An endangered orca mother has carried her dead baby through the Salish Sea for 4 days

“Once we’ve analyzed the whale tissue, we hope to be able to determine how best to help her,” said Milstein.  “This particular pod is partial to salmon as a feedstock.  So we may try to see if J50 will accept salmon, in which further antibiotics will be included.  Part of her problem is that she is underweight, although she seems able to keep up with the rest of the pod.”

It seems like a remarkable exercise to me.  It requires only a happy ending.

Regardless, it will be a valuable learning exercise for those who study killer whales.  The animals don’t seem troubled by the boats that have shown up nearby, although officials are trying to limit contact because the sound of motors interferes with the whales’ own sonar.

It brings a whole new meaning to whale watching, though, doesn’t it?

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