A live Chinook salmon goes into a tube and out into the open ocean, hopefully finding its way to one emaciated whale.
There’s a reason this technique has never been tried before. It’s not only complicated, it’s incredibly risky.
“They are using a tube to essentially drop the fish into the water… to ensure that the whales, who have very good eyesight and obviously are very intelligent, don’t associate people with salmon availability,” Michael Milstein with the U.S.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said.
WATCH: Scientists give sick J50 orca first round of treatment
It’s a chance they’re willing to take to try and save J50, the three-and-a-half-year-old female who has lost a significant amount of weight in recent months, and now appears lethargic.
Last week, scientists took the first step in her treatment, administering a dose of antibiotics with a dart and obtaining a blow sample to help determine what’s wrong.
Sunday’s feeding trial was an attempt to bolster her chances of survival.
“If she does eat fish from that sort of method, it does give us one more tool in our ability to treat her,” Vancouver Aquarium veterinarian Martin Haulena said.
WATCH: A cross-border effort is underway to save ailing orca
It’s not known if J50 actually consumed a fish and because of the conditions, they were unable to obtain a scale sample from the water to confirm.
But a fecal sample was obtained from a subgroup of whales, including J50, that’s now undergoing analysis.
“That can tell us whether she’s eating, what she’s eating and get a sense of what’s going on in her body at the time,” Milstein said.
WATCH: Malnourished orca rescue effort
J50’s survival is crucial.
Her death would further devastate the population that has now dwindled to just 75.
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.
That has the odds stacked against them.
“Contamination and pollution, lack of prey, and then vessel traffic and its pollution… it’s kind of like this 1-2-3 punch,” said Taylor Shedd of Soundwatch.