WATCH: While images of a Southern Resident Killer Whale carrying her dead calf continue to attract international attention, US scientists are now considering an urgent rescue mission for another member of her pod who may have just days to live. Keith Vass reports.
J35, a 20-year-old female also known as Talequah, has been carrying her dead daughter since July 24, but concern is now mounting for J50.
The four-year-old member of J pod, also called Scarlet, has become increasingly emaciated in recent weeks, losing as much as 20 per cent of her body weight, and scientists fear she may not survive.
“Time is of the essence and if we’re going to do something to make a difference it has to happen soon,” said Michael Milstein, a spokesperson for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries department.
A NOAA team is considering an unprecedented effort to deliver food, medication or both directly to the struggling whale.
Milstein says they were unable to locate J50 Friday. J pod was last seen late Thursday afternoon, passing south of Victoria swimming west toward open ocean and is now believed to be off the west coast of Vancouver Island. J 35 was seen still carrying her dead calf during the sighting.
The biologists and veterinarians want to observe J50 more closely before deciding how to proceed.
“There are of course many questions about whether that would work,” said Milstein.
“Would she take any food? Could we deliver it to her without disturbing her and her mother and the rest of the pod? Those are all open questions but we have to look at all the options given how valuable this whale is to the population.”
“This is new ground that we’re plowing here, this has not really been done with a wild animal before and we want to go into it with eyes wide open, we’re very concerned also about going down that path of feeding a whale and leading to it becoming habituated to human food, which is not going to do anybody any good.”
If they can locate J pod over the weekend, the team hopes to have a rescue plan in place for J50 by Monday.
Scientists are also hoping J 35 will soon release her calf so she can return to normal feeding, and the calf can be recovered for a necropsy to determine how exactly it died.
The two ailing whales are among just a handful of breeding-age females in the critically Southern Resident endangered population, whose numbers have dwindled to just 75 individuals.
Univeristy of Victoria historian Jason Colby, who recently published a book about our relationships with the orcas, says the images showing J35’s apparent grief should prompt reflection on human causes of their decline.
“It seems to be pointing the finger back at us a little bit to ask ourselves to ask ourselves what have we done, how responsible are we for this? And what I often ask is do we have a moral responsibility to this family to help them survive.”
“They’re the canary in the coal mine,” he said. “The fact that they’re struggling as a small number of apex predators to find enough chinook salmon to eat shows that we’ve really depleted and damaged this ecosystem.”