Sick orca J50 declared dead by Center for Whale Research but NOAA still searching

Sick orca J50 declared dead by Center for Whale Research but NOAA still searching
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WATCH: Late in the afternoon, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research declared J50 dead after a massive day-long search failed to turn up the sick orca. Mary Griffin reports.

J50, the ailing three-year-old southern resident killer whale, was declared dead on Thursday by the Center for Whale Research after she was not spotted with her pod for several days.

However, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the search for the orca continues on the water and in the air, with assistance from the U.S. Coast Guard.

“We have not given up,” the NOAA tweeted.

The sick orca was last seen on Sept.7 but had not been spotted with her family during several sightings around the San Juan Islands. She was also not seen in a superpod gathering on Thursday, where 60 whales from  J, K, and L pod were seen off Oak Bay and near Race Rocks.

Ken Balcomb from the Center for Whale Research declared J50 dead at 4:55 p.m.

“The remains have sunk, no doubt, because she was so skinny that she didn’t have anything that would float her,” said Balcomb, who tracks killer whales. “No significant blubber layer, her lungs wouldn’t hold much air to float the carcass so she probably sank somewhere in deep enough water that she’s not going to buoy up from decomposition.”

He believes she died between last Friday and Monday.

“I know that she is gone for a week and deceased,” he said Thursday. “There is no chance that she will still be alive, so we’re writing her off.”

“The remains have sunk, no doubt, because she was so skinny that she didn’t have anything that would float her,” said Balcomb, who tracks killer whales. “No significant blubber layer, her lungs wouldn’t hold much air to float the carcass so she probably sank somewhere ? in deep enough water that she’s not going to buoy up from decomposition.”

The endangered southern resident killer whale population have not had a successful birth in three years.

“We are devastated by the loss of J50. Not only does this bring the population closer to extinction, but we have also lost future generations with her death,” said Robb Krehbiel, northwest representative of Defenders of Wildlife.

“Despite the emergency response to feed her and provide her with medicine, these efforts were not enough. It is a heartbreaking reminder that we cannot save these whales on a case-by-case individual basis.”

J50, also known as Scarlet, was born in December 2014, and part of the baby boom where 11 calves were born between 2014 and 2016.  But with the death of J50, only four are still alive today.

Throughout 2017 and this year, J50’s weight shrunk. The latest aerial images of J50 show a “peanut head” appearance, which is caused by loss of fat behind the head.

Aerial images of Southern Resident killer whale juvenile J50, taken on May 31, 2017 (left), August 1st 2018 (center) and September 3rd 2018 (right) for comparison. In the 2018 photos, she is in poor body condition revealing a very thin profile, and loss of fat behind the head creating a “peanut head” appearance that has become more prominent over the last month. Images by Holly Fearnbach (SR3) and John Durban (NOAA) obtained with an unmanned drone, piloted non-invasively >100ft above the whales under NMFS research permit #19091.

Aerial image of Southern Resident killer whale juvenile J50, swimming alongside her mother (J16) on September 3rd 2018 (right) for comparison. This highlights the small size and thin body profile of J50. Images by Holly Fearnbach (SR3) and John Durban (NOAA) obtained with an unmanned drone, piloted non-invasively >100ft above the whales under NMFS research permit #19091.

NOAA confirmed last week that parasitic worms had been found in several fecal samples of the J-Pod whales with whom J50 shares fish, including with her mother. J50’s health had been declining for months and there were concerns over the Labour Day long weekend when she was not seen with the rest of her pod in the waters between Victoria and Seattle.

She appeared again on Sept. 3 and was given an antibiotic dart by researchers.

The NOAA then announced a plan Wednesday to capture J50 and take her into temporary captivity for assessment and, if possible, rehabilitation.  NOAA said it would act immediately if the whale stranded or was separated from her family.

Teams on the water, along with pilots around the San Juan Islands, searching Canadian and American waters Thursday for the whale.

But in the end, there was no sign of Scarlet.  There are now 74 remaining southern resident killer whales.

With files from The Canadian Press

 

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