NOAA plans for live capture of 3-year-old orca

The “thinnest killer whale I’d ever seen,” veterinarian Joe Gaydos said.

U.S. and Canadian Wildlife officials say they are prepared to rescue a sick killer whale near Washington’s San Juan Islands should her situation deteriorate further.

The three-year-old female orca known as J50 has lost a dangerous amount of body fat since May 2017, drone images show, and has developed what’s called “peanut head,” a sign of extreme emaciation. The cause of her illness is not known.

Experts agree that her situation is dire. UC Davis veterinarian Dr. Joe Gaydos, who is working with NOAA on the monitoring effort, said that 11 out of 13 whales exhibiting similar symptoms in the region have not survived.

“It was striking to me how thin she was,” said Gaydos, who saw J50 last week.

On a call with journalists Wednesday, representatives of NOAA, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada said plans are in the works to orchestrate a live capture should the whale become stranded or irrevocably separated from her pod.

Live captures of wild animals, particularly sick ones, can cause trauma and stress, Gaydos said. In this case, it will be used as a last resort.

“We are preparing to rescue J50 if she ultimately is separated from her family or stranded alive and rescuing her is the only alternative,” said Chris Yates, an administrator in NOAA’s protected resource division.

Treatments with antibiotics and deworming medication have not worked so far. Deworming medication was administered after a fecal sample from J50’s mother, J16, showed evidence of parasitic worms.

All treatments have had to be administered remotely, via darts. Should the whale become permanently separated leading to a rescue, a contingency plan is in place for blood tests, hearing tests, an endoscopy and an ultrasound to attempt to diagnose her illness.

“If we were to rescue her, all of our focus and effort would be to provide medical care with the goal of her returning to the wild,” Yates said.

“Our highest priorities are to do all we can to ensure J50 remains a contributing part of the Southern Resident killer whale population,” a NOAA update states.

Southern Resident killer whales are critically endangered, experts say, numbering just 75 animals, per NOAA data.

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