Updates on Southern Resident Killer Whales J50 archive

September 11: NOAA Fisheries and our partners have been exploring and taking action to save J50 because of her importance as a contributing member of this population, and particularly to J Pod. The public has a stake in the J50 response and the recovery of Southern Resident killer whales and we understand many people are concerned. We want to know what people in the region think about this effort and potential steps so we are holding two public meetings in Washington State to hear the public’s views:

September 10: New aerial images collected through a collaboration between SR3 and NOAA Fisheries' Southwest Fisheries Science Center has given us new insight into the condition of J50 and her mother, J16. These images will help the teams assess further options to support J50. See the images at SR3’s website.

September 8: J50 was seen lagging a half-mile to a mile behind the rest of her family group at times on Friday (9/7), and her body condition is not improving. She appeared to have lost more weight and looked very thin. With growing concern, we are working with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to evaluate options. Our highest priorities are to do all we can to ensure J50 remains a contributing part of the Southern Resident killer whale population and to prevent any harm to her and her family under any potential response scenario. That is the bottom line.

September 6: Results are back from fecal and breath samples the team collected from a small group of J Pod whales, including J50. Based on genetic analysis, we determined that the fecal sample (collected 8/17) likely came from J16, J50’s mother. This sample showed evidence of parasitic worms. Since J16 catches fish that she then shares with J50, the veterinary team prioritized treating J50 with a dewormer, following antibiotics. A second fecal sample was identified as coming from J27, an adult male. Researchers at our Northwest Fisheries Science Center extracted DNA from the breath sample collected on 8/9. While the sample was small and yielded little DNA, researchers are adapting their analysis to make the most of the available material.

September 4: Biologists observing J50 on Monday (9/3) noted she was remarkably active and engaged with J Pod despite her severely emaciated condition. J50 stayed close to her mother, J16, and continued the longer dives expected of healthy whales. Veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena of the Vancouver Aquarium provided J50 another dose of antibiotics through a dart, following up the initial dose administered on 8/9. The treatment priority has now shifted to administering a dewormer, also through a dart, to reduce any parasitic burden on J50’s system.

September 3, 11:45 a.m.: Good news! Multiple organizations are reporting that J50 has been spotted with J Pod in the Salish Sea this morning. We will continue efforts to assess the health of J50 and treat her according to the priorities outlined by the team of veterinarians and scientists.

September 3:
J50 was not seen returning from open waters off the West Coast of Vancouver Island to the Salish Sea with J Pod this weekend (9/1-2). Biologists from The Center for Whale Research, Soundwatch,  and the University of Washington spent much of the day Sunday with other members of J Pod, including J16, her mother, and J50 was not seen with them. The team has several boats on the water today to look for her. One of the last sightings by DFO on Thursday (8/30) reported that J16 and J26, J50’s brother, were lagging behind most of J Pod by about three nautical miles, and J50 was lagging about a half-mile behind them. Sometimes she got closer, but she looked to be struggling to keep up. The standard for determining the loss of any of the Southern Residents is to spot a whale’s family group multiple times without them. This rule may be relevant for J50 in order to confirm her status given how far behind the other whales she had followed at times.

August 27: J50 spotted with her family near Jordan River, B.C., on Friday (8/24).

August 20: Response teams spent about three hours on Saturday (8/18) monitoring J50/Scarlet as J Pod returned to the Salish Sea on the way towards San Juan Island. Biologists aboard a SeaDoc Society vessel reported J50/Scarlet actively socializing with the rest of the pod, a hint that her condition may be improving slightly. She fell behind the pod as the whales swam east, but a University of Washington (UW) team saw her rejoin her mother (J16/Slick) and sister (J42/Echo) to forage near Hannah Heights on the west side of San Juan Island. The UW team also collected two fecal samples from the group. On Sunday (8/19) J Pod was seen heading west, back toward open ocean. The plan going forward is to administer another dose of antibiotic through a dart and, if possible, a second dart with dewormer to reduce parasitic worms, known to be harmful in emaciated marine mammals like J50/Scarlet, and that were found in the recent fecal samples from a group of three whales including J50. The veterinary team believes another dose of antibiotic remains the priority to treat potential infection since the first dart on 8/9 delivered only half a dose. Darting a swimming killer whale that has thick skin, particularly on fins and flukes, from a rocking boat is challenging. To ensure that J50/Scarlet receives the medication, veterinarians may switch to a collared needle with a ridge that holds it in place long enough to deliver the full dose. This type of dart is commonly used to treat wildlife, such as elephants, and will fall out in time. See new photos from Saturday (8/18) at flic.kr/s/aHsmpvmT1o.

August 17: Test results from the health samples collected from J50/Scarlet are starting to come in from several top laboratories around the country. A fecal sample collected last weekend from a group of three J Pod whales (J16/Slick, J42/Echo, and J50/Scarlet), showed high levels of Contracaecum, a nematode parasite that is commonly found in killer whales and other marine mammals. The worm is not usually a problem in healthy animals. However, in animals that are emaciated or are otherwise compromised, the parasite can penetrate the stomach lining, introducing bacterial infection to the bloodstream, or it can bore into internal organs. While we cannot be sure the sample came from J50/Scarlet, the veterinary team has updated her treatment priorities to include antibiotics and a dewormer. Both have proven successful and safe in other cetaceans. The treatment should help J50/Scarlet by reducing bacterial and parasitic burdens on her system so she can start regaining the weight she has lost. The whales remain in open waters off the west side of Vancouver Island, beyond the reach of the response teams.

August 14: Now that the response team has met its initial goals for J50 / Scarlet’s health assessment and treatment, and J Pod has headed out to open waters, biologists and veterinarians are taking stock of what they have learned so far. They are reviewing video footage and photos and processing samples to gain further insights into her health and behavior. Teams continue to monitor the whales and collect fecal and prey samples (e.g., fish scales) when possible. They will also review the results of Sunday’s (8/12) feeding trial while they determine next steps.

August 13: Press Call transcript

Audio File: NMFS 08/13/2018 Press Call MP3 (7958 kb)

August 12: Favorable conditions allowed the teams to proceed with an experimental live fish release off the west side of San Juan Island to evaluate the process as a way to treat J50 / Scarlet with medication and supplements. Under the direction of Jeff Foster with the Whale Sanctuary Program, a Lummi Nation vessel released eight live hatchery salmon about 75 to 150 yards in front of her, while teams observed from NOAA Fisheries and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) vessels. While she appeared to react to the released fish by quickly diving, biologists could not confirm from the vessels whether she took the fish, and they are reviewing aerial footage for further clues. J50 / Scarlet socialized with members of J Pod but sometimes fell behind in the strong current. Researchers collected a fecal sample from the pod but could not confirm whether it was from J50 herself. Fecal samples can reveal whether the whales are eating, what they are eating, provide clues about their health, and gauge their stress levels by evaluating hormones such as cortisol.

August 11: The team spent several hours with J50 / Scarlet watching her behavior and interaction with members of J pod. Researchers from the Univ. of WA observed her swimming with the pod while trying to collect a fecal sample. Later the team watched her fall as much as 1 kilometer (~1/2 mile) behind against a strong tidal current. Biologists were concerned that they did not see her eat, even in a prime foraging area off San Juan Island. A charter company reported seeing her catch a fish earlier in the day.

August 10: J pod moved into Canadian waters. The team spotted J50 / Scarlet and watched as she repeatedly dove and surfaced where the pod was feeding. Biologists could not tell whether she also fed, but they collected leftover scale samples that will help identify what kind of salmon or other fish the whales had eaten. She again appeared active and energetic.

August 9: Response teams reached J Pod in Canadian waters and followed them into U.S. waters near San Juan Island. While very skinny and small, J50 / Scarlet kept up well with her mother and siblings. Vancouver Aquarium’s veterinarian and the team conducted a visual assessment, obtained a breath sample that will help assess any infection, and administered antibiotics through a dart. Next steps are to continue observations and consider trial feeding as a future route for delivering medications.

August 8: DFO spotted Jpod in U.S. waters off the Olympic Peninsula northwest of Neah Bay, Wash. J50/Scarlet was with her mother, J16, known as Slick. Teams are prepared to attempt a response tomorrow, if there is opportunity.

August 7: J50 was spotted by Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans Canada with her pod off Port Renfew, near the west entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Throughout the day, as some teams searched for J50, other partners in the effort continued making important preparations to be ready for an opportunity to assess J50's health.

Audio file: NMFS 08/07/18 Press Call MP3 (8.26 MB)

August 6: Responders continued searching for J pod today without success. The whales have not been seen since Saturday night, when spotted in open waters on the west side of Vancouver Island. Veterinarians are on standby to conduct a health assessment of J50.

Audio file: NMFS 08/06/18 Press Call MP3 (6.44 MB)

August 4: J50 was seen with her pod (J pod) around the west side of Vancouver Island, beyond the reach of most response vessels. We are awaiting an opportunity to complete a veterinary medical assessment.

August 3: Analysis of a small sample of her breath did not definitively indicate an infection or illness, although it does not rule one out either. SR3, a response partner, posted photos of J50 taken in May 2017 and August 2018 for comparison.

August 2: Experts agreed to focus efforts over the next few days on obtaining better photographs of J50 and conducting a veterinary health assessment to inform options for a decision on whether and how they might be able to respond. More: Biologists assess condition of Southern Resident killer whale J50.