Published: Fri, September 14, 2018
Science | By

Ailing orca J50 declared dead, but feds to keep looking

Whale experts feared the orca was dead earlier this month when J50 lagged behind her family and went missing. But, he said the US and Canadian governments plan to continue searching Friday on the chance she's still alive.

"We're watching a population marching toward extinction", Ken Balcomb of the Centre for Whale Research said on Thursday.

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) say they are concerned that the ailing killer whale known as J50 has not been seen in several days.

The young orca, once known for her propensity to breach by launching her body out of the water, has become sickly and emaciated in recent months.

The southern resident killer whales, which are so endangered there are just 75 individuals left, swim between Canadian and US waters to Seattle and Vancouver ports through busy shipping lanes.

By Thursday evening, however, there were still no sightings of J50 and the Center for Whale Research listed her as "presumed dead". The grieving mother, an orca called Tahlequah, made worldwide headlines over the summer when she carried her baby's body for at least 17 days, bringing global attention to the plight of her pod.

Experts had been preparing last-ditch efforts to save the almost 4-year-old, emaciated whale that included the possibility of capturing and treating her. Attempts ranged from shooting antibiotic darts at her to trying to get her to eat medicated chinook salmon, the orcas's main food source, the Seattle Times reported. Efforts to save the sick whale have not been successful. "We don't think she has long".

In July and August, a female killer whale known as J35 spent 17 days carrying the carcass of her calf, which died shortly after being born on July 24.

"We are increasing water surveillance in hopes of finding her", he said on Twitter. Authorities also alerted a network of people who respond when marine mammals wash ashore.

"She was like this little Energizer bunny that just keeps going and going, and definitely captured our hearts", he said.

Joseph Gaydos, a wildlife veterinarian with the SeaDoc Society in Washington state, saw J50 a week ago and described her as the thinnest killer whale he'd ever seen. The whales are threatened by toxins, ship traffic and a lack of food, specifically chinook salmon, according to the Center for Whale Research.

The death leaves just 74 whales in the pod that has failed to reproduce successfully in the past three years in waters off Washington state and Canada.

If J50 is dead, it's the second major loss for her pod this summer.

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