Orca J50 Declared Dead but Search for Ailing Killer Whale Goes On

A73 the orphaned orca Springer is active alert vocalizing and close to release from her pen in Dong Chong Bay off Vancouver Island. Jim Horton left and Brian O’Neill keep close watch as she breaches part of the rescue team. (Alan Berner  The S

Her mother, J16, has also declined in the past month, perhaps because of the burden of helping catch and share food with J50, experts said.

"The Center for Whale Research has had a vessel on the water looking for J50 for the past three days", the agency said. The West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network and airlines flying in and out of the San Juan Islands are on the lookout, he said.

Without J50, the population is now down to 74 members - their numbers reached almost 100 in 1995 - and many of its existing female members are nearing the age where they will no longer be able to reproduce, Ken Balcomb, founder and principal investigator of the Center for Whale Research, told The Washington Post in July.

The Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Washington said the last known sighting of J50 was September 7.

He said J50 has not been seen despite several days of favourable sighting conditions.

Her loss brings the population of orcas that spend much of their time in the Pacific Northwest to just 74.

David Ellifrit/Center for Whale Research via AP J35, also known as Tahlequah, pushed her dead calf around the Pacific Northwest for more than two weeks in what was widely seen as a mourning ritual.

"Not only are the Southern Resident killer whales dying and unable to reproduce sufficiently, but also their scarce presence in the Salish Sea is an indication that adequate food is no longer available for them here, or along the coast".

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J50 had a tough life from the start.

She was known for her spectacular breaches, as many as 40 in a row, sometimes with her body in an arch. Her "peanut head" became more pronounced as the layers of fat disappeared from the base of her head.

J50 has surprised people before, going missing for days, then turning up within hours of announcements that she perhaps was gone for good.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Canada and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US launched a massive cross-border search effort Thursday. A sharpshooting veterinarian fired an antibiotic-filled dart into her, crews dropped live salmon in front of her to try to get her to eat, and scientists even mulled capturing her so they could diagnose and treat her.

Anxious about her survival, the NOAA Fisheries and its partners announced Tuesday that plans are underway to possibly capture J50 in an effort to save her life. Debate swirled over whether the agency should act, or why it hadn't acted sooner, and the ethics of such extreme intervention. "What J50 needed, and what her family continues to need, is healthy and abundant chinook salmon, which these orcas depend upon for survival". "They were really sweet together", Giles said. Losing J50 would also mean losing her reproductive potential. But she later turned up and was seen with her family.

Officials said they would intervene and rescue the orca if she became stranded or separated from the rest of her tightly knit group of whales.

Public meetings held by NOAA to hear concerns and thoughts from the public about southern resident killer whale recovery are still on schedule for this weekend, including one at 7 p.m. Saturday in Friday Harbor at the high school and 1 p.m. Sunday at the Haggett Hall Cascade Room at the University of Washington in Seattle.

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