What We Learned From J50

By Joe Gaydos

This past summer the world watched as the small 4-year-old southern resident killer whale, J50, lost weight and, despite medical efforts to help, died (see below for links to media coverage). Scarlet, named for the rake marks or scars seen on her body shortly after birth, quickly captured the hearts of southern resident watchers thanks to her breaches and extreme surface activities.

Collaborative photogrammetry studies by NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science CenterSR3 and the Vancouver Aquarium documented that Scarlet had always been small for her age. The Center for Whale Research recognized how thin she was this past spring and several biologists noted a fetid smell to her breath. Follow-up photogrammetry efforts quantified a considerable loss in her nutritional condition, and numerous phone calls and meetings eventually led to the first ever attempt to provide medical intervention for a free-ranging southern resident killer whale. Many people asked, "Why now?" Was it a media ploy on the heels of the tragedy of J35 (Tahlequah) carrying her dead calf for 17 days? While the timing could make you think so, it was not.

Initial discussions about potential veterinary intervention for live-stranded or sick southern residents occurred at a killer whale health meeting in March 2016. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program and NOAA Fisheries supported this workshop through a grant to the SeaDoc Society and the National Marine Mammal Foundation. Discussion continued at a follow-up workshop in March of 2017 and there after a small group of biologists and veterinarians continued to gather information and prepare for an intervention, should the need arise; which it did this past summer.

While interventions to help Scarlet were focused on a single animal, all collaborators recognized that these actions also had the potential to benefit the population.  With so few breeding females in the southern resident population, the potential loss of another future breeding female represented a significant reduction in the population's ability to grow.

Photo by NOAA

Unfortunately, veterinary efforts to help J50 were not successful. Despite efforts, J50 continued to lose body condition, eventually disappeared, and was declared dead in early September. Sad as it was for all of us, we did, however, learn a lot from this unprecedented effort.

Here’s a visual calendar of J50 emergency response, courtesy of NOAA.

First, the expertise to conduct these types of interventions exists and can be harnessed into a well coordinated US-Canadian transboundary effort. People from myriad organizations and agencies came together and provided in-kind resources and support to help: Abbotsford Animal Health Centre, Canada's Fisheries and Oceans, Center for Whale Research, National Marine Mammal Foundation, NOAA Fisheries, SeaDoc Society (UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine), SeaWorld, Soundwatch and the Whale Museum, SR3, University of Washington, Vancouver Aquarium, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Whale Sanctuary Project and Wild Orca were all major contributors to the effort.

Second, we are still limited by our ability to remotely diagnose, and therefore treat disease, in free-swimming orcas. Despite our best efforts using her history, visual assessments, behavioral assessments, and evaluation of blow (breath) and fecal samples, we never identified a cause for her sickness. Consequently, treatment attempts focused on addressing potential secondary factors such as bacterial pneumonia and parasitism. Better non-invasive sampling and testing tools will improve our ability to better understand causes and contributing factors allowing us to deliver better medical assistance in the future.

Third, none of the people working overtime to help J50 ever lost sight of the bigger picture - the need to take the major actions necessary to recover the entire southern resident population: increasing salmon, decreasing underwater noise, and reducing man made contaminants. One of the models we've studied for successfully intervening in free-ranging wildlife is SeaDoc's sister program, the Gorilla Doctors, who have provided health care for endangered mountain gorillas in central Africa for over two decades. This example of extreme veterinary intervention has been responsible for half of the 4% growth rate achieved in these endangered animals. But while veterinary intervention to remove snares or treat respiratory disease passed from people to gorillas was ongoing, biologists never stopped addressing other threats. Currently the Government of Rwanda is even using tourist permit revenues to purchase farmland and convert it back into needed forest habitat for these animals. Individual animal care is important for small, endangered populations, but it won't help without simultaneous ecosystem-level recovery efforts.

Veterinarians and biologists are moving forward to improve tools for diagnosing and treating disease in free-ranging killer whales and for responding to killer whale emergencies such as a live stranding or an oil spill. We have even created individual animal health records to more clearly follow the health of individuals over time thanks to funding from NOAA Fisheries, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Microsoft's AI for Earth program. These efforts, however, have in no way slowed efforts to improve the ecosystem for these animals.

If you are concerned about the plight of the southern resident killer whales and want to take action, now is the time for you to make your voice heard. We on the Governor's killer whale task force are discussing bold actions and want to hear from you.

Please reach out and provide specific feedback on draft recommendations or just provide general comments on what you will or will not support to guide us as we move forward in recovering southern resident killer whales:

  • Are We Watching the Real-Time Extincgtion of the Southern Resident Orca? (Vancouver Sun)

  • Young Orca's Death Inspires Health Database For Surviving Whales (KING5)

  • Podcast: Joe Gaydos Talks Killer Whale Health Database with Alison Morrow (Listen)

  • 'Spunky' Orca J50 Was an Inspiration to Researchers (The Star Vancouver)

  • NOAA Considers Pulling Orca J50 From Wild for Treatment (KIRO)

  • Firing a Dart Into a Wild, Sick Orca 'A Little Bit Different' (Seattle Times)