An international team of experts has successfully administered antibiotics to ailing young orca J50 in an emergency effort to save her life, an apparent first for an orca in the wild.
Three-and-a-half-year-old “Scarlet” is underweight and suffers from periods of lethargy.
“Having not laid eyes on her personally before, it was dramatic how thin she is,” said Dr. Marty Haulena, the Vancouver Aquarium’s head veterinarian. “She has been thin for a while, so this may not be an acute illness, but her body condition is incredibly concerning.”
After tracking J50 from Canadian to U.S. waters over six hours on Thursday, Haulena used a dart to deliver a dose of Convenia, a long-lasting veterinary antibiotic.
When conditions were right, the team of American and Canadian biologists and vets didn’t hesitate.
“This was our first opportunity in nearly a week of trying to get near the whale,” said Haulena. “There is very little risk to the animal getting a shot of long-lasting antibiotic, but the potential gain was quite large.”
The treatment appears to be the first time an orca has been medicated remotely in the wild.
The team of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration biologists and vets was also able to take blow samples from J50 exhaling.
Those samples have been sent for analysis, specifically for harmful bacteria and fungi from the airway. Individual results could take months to come back.
“While we wait for the results, we are treating what is treatable,” said Haulena. “We will consider other medications in the coming days as we get more information.”
After the examination, Haulena was leaning away from respiratory infection or pneumonia as an explanation for J50’s condition.
J50 was observed to be moving well, diving and moving from group to group, but he cautioned that other whales in similar condition to J50 have not survived.
“What we are going to concentrate on in the next few days is her ability to eat,” said Haulena.
Biologists will watch to see if the young whale is foraging, determine if she vomits after eating, observe the health of her scat, and obtain a fecal sample.
J50 is a member of J Pod of the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale group, that includes orca J35 “Tahlequah” who has been carrying her dead calf with her for more than two weeks.
There are plans to attempt to feed J50 while she is in U.S. waters, but the procedure depends on ocean conditions and the behaviour of J50 and the rest of the pod, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries biologist Lynne Barre.
“Our goal is to see if this is a viable option to deliver medication,” she said. “Can we do it when she is a bit separated from the group? Can we do it safely and are we able to observe her response?”
If the plan goes ahead, J50 would be given unmedicated fish to see if feeding is feasible and gauge her response.
The group has not sought permission to attempt feeding her in Canadian waters.
DFO is asking that boaters and whale watchers maintain a 500-metre buffer zone around J50.
“She appears to be in distress and may not be feeding successfully, so we are asking vessels continue to give her a wide berth,” said DFO regional director Andrew Thomson. “That will be to the benefit of this animal.”