Sick orca gets shot of antibiotics as rescuers prepare feeding attempt

John Durban  NOAA Fisheries FILE

About two weeks ago, a heartbreaking picture of an orca mother carrying her dead calf tugged on the heartstrings of the Internet.

The female orca known as J35 has been clinging to its calf since it died July 24, an image of grief that has struck an emotional chord worldwide.

Whale experts have been increasingly anxious about J50 after a researcher last month noticed an odor on the orca's breath, a smell detected on other orcas that later died.

Scientists are reporting progress in the race to help an emaciated and endangered West Coast killer whale in the waters of the Salish Sea.

The U.S. and Canada have no plans to remove J50 from her pod in order to feed or medicate her, as that would likely cause too much stress to J50 and her pod.

While it's not clear what that problem is, a response team led by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) located the whale Thursday, obtained a breath sample and delivered a broad-spectrum antibiotic using a dart.

The Lummi Nation is also standing by to provide live chinook salmon for the young whale. She was moved into a floating net pen and veterinarians assessed her medical condition and treated her.

Michael Milstein with NOAA Fisheries says experts plan to do a health assessment of the young whale if conditions allow.

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A team set out Thursday and found the young whale alone, said Vancouver Aquarium veterinarian Martin Haulena on a conference call with reporters Friday. "That is very good news", he said.

"Obviously the connection they've formed with this calf is substantial and it's something that we do have to take into account", he said. However, Hanson said, conditions have to be just right to do so.

But they don't plan to intervene to help a mother orca in the same critically endangered pod that also has them anxious.

"If it's determined that antibiotics would be useful, then antibiotics through injection is going to be our best course rather than antibiotics through food, because we recognize that we won't able to treat her every day", Rowles said.

U.S. biologists are racing to find the underweight 3-year-old animal to administer antibiotics either through food or by injection, but she could be dead or in Canada. The orca would initially get just a few fish to see whether it takes it and how it and members of its pod respond before deciding whether to give it salmon dosed with medication, officials have said.

With the whale far away and a bin full of salmon pulled that morning from a state hatchery, crews did a practice run to work out the logistics of feeding live fish to a whale while staying ahead of it in a boat.

An global team of experts has been waiting for an opportunity to get close to the female killer whale so they can carry out an emergency plan that includes giving her antibiotics or feeding her live salmon at sea.

Last week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee released a video statement on Facebook detailing what his office is doing to protect the orca population in the waters around the state.

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