Last month, it was the orca Tahlequah. Tahlequah (J-35) had given birth to a daughter, but the baby had survived just half an hour. And all around the world people watched, transfixed as Tahlequah proceeded to carry the body of her infant for more than two weeks and more than a thousand miles in what could only be interpreted as a display of profound grief and loss.
And now here we are again. On Thursday, September 14th, another member of the “J” pod of Southern Resident orcas was declared dead by the Center for Whale Research. Four-year-old Scarlet (J-50), sick, starving and emaciated, had not been seen for more than a week.
Scarlet had had a difficult start in life. Rake marks seen along her body soon after she was born suggested that she’d been a breech baby and that family members had midwifed her out of her mother Slick (J-16).
But she was a vibrant and energetic youngster who soon became something of a celebrity – a wildlife photographer’s dream – as she would launch herself out of the water in a perfect arc, nose pointing to tail, over and over again.
It didn’t last. By age three, she was looking thin and clearly weaker. And by the time she approached age four, she was the size of a two-year old.
Joe Gaydos, a wildlife veterinarian with the SeaDoc Society, called her “the thinnest killer whale I have ever seen.” But as sick as she was, Scarlet was determined to keep up with her family in their daily travels through the Salish Sea in search of food.
“She was like this little Energizer bunny that just keeps going and going, and definitely captured our hearts,” Dr. Gaydos said.
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Scarlet’s family was already in trouble. A dwindling supply of their main diet, chinook salmon, along with a growing supply of environmental and noise pollutants, was making life harder for the three pods – J, K, and L – that make up the subspecies known as the Southern Resident Killer Whales. And since they are now designated an officially endangered population, it was up to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to determine whether action should be taken to save Scarlet’s life, and if so how much. Any decision would have to take into account that orcas have especially strong social and family ties. And human interference with Scarlet could cause added stress to the rest of the pod.
We would not support her transfer to a display park or aquarium.
More than a dozen organizations collaborated under the auspices of NOAA in the effort to save Scarlet’s life. The Whale Sanctuary Project team was led by our site-search and rehab coordinator Jeff Foster. One of the world’s experts in cetacean rescue, Jeff supervised the rehab of the orphan orca Springer in 2002 and the humane capture of sea otters during the Exxon Valdez oil spill. And his dolphin rescue work during Hurricane Katrina won him the honor of being named by NOAA as Environmental Hero of the Year.
Setting aside their work at possible sanctuary locations in British Columbia and Washington, where they were conducting environmental analyses, Jeff and Katy (his wife and rescue partner) worked with NOAA and the other organizations to develop the protocols to help Scarlet, and Katy also documented the rescue effort. (Most of the photos and videos in our updates were taken by her.)
And since NOAA could not fund the costs of the participants, we were grateful to all of you whose donations made it possible for us to be involved.
From the beginning, we made it clear that we would take part in the effort as long as Scarlet continued to swim free with her family group. Only if she were to live-strand or become separated from them would we then support taking her to an ocean-based sea pen for temporary treatment prior to returning her to her pod. And under no circumstances would we support transferring her to an entertainment park or aquarium.
As the plan took shape, the protocol that Jeff recommended required that the team would first collect breath and fecal samples for analysis. Then Scarlet would receive antibiotics and other medication through injection (via a dart) or by offering her medicated fish. If her condition still deteriorated, there would be an option to pick her up – but only if she were acoustically separated from her family.
Once on board a boat, she would be examined and given medication, and preferably be put straight back in the ocean. But if her condition demanded it, she could be brought to a sea pen for more treatment and to build up her weight to the point where she could be returned to her family.
Something similar had been done 16 years earlier when an ailing orca, known as Springer, began approaching boats. She was taken to a sea pen, where she was fed and medicated for a month and then taken up to British Columbia and reunited with her Northern Resident pod.
The rescue/rehab was a major success, and Springer has since given birth to two calves. And while Scarlet’s situation was different (for starters, Springer was considered an orphan), the same sea pen was still available.
Scarlet did get two antibiotic shots, but she continued to decline, and so plans were made to pick her up if she were to become acoustically separated from her family.
But the rescue team never found her in a situation where they could pick her up. The last time she was seen was on September 7, when she was lagging up to a mile behind the rest of the family but still acoustically in touch with them.
Keeping tabs on the pod was difficult in itself, since orcas can travel up to a hundred miles a day. But when we next saw the family, a couple of days later, Scarlet’s mother Slick was not among them. We guessed that she had gone to be with Scarlet and had stayed with her until the youngster could no longer hold her head above the water.
And when we next saw Slick, she was back with the rest of the family, but with no further sign of Scarlet.
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It has always been part of our plan that at any sanctuary we create for captive whales, rescue and rehab of free-ranging whales will also be part of our work. But Scarlet’s plight propelled us into that side of our mission earlier than expected.
We couldn’t save her, but we believe the effort was worthwhile, both in itself and for the future. That’s because sooner or later – probably sooner – there will be another Southern Resident orca in trouble. And when that happens, and if the team that worked together from the start of this mission can collaborate again, then Scarlet will have left a legacy of hope for the future of her family.