The Whale Sanctuary Project has joined an emergency effort in the Pacific Northwest to try to save the life of the orca J-50, also known as Scarlett. The four-year-old whale is emaciated and starving, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is working with several organizations to help her. Two of our team members, Jeff Foster and Katy Laveck Foster, are coordinating much of the field work. NOAA is also monitoring the behavior of Tahlequah (J-35), who gave birth to a daughter on July 24th. The infant survived only a half-hour. And in an unprecedented display of grief, Tahlequah has been carrying her daughter’s body around.
We are updating this page regularly to keep you informed of how Scarlet and Tahlequah are doing.
August 17: Test results from the health samples collected from Scarlet/J-50 are starting to come in from several top laboratories around the country.
A fecal sample collected last weekend from Scarlet and from her mother Slick/J16 and her sister Echo/J-42 showed high levels of Contracaecum, a nematode parasite that is commonly found in killer whales and other marine mammals.
The worm is not usually a problem in healthy animals. However, in animals that are emaciated or are otherwise compromised, the parasite can penetrate the stomach lining, introducing bacterial infection to the bloodstream, or it can bore into internal organs. While we cannot be sure the sample came from Scarlet, the veterinary team has updated her treatment priorities to include antibiotics and a dewormer. Both have proven successful and safe in other cetaceans. The treatment should help Scarlet by reducing bacterial and parasitic burdens on her system so she can start regaining the weight she has lost.
The whales remain in open waters off the west side of Vancouver Island, beyond the reach of the response teams.
August 14: The J pod has headed out into open waters for a few days, so the team won’t be able to work directly with Scarlet until the pod returns. Meanwhile, NOAA posted the following this morning:
From NOAA – “Now that the response team has met all the initial goals for Scarlet/J-50’s health assessment and treatment, and the J Pod has headed out to open waters, biologists and veterinarians are taking stock of what they have learned so far. They are reviewing video footage and photos and processing samples to gain further insights into Scarlet’s health and behavior. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, University of Washington, Center for Whale Research and other partners continue to monitor the whales and collect fecal and prey samples (e.g., fish scales) when possible.
“The teams will also review the results of the feeding trial on Sunday, August 12th, while they determine next steps. We are grateful to all our partners for their help, patience and support over the past few weeks. The response team thanks all of you who are following this story closely for your support and positive wishes. Recovering these whales and the West Coast salmon runs they depend upon will take all of us.”
August 13: noon PT – From NOAA:
Favorable conditions yesterday allowed the teams to proceed with an experimental live fish release off the west side of San Juan Island to evaluate the process as a way to treat Scarlet with medication and supplements.
Under the direction of Jeff Foster of the Whale Sanctuary Project, a Lummi Nation vessel released eight live hatchery salmon about 75 to 150 yards in front of Scarlet, while teams observed from NOAA Fisheries and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) vessels.
While she appeared to react to the released fish by quickly diving, biologists could not confirm whether she took the fish, and they are now reviewing aerial footage for further clues.
Scarlet socialized with other members of J Pod, at one point surrounded by a cluster of other whales but did sometimes fall behind in the strong current.
Researchers collected a fecal sample from the pod but could not confirm whether it was from J50 herself. Fecal samples can reveal whether the whales are eating and what they are eating, as well as providing clues about their health and gauging their stress levels by evaluating hormones such as cortisol.
The whales appeared to be headed back west toward the open ocean this morning, and teams were standing by for further sightings.
August 12: 8 am PT – From Jeff and Katy Foster in the field:
We found J-50 (Scarlet) near Open Bay, Henry Island and spent about 6 hours with her today. We spent most of the time working with Dr. Deborah Giles and her crew from the Univ. of Washington trying to get a fecal sample and watching J-50’s behavior. We were able to get a sample but due to the close proximity of the animals it was difficult to tell which one it came from.
The J16’s (Scarlet’s mother and close family) were fairly spread out and J-50 spent most of her time alone, at times over a mile away from the other animals. The tides today were very strong and at one point she swam in the same spot bucking the tides for more than an hour while the other animals continued ahead, looking like she was having a difficult time keeping up. We’re going to try to get some fish into her midday Sunday.
August 11: 2 pm PT – From Ken Balcomb at the Center for Whale Research:
This afternoon, J-35 (Tahlequah) vigorously chased a school of salmon with her pod-mates in mid-Haro Strait in front of the Center for Whale Research for a half mile, no longer carrying the deceased baby that she had carried for at least 17days and 1,000 miles. Her tour of grief is now over and her behavior is remarkably frisky.
Telephoto digital images taken from shore show that this mother whale appears to be in good physical condition (no evidence of “peanut-head”) following her record-setting ordeal. There had been reports from brief sightings by whale-watchers two days ago that J35 was not pushing the calf carcass in Georgia Strait near Vancouver, BC, and, now we can confirm that she definitely has abandoned it. The carcass has probably sunk to the bottom of these inland marine waters of the Salish Sea, and researchers may not get a chance to examine it for necropsy.
August 11: 9 am PT: Yesterday’s plan was to test-feed live salmon to Scarlet (J-50) in waters off Washington State’s San Juan Island. NOAA wants to see whether medication can be given to her through live Chinook salmon (the sole food of the Southern Resident orcas).
But first, the team needs to test whether Scarlet will catch a salmon who is put into the water from a boat. So, two boats carrying live fish headed out in the early morning.
NOAA notes that the team watched as Scarlet repeatedly dove and surfaced where the pod was feeding. Biologists could not tell whether she also fed, but they collected leftover scale samples that will help identify what kind of salmon the whales had eaten. Scarlet again appeared active and energetic. The team also sighted Tahlequah (J-35), but could not confirm if she was still carrying her calf due to poor visibility.
The feeding plan had to be aborted when the J pod crossed into Canadian waters since NOAA hasn’t yet received a permit from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans to carry out that kind of operation.
Instead, crews aboard a Lummi Nation boat practiced sending the salmon down a turquoise tube into the water. And the Whale Sanctuary Project team practiced taking samples of fish scales, so they can genetically track whether Scarlet consumed the fish carrying the medication.
It was a long day, and a somewhat frustrating one. But the practice was worthwhile, and the team will try again.
August 9: 10.20 pm PT – Progress! Teams reached J Pod in Canadian waters and followed them into U.S. waters near San Juan Island. While very skinny and small, Scarlet (J-50) kept up well with her mother and siblings. Veterinarian Marty Haulena from the Vancouver Aquarium got a thorough look at her and the team obtained a breath sample that will help assess any infection. They also administered a dose of antibiotics through a dart. Next step is to determine whether to proceed with trial feeding, depending on conditions and the location of the whales. Great work by the teams on the water!
August 9: 6.30 pm PT – Tahlequah (J-35) was spotted today off the south shore of Vancouver Island, still holding the body of her baby 17 days after her birth and death. Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale research writes:
“The spray of water and exhalation is coming from the top of J-35’s head, and the white tube-like structure draped over the foreground side of her head is the baby’s intestine. The white blob seen underwater is what remains of the skin and blubber surrounding the baby’s head.”
August 9: 6 pm PT – This is the plan for what happens if/when we encounter Scarlet:
- Collect breath sample (via long pole)
- Collect fecal sample (scooped from the water)
- Other sampling of mucus and/or skin if practical (via long pole)
- Simultaneously complete visual veterinary health assessment
- Provide antibiotic treatment through pole system or dart
After these steps are complete, the teams will consider using live fish to provide medical treatment. Since nothing like this has been attempted before, they would first conduct a trial release of live fish to see if Scarlet will take the fish. The team would release fish from a vessel through a chute about 50 to 100 yards in front of her. And if she takes it, the team will discuss delivering oral medications inserted into the live fish based on the outcomes of the veterinary assessment
August 9: 12 pm PT –The team is on the water now, ready to respond as soon as the pod is within range, and conditions allow them to assess Scarlet’s health and also to monitor the condition of Tahlequah.
Note: NOAA emphasizes that the mission of the team is not to start an ongoing feeding program for Scarlet (which could habituate her to being fed from boats). If a decision is made to feed her, the purpose would be to introduce medicine to treat an infection, rather than to provide nutrition.
August 8: A Canadian team from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) spotted J pod in U.S. waters off the Olympic Peninsula northwest of Neah Bay. Scarlet was with her mother, J16, known as Slick. Teams are preparing to approach Scarlet tomorrow in order to collect breath and fecal samples so they can assess her health. They may also attempt to give her some medication, if there is opportunity.
August 8: After not seeing Tahlequah for a week, teams spotted her today. She is still carrying her dead infant daughter – a heartbreaking sight.
August 7: Scarlet was spotted by Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans Canada with her pod off Port Renfew, near the west entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Throughout the day, as some teams searched for J50, other partners in the effort continued making important preparations to be ready for an opportunity to assess J50’s health.
August 6: Responders continued searching for J pod today without success. The whales have not been seen since Saturday night, when spotted in open waters on the west side of Vancouver Island. Veterinarians are on standby to conduct a health assessment of Scarlet.
August 4: Scarlet was seen with the J pod around the west side of Vancouver Island, beyond the reach of most response vessels. We are awaiting an opportunity to complete a veterinary medical assessment.
August 3: Analysis of a small sample of Scarlet’s breath did not definitively indicate an infection or illness, although it does not rule one out either.
August 2: Experts agreed to focus efforts over the next few days on obtaining better photographs of Scarlet and conducting a veterinary health assessment to inform options for a decision on whether and how they might be able to respond.
Title photo is of Scarlet/J-50 with her sister Echo/J-42, by Katy Foster/WSP/for NOAA.