As scientists searched Salish sea waters for the young, emaciated orca known as J50, they spotted her relative, still carrying her dead calf.
The relative was J35, and she was carrying her baby’s body for the 17th straight day. Her baby had died soon after it was born, and its body had started to decompose on the ninth day. No babies have been born to this struggling orca pod in three years.
The duration of this conspicuous display of grief is unprecedented in orcas – as far as humans have observed, anyway.
On a call Thursday morning, a team of scientists say it’s possible that the mother’s body, primed for lactation, could be sustaining her. Dolphin and whale fat is packed with energy.
The scientists said J35 may also be getting food from her family group. The scientists said they have no plans to intervene; removing the dead calf would have serious repercussions to the group.
“The connections between these animals are incredibly strong,” said Sheila Thornton, lead killer whale scientist with Fisheries and Ocean Canada.
Meanwhile, the scientists remain fixed on J50, the 3 ½ year old orca who has lost weight in the last year and appears to have an infection.
Canada has received and is granting a permit for scientists to assess and treat the young orca, a female, in Canadian waters.
J50 was last seen on Wednesday, keeping up with her group, J-pod. J-pod is part of a larger subset of orcas known as the Southern Residents.
Brad Hanson, wildlife biologist with NOAA is standing by at Friday Harbor, along with a team of vets and biologists to venture out on the waters to examine her closely. They will need to be within roughly 16 feet of the whale to get a breath sample.
The veterinarian would make an assessment and possibly give her broad-spectrum antibiotics. The process could be done in one day, depending on the weather and what the orcas are doing.
“If they’re travelling, it’s challenging,” said Hanson. “If they’re stopping to forage or socialize, that’s a much better opportunity.”
Sunday might be the earliest they can make this expedition, as winds and fog are forecast through Saturday.
The scientists will try to match the whales’ course and speed, then cautiously move in without disturbing them.
In addition to the breath test, they will look for visual clues, such as lesions on the J50’s skin, body condition, how she moves and surfaces.