An American whale research organization says an ailing killer whale has been found alive just hours after it was announced the young orca had been separated from her family pod.
In a Facebook post Monday, the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbour, Wash., said the female southern resident killer whale known as J50 was found mid-morning and the centre's researchers were in the water with the animal.
Michael Millstein of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who released a statement earlier in the day about the missing orca, said this was the first time researchers had seen the J pod without the young whale, raising concerns about her well-being.
"As a result we put out the word to whale watching organizations and Fisheries and Oceans Canada and really wanted to step up the search today," Millstein said from Portland, Ore.
Millstein said that several whale watching associations including Soundwatch and researchers from the Center had sighted J50 in an area he called the Hein Bank, south of San Juan Island, roughly halfway between Victoria and Seattle, Wash.
Millstein said J50 was still very emaciated and that a team, including the Vancouver Aquarium's chief veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena, was following the orca and planned to administer a second round of antibiotics via a dart, as well as a deworming medicine if possible.
"This has been the plan all along, it's just that the pod had been out in open waters on the west side of Vancouver Island until Friday night," said Millstein.
Millstein confirmed there have been ongoing discussions about treatment options for the infirm whale, including taking her into human care until she regains an appropriate amount of weight. However, he said there are several preferable options to removing her from the pod.
"The preference, since she's with the pod, is to maintain that structure and recognize the bonds with the rest of the whales," he said, "but we are looking at all the options based on further analysis and assessment of her condition."
Millstein noted parasitic nematode worms found in stool samples from the J pod might be compounding the whale's medical problems — the worms are typical in marine wildlife and are not normally a cause for concern, though he said the parasites combined with an existing bacterial infection could aggravate both issues.
Recalling the story of Springer, a northern resident killer whale that was suffering from worms and other medical issues in 2002, Millstein said he hoped J50's recovery would match the older orca's.
"A similar deworming medication was used on Springer and in the course of that treatment she did start eating a lot more, so that's what we hope to accomplish through this treatment," he said.
Millstein noted that after a first antibiotic treatment several weeks ago was deemed ineffective, biologists might attempt to use a different dart that could be better-suited for a whale's physiology.
"If they need to there's a certain kind of needle on the tip of the dart that has a little rim around it which helps it stay in the skin long enough to deliver a full dose," he said.
As with the case of J35, the orca seen towing the carcass of her dead calf for several weeks, Millstein said J50's treatment was exemplary of a cross-border community that cares and loves the killer whales.
"The co-operation here amongst the many different organizations, especially Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Vancouver Aquarium, this has been a community regional effort that has required a lot of different skills," he said.
"We have a lot of the top people in the world watching and consulting on this so it's a very positive thing."
The 3 1/2-year-old whale is one of only 75 southern resident killer whales that continue to travel the Pacific waters between British Columbia and California.