Biologists Plan Rescue Mission For Endangered Orca

Katy Foster  NOAA Fisheries

Killer whales, though they have a reputation for being ruthless predators, are some of the most socially sophisticated animals in the world. Biologists from the Center for Whale Research investigated and found the calf was only briefly alive, and has since been decomposing.

"The connections between these animals are very strong, and to remove one from her familial group would have serious repercussions", she explained.

"Having not laid eyes on her personally before, it was dramatic how thin she is", Haulena said. The only problem is, they need to figure out how to do so without getting the orca used to people or boats, something which would ultimately end up interfering with the animal's ability to survive in the wild.

Sheila Thornton, lead killer whale research scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said they are anxious that the time and energy she spends carrying the body could take away from foraging or feeding.

Because Tahlequah was pregnant, it is possible she began carrying her deceased calf with an extra boost of lipids in her blubber that could be helping her now, said Dawn Noren, research fishery biologist at NOAA's Northwest Center in Seattle.

'It is terrible. This is an animal that is a sentient being, ' Deborah Giles, science and research director for the nonprofit Wild Orc said.

One thing that is certain, Noren said, is that the work of pushing the calf day after day through the water adds physical effort to her burden of loss.

The group will prioritize short-term and long-term actions, many of which are certain to focus on recovering the prized salmon that the fish-eating whales like to eat. She appeared to be in good health, but carrying her offspring's carcass for more than two weeks is likely taking some toll, researchers said.

The whales face nutritional stress over a lack of Chinook salmon as well as threats from toxic contamination and vessel noise and disturbances. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had a permit for such efforts in USA waters. The whale would initially get just a few fish to see whether she takes it and how she and members of her pod respond before deciding whether to give her salmon dosed with medication.

Researchers take breath samples of the orca known as J50 on July 21, 2018.

About half of the 11 calves born during a celebrated baby boom several years ago have died. Losing J50 also would mean losing her reproductive potential, Hanson said.

Since then, an adult male orca went missing in June and is presumed dead. A report is due later this year.

They are anxious she isn't getting enough time to forage for food.

The fish are being delivered by truck from a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife hatchery for loading into a tote on the Lummi Nation's boat. "It's very hard to say, but certainly they're very intelligent animals and the loss of this animal is quite profound for both the (killer whales) and I think for everyone who witnesses this".

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