Biologists Considering First-Ever Attempt To Help Ailing Orca In The Wild

The baby orca swimming with her mother in September 2015. She hasn't been seen since August 3. NOAA Fisheries/Vancouver Aquarium via AP, File

Experts with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) say they are preparing to treat a young emaciated orca in the first-ever attempt on a wild killer whale – that is, if she is still alive.

That’s because veterinarians haven’t seen the 3.5-year-old since August 3. Given her condition, they say there is a chance she might not have made it.

"It is very possible that she has succumbed at this point and that we may never see her again," said Teri Rowles, marine mammal health and stranding coordinator for NOAA, according to The Associated Press. "We are hopeful that there's still a chance that we will be able to assist her with medical treatment to give her enough time to get nourishment and treat infections if indeed that is what is causing her decline."

In an attempt to save the juvenile, the team will decide whether to administer antibiotics with a dart injector or long pole syringe when, or if, she shows up again. Rowles says if all goes according to plan, her team will then decide whether to try feeding her live salmon from their boat – something that has never been done in the wild. If she takes it and members of the pod respond positively, then the team could choose to administer antibiotics through the salmon rather than injection.

Researchers became aware of an odor found on the underweight whale’s breath that had been found in other orcas who have died. A drone flyover of the pod last week showed her looking thin and in poor shape.

This young killer whale is from the same pod as the mother seen off the Washington coast carrying her dead calf through the water, balanced on her snout. Both whales are residents of an endangered population of just 75 orcas that comprise three Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) pods in Puget Sound. Scientists haven’t been able to determine why these families are declining because dead orcas typically sink or wash up in remote areas, limiting the opportunity for further research. However, there are some theories.

SKRW whales follow the migration patterns of their primary prey, the king salmon. Last year, some of the lowest numbers of salmon returning to freshwater to spawn were recorded, and this year’s forecast looks just as grim. Furthermore, these whales spend spring, summer, and fall in the waters connecting Washington State to the Gulf Islands in Mexico. This area has become a major hub for transportation and the pollution that comes with it.

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