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Malnourished orca still in critical condition as rescue operation continues

Lynda V. Mapes, The Seattle Times on

Published in News & Features

FALSE BAY, Wash. -- The boats were here, the fish, the biologists, the press. But not the whales.

So an effort to feed a struggling young orca whale in an unprecedented effort to save her life were put off Friday, perhaps until Saturday.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has launched a rescue mission for J50, a 3 1/2-year-old orca who is malnourished.

Scientists got close enough to her on the west side of San Juan Island Thursday evening to inject her with a long-acting antibiotic, using a dart. They got a sample of her breath too, and watched her swim and dive, and got a good look at her skin.

She looked better than they expected, said Brad Hanson, wildlife biologist for the NOAA's Northwest Fishery Science Center in Seattle, who observed her for several hours with a crew of experts Thursday. She was diving and breathing so well, scientists ruled out a respiratory condition as one of her troubles.

However, the whale is terribly thin. And usually whales in condition that poor do not survive, said veterinarian Marty Haulena of the Vancouver Aquarium. "I do stress this is a very thin whale. The facts remain that other whales that have been in this condition have not survived. To us she is still a critical whale."

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Sheila Thornton, lead killer-whale biologist for Fisheries Oceans Canada, said J50, always small for her age, is going downhill. "She is not the size of a 3 1/2-year-old, she was more like a 2-year-old when we first sighted her in June," Thornton said. "She was showing signs of peanut head -- tissue loss ... and we are not seeing improvement, we are seeing it worsening; not only is she not improving, she is deteriorating."

Scientists may try again Saturday to attempt a feeding of live chinook salmon to the whale. The 5- to 15-pound chinook were trucked to Bellingham from the Marblemount Hatchery and loaded onto totes on a vessel provided by the Lummi Nation, to help feed the whale in an operation that began at Squalicum Harbor at first light.

As the sun rose, the Lummi Nation law-enforcement boat and the SoundGuardian, King County's new research vessel supporting the operation, headed off for a long crossing to the west side San Juan Island, a favorite feeding ground of the southern residents in summer -- when the fish are around.

But Friday the fish on the menu were in totes, loaded on both vessels.

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