By early afternoon, it appeared the 3½-year-old female orca called J50 was too far north in Canadian waters and any trial feeding effort would not happen, Brad Hanson, a wildlife biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who is leading response efforts in the field, told reporters out on the water.
For now, the unprecedented attempt to feed live salmon to a free-swimming killer whale would have to wait. The team led by the U.S. agency lacks a permit to feed the whale, which is emaciated and possibly suffering an infection, in Canadian waters, though it had one for medical treatment. NOAA would apply for the feeding permit if conditions are right, said Lynne Barre, NOAA Fisheries' recovery coordinator for the whales.
The agency wants to see whether it can deliver medication to the whale through live Chinook salmon but first needs to test whether the orca will take its preferred food source. With the whale far away and a bin full of salmon pulled that morning from a state hatchery, crews did a practice run to work out the logistics of feeding live fish to a whale while staying ahead of it in a boat. One by one, crews aboard a boat belonging to the Lummi Nation, an American Indian tribe, sent the plump salmon into a turquoise tube and then into the water.
Researchers with the Whale Sanctuary Project practiced taking samples of fish scales so they can later genetically track whether the whale consumed that fish. A King County research vessel drove alongside, also carrying fish, to provide support.
The orca was given a dose of antibiotics from a dart Thursday, and Marty Haulena, head veterinarian at Vancouver Aquarium, who got a close look at J50. He said the whale is incredibly skinny but was swimming well and there were no obvious signs of abnormality with her skin. It wasn't clear whether she had been eating.
"I do stress this is a very thin whale," Haulena said, noting that others in the same condition have not survived. J50 is breathing normally, taking deep dives and keeping up with her group, so respiratory disease is not as high of a concern, he said. He and others followed the whale on the water for about six hours Thursday and got a breath sample to analyze whether she might have bacteria or fungus in her airway.
Sheila Thornton, lead killer whale scientist with Fisheries Oceans Canada, said the whale looks more like a 2-year-old though it has always been small for her age. She is deteriorating, and scientists are not seeing improvements in a loss of tissue behind her head, Thornton said.
The young whale is one of just 75 of the fish-eating orcas that frequent the inland waters of Washington state. There hasn't been a successful birth since 2015. Losing J50 also would mean losing her reproductive potential, Hanson said.
"That's what this is really all about. The future of the population," the NOAA biologist said. The whales face nutritional stress over a lack of Chinook salmon as well as threats from toxic contamination and vessel noise and disturbances.
Another female orca in the same pod has triggered an international outpouring as she clings to the body of her calf that died more than two weeks ago. Scientists are worried about her and will watch her but don't have plans to help her or remove the calf. She was last seen Thursday still carrying the body.
The last time scientists rescued a killer whale in the region was in 2002, when they rehabilitated an orca known as Springer who was found alone. She returned to her family of whales in Canada later that year and was seen with her calf in 2013.