King County boat joins emergency effort to save emaciated orca J50

SEATTLE -- King County’s research vessel, SoundGuardian, has joined an emergency mission to help save the endangered southern resident orca population by bringing them food.

Operating with a crew of three, the vessel departed Seattle Sunday and is heading toward Bellingham to take part in an emergency effort to save an emaciated 4-year-old orca named J50 (Scarlet) and her pod.

“Orcas are the Salish Sea’s most iconic residents, and we all share the responsibility of protecting these beloved animals,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine. “We are doing whatever we can to help the orca now, and fulfill long-term goals to improve the health of local waterways and the Salish Sea.”

Once in Bellingham, the SoundGuardian will operate with other boats under the authority of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials who are coordinating emergency recovery actions.

Experts believe J50 may only have a few weeks to live without an intervention.

On Thursday, NOAA officials asked the federal government to approve an emergency plan to feed the killer whale live Chinook salmon dosed with medicine at sea.  Federal officials have not approved that plan yet.

Lynne Barre, director of the protected resources division for the West Coast Region of NOAA, told Q13 News, "We have some work to do to put a plan together. Right now, they are collecting photographs and video from a drone ... in the field."

The 4-year-old was part of the southern resident "baby boom" that occurred when 11 calves were born between 2014-2016. Only five of the calves from the "baby boom" remain.

The vessel 

Launched in 2016, SoundGuardian is King County’s primary marine research vessel and is used by scientists to collect samples, assist in monitoring buoy maintenance, and other work. The 48-foot, twin-hulled vessel provides workers with a swift and stable platform for a variety of open-water tasks.

SoundGuardian is an essential component of Executive Constantine’s Clean Water and Healthy Habitat Agenda that includes removing salmon-blocking culverts to improve fish populations, habitat restoration, and continuing investments in wastewater and stormwater systems.