Starving, sick orca not spotted since last week as NOAA readies unprecedented action

FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash. -- A starving and sick 4-year-old southern resident orca hasn't been spotted since last week, just as an unprecedented federal government plan to feed her live salmon awaits final approval.

Researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spotted her pod, the J-pod, Saturday evening along the west coast of Vancouver Island. They appeared to be headed toward the San Juan Islands.

J50 wasn't seen with the group. Water was choppy and viewing tough, so it's not necessarily worrisome that J50 wasn't spotted alongside her pod.

But with her health in such a precarious position, everyone is holding their breath.

"She's down to days, maybe weeks at this point," said Michael Weiss, a field biologist for the Center for Whale Research. "So we'll see."

J50's history of struggles

Under the latest draft, NOAA would work with local tribes and governments to help feed J50.  The plan calls for live salmon provided by the Lummi Nation to be sluiced off the back of SoundGuardian, a King County research vessel.

The plan is still waiting final approval from the federal government. Nothing like it has ever been done before.

"We believe this is the first time anyone has attempted to treat/support a killer whale in the wild," wrote Michael Milstein, a spokesperson for NOAA. "Certainly people have fed wild animals before, which is usually a bad idea, but in terms of trying to help a wild whale like this, we don't think it has been done before."

NOAA and others hope to get fecal samples from J50 during the feeding, as it's likely more than just lack of salmon impacting the 4-year-old marine mammal.

Since the moment of her birth, J50 has battled against obstacles not usually faced by other orcas. She was born with multiple scars, Weiss said, suggesting a difficult birth that was assisted by other whales pulling her out of her mother.

"For her age, she's the most scarred up whale we have," Weiss said.

J50 has also always been small. Though 4 years old, she's about the size of a 1-year-old. And even if she was "fat and healthy," Weiss said, she'd still likely be small for her age.

The small whale hasn't always conformed, either. She's always been "a bit independent," wandering further from her mother than other orcas about her age. It's not known if that's because she's struggled tracking her mother's movements, or if she is a bit more independent in spirit than other calves.

Despite the differences between J50 and other whales, her health was never viewed as dire until this week. Her ribs and skull are visible, something unusual for what should be a blubbery whale.

"It's pretty noticeable she's lost quite a bit of weight," Weiss said. "Photos we've been getting of her over the past week or so are pretty distressing. She's in a dire physical condition that follows a pretty hard life."

The right choice?

Some researchers wonder whether feeding killer whales is right the step to take. It's never been done before, and it could lead to unintended consequences, such as whales associating boats with food.

NOAA is taking steps to mitigate problems, researchers said, such as using a feeding boat not often spotted on the orca's waters. The idea of medicating J50 needs more review before any sort of plan will be put in place.

But after the outcry surrounding J35 carrying her dead calf around for at least 10 days, many are ready for direct action.

As long as it's not too late.