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Feds granted permission to give antibiotics to sick, emaciated orca J50 at sea

WENATCHEE, Wash. -- Federal authorities on Tuesday said they received legal permission to move forward with the treatment of a sick and starving 3½-year-old southern resident orca.

J50 hasn't been spotted since last week when the federal government first came up with an emergency plan to feed the killer whale live Chinook salmon dosed with medicine.

NOAA would work with local tribes and governments to help feed J50.  The plan calls for live salmon provided by the Lummi Nation.

The 3½-year-old was part of the southern resident "baby boom" that occurred when eleven calves were born between 2014-2016. Only five of the calves from the "baby boom" remain.

Biologist Deborah Giles with the Center for Conservation Biology said J50's breath was particularly rank, and indicated the calf was in ketosis, burning fat to stay alive. The last time she noticed an orca's breath was that bad was just a month before another orca, J1, died.

NOAA Marine experts have been practicing two ways of administering antibiotics to J50: one via injection and the second through feeding.

Officials on Monday did a test run for transport of salmon -- picking up fish for treating the whale through feeding. They also staged veterinary supply darts and injection guns with antibiotics for rapid response if they spot J50.

NOAA also briefed all vessel operators on what the response will look like.

Once officials spot J50 they will begin a health assessment to  include breath and fecal analysis. Based on these findings and general observation of the animal and pod they will then decide whether or not to go through with the administration of the antibiotic. They will be using a broad spectrum antibiotic which can be easily injected.

The two methods include either: using a pole to administer the antibiotic -- requiring a close approach, or using a dart gun -- which doesn’t require as close of an approach.

This would be the first time this type of treatment has been administered to a free-swimming killer whale.

"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."

The last generation?

The southern residents face problems like increased vessel noise, toxic waters, and, primarily, a shortage of food.

Recent attention has been on another orca, J35, which has been holding onto its dead calf for at least 10 days in what researchers are calling "a tour of grief."

Without abundant salmon, the southern residents are starving. When they can’t eat, they access their fat storage, which is full of contaminants. And with boat noise, they have a harder time using echolocation to find what little salmon remain.

Researchers with the NOAA last 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.

J50's history of struggles

"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."

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 3½ 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.