J50 swimming with her mom J13. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association)

Emaciated orca gets first treatment after being spotted in B.C. waters

Vancouver Aquarium veterinarian Dr. Marty Haulena got a thorough look at the young orca

Quite worrisome.

That’s the way a B.C. biologist described his initial thoughts after meeting J50, an emaciated and endangered killer whale American and Canadian responders are racing to keep alive.

Vancouver Aquarium’s Dr. Marty Haulena was the first to get a thorough look at the four-year-old orca on Thursday since scientists determined she suffers from “peanut head syndrome,” which causes her to have a smaller head, usually because of malnourishment.

“I will say, having not laid eyes on her personally before, it was dramatic how thin she is,” Dr. Haulena said in an update on Friday. “It struck me very dramatically. She’s just a very, very skinny whale.”

READ MORE: Scientists probe ‘next steps’ after emaciated orca finally spotted in B.C. waters

Dr. Haulena said he and a team of researchers followed J50, also known as Scarlet, and the rest of her pod for six hours from the coast of Vancouver Island to near San Juan Island.

Once near calmer waters off Washington State, staff with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were able to obtain a breath sample to assess for infection, and give her antibiotics through a dart.

Dr. Haulena said it’s not likely the whale is suffering from respiratory disease, pneumonia or any skin abnormalities, adding photos will be further analyzed to rule out other conditions.

He recommended biologists focus on her feeding and foraging habits and aim to gather a fecal sample.

Other next steps include to determine whether to proceed with a trial feeding – a first-of-its-kind plan that has gained international attention – that would involve feeding the whale with chinook salmon filled with antibiotics.

That remains under review by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

“If further actions are needed, our decision will be evidence-based and we will be ready to respond quickly should the intervention need to occur in Canadian waters,” DFO communications officer Lauren Sankey said.


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