The Vancouver Aquarium, as part of a cross-border team of organizations and institutions, is on a mission to save an ailing Southern Resident Killer Whale. On August 9, Vancouver Aquarium’s head veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena was on the response team that reached the ailing Southern Resident killer whale J50, aka Scarlet, in Canadian waters. Dr. Haulena managed to get a good look at the emaciated three-year old whale who has often struggled to keep up with her family, J Pod.

Dr. Martin Haulena, Dr. Brad Hanson, and Trevor Foster prepare to administer an injection of antibiotics to J50 on Aug. 9, 2018. (Photo: Katy Foster/NOAA Fisheries, permit #18786)

J50’s response team is led by NOAA Fisheries in the U.S., and Fisheries and Oceans Canada on this side of the border, and also includes the University of Washington, SeaWorld, SR3, King County, Lummi Communications, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, the Center for Whale Research, The Whale Museum, The Whale Sanctuary Project, and others. Dr. Haulena is on the core team of specialized aquatic animal veterinarians using their expertise to try and help this malnourished little whale.They obtained a breath sample and administered antibiotics through a dart.

Dr. Martin Haulena of the Vancouver Aquarium prepares antibiotics to administer to J50, Aug. 9, 2018. (Photo: Katy Foster/NOAA Fisheries, permit #18786)

The breath sample will be used to assess whether J50 has an infection.The team has also tried to collect fecal samples (to assess health and stress levels) and is trying out an experimental treatment of releasing live fish that contain whale medication and supplements.

The team is releasing live salmon near the whales as an experimental way to deliver medication to J50. (Photo: Katy Foster/NOAA Fisheries, under permit 18786)

The Southern Resident Killer Whales, to which J50 and J Pod belong, are at risk of becoming extinct with only 75 whales remaining in the population — the lowest number in 30 years. The Southern Residents are facing three main threats to their survival:

  • Prey availability: chinook salmon, which the Southern Residents eat, are also in danger, with many chinook salmon runs listed under the Endangered Species Act.
  • Pollution and contaminants: reducing pesticide and fertilizer run-off, conserving energy and water and volunteering with watershed groups all help conserve the chinook as well as the Southern Residents.
  • Vessel traffic and noise: keeping a safe distance (at least 180 metres) from Southern Resident whales helps response teams administer care and allows the whales to communicate and feed naturally.

J50 gets her breath sampled for infections. (Photo: Katy Foster/NOAA Fisheries, under permit 18786)

The Vancouver Aquarium and Dr. Haulena will continue to assist in the ongoing effort to help J50 at this critical time. “isit the NOAA Fisheries West Coast website for updates.

Meanwhile, scientists at Ocean Wise Research continue to study and seek solutions for the threats endangering the vulnerable Southern Resident population of whales, as well as other populations and species. Learn more about their work here:

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