Scientists Attempt To Save Ailing Orca ‘Scarlet’ With An Antibiotic Dart

The critically endangered group of orcas also includes a mourning mother who won’t abandon her dead calf.

Orca pod
Elaine Thompson / Associated Press

The critically endangered group of orcas also includes a mourning mother who won’t abandon her dead calf.

Scientists took unprecedented steps this week to help an ailing orca. Known as J50, the orca in question was found swimming near San Juan Island off the coast of Washington. J50, nicknamed Scarlet, is only 3-and-a-half-years old, which is dramatically younger than the typical orca’s lifespan in the wild. In fact, CBS News reported that orcas often live at least 50 years, and there have been recorded instances of them making it past the age of 100.

Scarlet’s body condition is poor, and she’s unusually thin. A veterinarian working with NOAA Fisheries conducted an examination of the orca and collected a breath sample. This will enable the vet to determine what type of infection Scarlet is battling. In the meantime, a round of antibiotics was delivered to the orca via a dart. Per Kiro Seattle, the next possible step is to dose live salmon with medication and then introduce it into the water near Scarlet.

Scarlet is part of a pod that’s commonly referred to as the Southern Resident Killer Whales. These orcas all live in the Pacific Northwest, and their numbers have dwindled to only 75. The New York Times recently highlighted the decline of these particular orcas, who have become the most endangered killer whales in the world.

The Southern Resident Killer Whales usually give birth to at least four calves per year. This number has recently dropped to practically zero, with no surviving calves being born within the last three years. This makes the story about another orca, Tahlequah (J35), losing her calf even more devastating. It also helps shed some light on Tahlequah’s unusual mourning behavior. Her calf passed away 17 days ago, but she’s still nudging and carrying its body. According to ABC 15, it’s not strange for a mother orca to initially react this way to a calf’s death, but the amount of time that has passed without Tahlequah allowing the body to drop to the sea floor is unprecedented.

Starvation is believed to be responsible for most of these issues. Orcas in the Pacific Northwest region have traditionally dined on king salmon, but this food source is dying out, as are several other species of salmon in the nearby waters. The Washington Post examined this trend and found that automobile pollution appears to be the most likely culprit.

Some have proposed creating more food with a large increase in salmon hatchery production. Seattle-based company Whooshh Innovations has even presented a possible way to deliver food with a hands-off approach: a fish cannon. Whale advocacy groups and other conservationists are hesitant to support these ideas because there could be serious ramifications. For example, the whales could become too dependent on the hatchery fish, and the newly introduced salmon would compete with other fish for resources.

The prognosis for Scarlet isn’t good, even with antibiotics, and the starving orcas aren’t likely to produce any viable calves in the near future. It’s clear that no matter what action is decided upon, human intervention may be the only way to save these sea mammals.