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Photos show J17 orca's health in decline; daughter worsening

Last Updated May 18, 2019 at 10:42 am PDT

Aerial images document Southern Resident killer whale J17’s continued decline (Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
Summary

Southern resident killer whale J17 appears to have lost a significant amount of blubber

A local scientist says the situation is a call to action to save the endangered population

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) –  Photos recently released by researchers in Washington State show the health of a local endangered orca is still in decline.

The southern resident killer whale matriarch’s condition is being described as “very poor” by scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Photos show the 42-year-old whale, known as J17, demonstrating what is known as “peanut-head,” indicating a significant loss of blubber. The researchers noticed she had started deteriorating a few years ago. Her three-year-old calf has also “declined in condition,” they say.

In January, researchers predicted the whale could be one of two whales in Puget Sound to die by the summer.

The southern resident killer whale population is at a 35-year-low. Only 75 southern residents remain off our coast

RELATED: ‘A thousand little things’ restore Burrard Inlet to suitable orca habitat

Dr. Paul Spong of Orca Lab, situated on Hanson Island in Johnstone Strait, says he was alarmed by the photos.

“Well, I call them disturbing. J17 is not doing well at all. That’s very concerning, of course,” he says.

Southern residents live on chinook salmon. Spong believes the appearance of the struggling whale is a call to action.

“It’s a clear sign that something really needs to be done. The most important thing to do is allow them to get the food they need to thrive,” he says.

“Stop the commercial fishery, stop the sports fishery and stop the Aboriginal fishery. Give it up for the orcas, is what I’ve been advocating.”

RELATED: Ships to stay 400-metres away, as part of new rules to protect killer whales off B.C. coast

The NOAA researchers say they do not plan to intervene with the orca but will gather more information and evaluate the options.

J-pod lost a three-year-old calf last year despite efforts to keep her alive, and a mother orca gained worldwide attention while carrying her dead calf for weeks.

Calf born early this year still alive

Meanwhile, there is some good news on the orca front. The calf born in the L-pod in January is still alive.

“The baby was sighted a couple of weeks ago off Monterey, California. It looked okay,” says Spong. He says it will be a while before scientists determine whether it’s a boy or a girl, but researchers are keen on watching the calf over the next few months.

RELATED: 2 more Puget Sound orcas predicted to die by summer

“Until this baby was born there hasn’t been a baby that has survived beyond three years,” explains Spong, adding if it survives a whole year, there’s a very good chance it will make it.