Ailing young orca J-50 gets novel medical treatment at sea


A young endangered killer whale at the centre of a cross-border “emergency response” has received a novel medical treatment at sea as part of an effort to help the ailing three-year old swimming with her pod off the coast of British Columbia.


The orca, known as J-50, is smaller than she should be for her age, and lost an additional 20 per cent of her body weight in recent weeks. She also had foul breath — indicating a serious health problem.

While it’s not clear what that problem is, a response team led by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) located the whale Thursday, obtained a breath sample and delivered a broad-spectrum antibiotic using a dart.

It’s the first time such a treatment has been used on a wild killer whale, NOAA said. 

The Vancouver Aquarium’s head veterinarian, Dr. Martin Haulena, was on the vessel assessing and treating the whale, according to statements from the aquarium and NOAA.

“The opportunity to try new things, to be a little more proactive than we’ve been able to be with an … individual of an endangered population in our own backyard is incredibly exciting,” he told CBC News on Wednesday when discussing the plan.

J-50 was “skinny and small” but was observed keeping up with her mother and siblings when she had been lethargic in the past. 

The response group is now considering a trial feeding the young whale live salmon as a possible tactic to deliver oral antibiotics in the future.

Cross-border response

J-50’s pod was found Thursday in Canadian waters, then followed into U.S. waters near San Juan Island, according to NOAA.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada is working with the team, and issued permits Thursday to deliver the medical treatment in Canadian waters if necessary — something that earlier had been in question.

J-50 is part of a family group known as J-pod, which also includes the mother orca who has gained international attention for carrying her dead newborn calf for more than two weeks, in an apparent display of mourning.

Earlier in the week, the group had been spotted near Port Renfrew, B.C., and Cape Flattery, Wash., in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but response crews were waiting for calm conditions in more inland waters to take action.

The southern resident killer whales are a critically endangered population, with approximately 75 individuals left.