Whale breath sample

Why scientists are racing to find a starving endangered orca

At three years old, Scarlet is the size of a one-year-old and losing weight fast

Remember that picture of a baby orca flying through the air like she was auditioning for the Broadway musical adaptation of Free Willy?

In 2015 you couldn’t open a Facebook, Instagram or Twitter feed without seeing the image and smiling. This baby orca, initially nicknamed Wiggles, is J-50 — the 50th member to join J-Pod since humans started counting and cataloguing southern resident orcas.

I talked to the photographer, Clint Rivers, just after he took that astonishing shot and he glowed as he shared the day, like he’d witnessed a miracle. This baby had just learned she could fly and she kept leaping — or, to use the boring scientific term for whales defying gravity and our imaginations, “breaching” over and over and over again.

She was Joy. She was Hope. Her photo became the symbol of West Coast whales — especially since this was the famous orca breach birth baby. Elder orcas helped deliver her, using their teeth to assist her mother, Slick (J-16), with the delivery. Slick was 42 at the time — believed to be beyond her reproductive years — so Scarlet truly was a miracle baby.   

The iconic image of infant Scarlet leaping through the air raised awareness of the animals. Photo: Clint Rivers

This whale was the magic that people travel to the West Coast of B.C. and Washington to experience. She was named Scarlet — because of the scars from her delivery. Also, I suspect, because The Avengers were a thing and I’m sure Black Widow seemed like a terrible name for a cute baby whale. Although, in hindsight, that was probably the way to go.

Scarlet was born in Dec. 2014 and kicked off the great baby boom of 2015 — which was (no coincidence) about two years after a banner year for Chinook salmon — the primary diet of the endangered southern residents. That year their numbers climbed to 83.

Now there are new pictures of Scarlet going viral. If you’re not familiar with orca anatomy, she still looks adorable — a perfect baby orca. The problem is she’s not a baby and the three-year-old is the size of a one-year-old. And there’s a depression at the back of her neck.

Scientists call that indentation “peanut head” — which is more proof scientists should never be allowed to name anything that might be shared with civilians. Peanut head sounds adorable, which is not the effect you want for a term that means she’s lost so much weight we can see her skeleton.

One of Scarlet’s pod mates, 20-year-old Tahlequah (J-35) just delivered the first live baby in the southern resident population in three years. Her daughter survived about half-an-hour before dying. She never flew through the air. She was never named by humans, though I know someone suggested calling her “Extinction” and I’ve suggested “Pandora” — since she’s even got government agencies thinking outside the box.

Early deaths for orcas aren’t uncommon, but three years without adding another live member to this population is catastrophic.

While the rest of the world watched Tahlequah grieve, orca experts on the West Coast have also been haunted by Scarlet. In most stories about Tahlequah carrying her daughter’s body there’s a brief mention that another whale is in trouble.

Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have been following Scarlet around taking breath samples. Her breath and feces contain pathogens — another science word not meant for civilian consumption. It means germs.

Scarlet is starving and she’s sick and she’s sick because she’s starving. She’s lost 20 percent of her mass and as orcas get thinner, they live off their blubber. But the ketogenic diet isn’t a great idea for orcas since their blubber is where they store the generations of toxins we’ve dumped into the water. Orcas burning blubber are feeding off DDT, dioxins and all the other charming poisonous chemicals and plastics that are now primary links in our food chain.

NOAA and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada are looking to “intervene” to save Scarlet by feeding her live salmon and administering antibiotics. The Lummi Nation has live salmon in tanks ready to feed her. Of course, that requires finding J-Pod, who were just spotted again on Tuesday night outside Port Renfrew.      

NOAA has permission from the U.S. government to administer antibiotics and try to feed her. Canada’s department of Fisheries and Oceans announced Thursday morning that they are also cleared to assist Scarlet. But fog and choppy waters may make it difficult to spot Scarlet’s pod — nevermind get close enough to help her. Weather conditions aren’t expected to improve until Sunday.

Scarlet and her mother, J-16, swim together early in her life. Photo: John Durban (NOAA Fisheries), Holly Fearnbach (SR3) and Lance Barrett-Lennard (Vancouver Aquarium) via Flickr

Orca-advocacy organizations that might normally battle anyone looking to interfere with the whales’ lives are offering to help because, even if our governments are turning a blind eye to their environmental commitments, they’re at least finally following the Pottery Barn rule: “You Break It, You Bought It.”

Lynda Mapes, the orca reporter from the Seattle Times, wrote that she’s received private calls from politicians who can’t sleep because Tahlequah’s story is shattering them. Chances are their children and grandchildren are asking what they’re doing to help the whales. So let’s make sure every kid out there knows the flying baby whale they fell in love with is the “other orca” who’s dying.

Let’s make sure Prime Minister Justin Trudeau knows this as he decides whether it’s worth trampling the last of these black and white whales with the white elephant known as Trans Mountain — and as his government decides where to focus the funds being put into assisting the recovery of these iconic orcas.

Let’s take the moment to ask the B.C. government to look at licences for fish farms that have put wild salmon at risk.

Washington Governor, Jay Inslee, just asked his task force to consider breaching the Snake River dam. Here’s his number (360-902-4111). Here’s Senator Patty Murray’s number (206-553-5545). You can also share your thoughts with the task force online. It is accepting comments from Canadians and Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research, is urging us to weigh in.

Yes, there are plenty of things that need to happen to help the orcas, the Chinoook and the ocean that keeps us all alive.

But these whales are almost out of time.  If you think this world is better with the world’s most iconic orcas in it, this is the moment to demand action.

It’s up to us.

What’s the symbol you want for the future of the southern resident orcas — Tahlequah grieving or Scarlet defying gravity?

Mark Leiren-Young is the author of The Killer Whale Who Changed the World, and host of the Skaana podcast, covering…

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