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Monday, September 3, 2018

An update on J35, J50, and the rest of J-Pod

This has been a crazy summer with all that is happening to and about the Southern Residents, and here we are, already in September. It's been an emotional roller coaster to follow the stories of J35 Tahlequah and her deceased calf that and emaciated young female J50 Scarlet. I thought I would post a bit of an update about both of them as well as some of my encounters with J-Pod over the last few weeks.

August 11 - J35 confirmed to no longer be carrying her deceased daughter

After an incredible 17-day vigil, J35 Tahlequah let go of her calf, which she had carried with her for hundreds of miles through both the US and Canada, including out to the open Pacific. The body was reportedly beginning to decay, and I'm glad she found the right time and place to let it go, and that despite all the media attention she drew to the Southern Residents from around the world, that it happened sometime away from human eyes. I saw her on August 11th, the day it was confirmed she no longer had the calf, during a rare summer rain shower at Land Bank, where she was heading north in a tight, mixed social group of whales. She undoubtedly was eating less during her vigil (perhaps not even at all, we will never know) - but it was great to see her still in good body condition, being active, and socializing.

This same group of whales, as they headed north, gave this paddle boarder the memory of a lifetime! Through the wonders of the internet he was actually able to track me down and I was able to give him the photo!

The trailing group of whales on this day was the J16s, whose youngest member J50 Scarlet is a 3.5 year old female who at that point had looked emaciated for two months. It's been very hard to watch her condition deteriorate, but it's a testament to her strength that she has made it months when most only gave her weeks or days. At times it has been heart-breaking to watch her trail a mile or more behind the rest of her pod, all by herself, but on this day, in addition to feeling some relief for Tahlequah, it was comforting to see Scarlet in with her family, too.

The J16s, with J50 Scarlet on the left next to mom J16 Slick

August 12 - Attempted feeding of J50

As Scarlet's condition worsened and Tahlequah's story drew global attention to the plight of the Southern Residents, an unprecedented decision was made by NOAA and DFO to intervene and try to medicate a wild whale. They collected breath samples from her (though the results were never made clear), and also a fecal sample from someone in her family group. On July 21st, I was at Land Bank where J16 Slick, J42 Echo, and J50 Scarlet had been spread out and foraging for over half an hour when the Conservation Canine boat, with NOAA researchers on board, approached to assess J50 and take a breath sample. 

The research boat Moja approaches J50 on July 21st

This whole situation has raised a lot of questions, for me and many in the whale community. Of course we want J50 to live, but in my mind, the path of intervention is a slippery slope. For one, it's a band-aid solution that doesn't address the root of the problem - we can try to treat every whale as they become sick or malnourished, but we are going to continue to have sick and malnourished whales and no healthy calves if we don't get the entire population more salmon. Second, are you hindering more than you are helping? It was very disturbing to watch the dramatic behavior change in the J16s when the boat approached. They stopped foraging and J16 and J42 immediately flanked J50 and they started traveling quickly south, with the boat in pursuit. I heard from a friend who watched off the south end of the island that after the whales got as far as Eagle Point, it took them another 2 hours to get the breath sample, a process which she was disturbed by as well. I had also talked to another researcher who said these whales had clearly not wanted to be approached all summer. Is the stress on the sick whale and her family worth it? We heard a lot of "we need more samples" and "we need more observations" but in the meantime there was a lot of arguably undo stress put on the whales. Thirdly, I acknowledge the argument from many that we are at the point where we need to do whatever it takes to save these whales. We've intervened by depleting their food source and polluting their habitat, so why not intervene to try and help them live? Personally, I'm not sure further intervention is the solution. Scarlet likely had a difficult birth and has always been small for her age; she may have never been a fully healthy, viable whale. Are we going to intervene if she does recover and has birthing difficulties down the line because she's so small? Are we going to intervene and capture her to treat her, or bring her into a net pen, separating her from her family, if more remote treatment doesn't work? It's not a path that I personally feel good about. But, it isn't up to me, so my role has been to observe what's happening and share the news as much as possible.

The decision was made to administer an antibiotic, but it's a difficult process - just half a dose was administered via a dart on August 9th. A second thrust of the plan was to try to feed her, by partnering with the Lummi tribe and delivering live Chinook salmon off the back of a boat through a chute. On August 12th, I happened to be in the right place at the right time to witness the feeding attempt. For starters, the whale watch community was extremely respectful during both J35 and J50's ordeals. They voluntarily stayed away from them to give them extra space. It was a bit crazy, then, on the afternoon of the 12th, to see no fewer than six research and enforcement boats surrounding J50. 

A tough sight to see: a slow-moving J50, far away from any other whales, followed closely by the NOAA research vessel. The blue fishing pool net was presumably to collect any samples (prey or fecal?)

When four of the research/enforcement vessels came together to converse, I realized a feeding attempt was probably imminent.
From left to right, the Lummi Nation police boat, King County's research vessel SoundGuardian, NOAA, and WDFW Police converge to discuss the plan

The actual feeding attempt occurred off Hannah Heights, and I was viewing from shore some distance away. We heard after the fact that they released 8 fish, and while they had a drone in the air, they had no way to determine if it was successful or not. This was considered a pilot attempt, including being part of a plan to potentially administer medicine via a fish, but we haven't heard much more about it since this day.

Lummi fishing boat, on the right, released fish via the blue chute off the back of the boat while in front of the J16s

After the feeding attempt, the whales flipped again and headed back north. J50 had been on her own for a while, but was now surrounded by other J-Pod whales as they milled off Land Bank.

The Lummi police boat observes J-Pod after the feeding attempt

We really have no understanding about how sometimes the whales care for sick whales until the bitter end, holding them aloft, and other times they seem to almost abandon them, with the ailing whale trailing miles behind the rest of them before dying. J50's story has been even more bizarre in that she's been both trailing and right in with her family from day to day. It was at least a happier way to end this encounter, with her surrounded by family again.

After August 12th, J-Pod left the next day and made only one more quick visit to inland waters before returning again on the night of August 31st. They headed north early the next day, so it wasn't until September 2 that I got the chance to catch up with them.

September 2 - All of J-Pod while out with Maya's Legacy

Jason and I got the chance to go out with Maya's Legacy Whale Watching on the morning of the 2nd, and while there were no whale reports early in the morning, I felt good about our chances of encountering J-Pod heading down from the Fraser River. Sure enough, after getting a quick look at some nearby transient killer whales on the west side of Haro, word came in of whales southbound near Turn Point, and we headed over there to be the first boat on scene with J-Pod.
J27 Blackberry and J38 Cookie (bigger every time I see him) off Lover's Leap of Stuart Island
The first whales we met up with were the J11s, J22s, and J37s.

J31 Tsuchi
As they picked up speed heading south down Haro, a large group behind them came into view, made up of whales from the J14s, J16s, J17s, and J19s.

Cruising down Haro Strait!
J36 Alki porpoising
After a while they slowed down a bit, but stayed in a tight group, which is so beautiful to see. We've had some cool transient killer whale encounters lately, and it's awesome that they've been around so much, but there is no substitute for hanging out with J-Pod.

As we neared Kellett Bluff, some of the whales stalled out to forage, so we enjoyed our last looks there before heading back to port.

J38 Cookie lunging after a salmon
J27 Blackberry peeks above the surface while hunting

Later in the day, the L12 sub-group was found heading in from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and by the evening, they "hit" the west side of San Juan Island and met up with J-Pod. As a stunning sunset took shape to the west, the whales also veered west and offshore, but I was still hopeful they wouldn't leave and more encounters would await us the following morning.
A memorable sunset off the west side of San Juan Island on September 2, as the whales disappeared into the darkening waters offshore
September 3 - J50 is gone....or is she?

The joy of such a beautiful encounter on the morning of September 2nd was punctuated with the sad news that the Center for Whale Research had failed to track down the ailing J50, either on this morning in Haro Strait or the day before up in the Strait of Georgia. With the way she had been trailing and the whales being spread much of the time, it wasn't impossible she was missed, but after two days of intensive searching it was looking grim enough that on the morning of September 3rd both the Center for Whale Research and NOAA announced that she was missing and likely deceased. Then, unpredictable as ever, mere hours later word came in off the water that she had been found with J-Pod off the south end of San Juan Island. I sat for a few moments in total shock trying to process all the emotions that occurred in a short period of time, and struggling to find words to describe it all. This is finally what came to me, and what I posted on Facebook:

This summer has been unlike any other. These whales are storytellers of the sort I have never been in the presence of before, and it is a continuing emotional roller coaster to follow along. I have trouble finding words at the moment about this little whale, J50 Scarlet, seen here in healthier times in March of this year. She has been on death's doorstep since J-Pod returned in June. After not being seen despite intensive searching for the last two days, it was announced this morning she was likely gone. Mere hours later, she's found again, right back alongside her family. If we have learned one lesson from her and J35 Tahlequah this summer, it is that these whales are fighters. And so must we all be.

J50 Scarlet, still looking healthy, next to mom J16 Slick in March 2018

By early afternoon, J-Pod, along with the L12s and even more L-Pod whales that came into inland waters overnight, were aiming back towards San Juan Island from the offshore banks. Jason and I got to Land Bank right as the whales did, anxious to see J50 from shore for ourselves. Despite everything else going on, it was still nice to see some of the whales we haven't seen much of this summer, like the L12s.

Some of the L12s (the L22s, shown here) were in with the lead group
The rest of the L12s, including L41 Mega and L119 Joy (seen here), were with the trailers
We did indeed get a look at J50, who was moving along pretty quickly right in tight next to mom J16 Slick and in with a group of whales including some of the J16s, the J35s, and J22s.

J50 Scarlet surfacing behind mom, with  Ken Balcomb with the Center for Whale Research in the background, moments away here from intercepting a private boat that was heading right for these whales
It's so bizarre that she was not close enough to J-Pod to be seen by anyone for over two days, then was here swimming pretty quickly back at mom's side. Where was she? Was she trailing miles behind everyone else for days? Did she stay south alone while the rest of her pod, including her mom, went north without her? We will never know.

I didn't get the closest look at her, but as I saw photos from friends, the happy news she was still with us was again counterbalanced by the fact that she was looking even skinnier than before. It's amazing to me that she had as much strength as she did, looking as depleted as she does. When J52 Sonic and J54 Dipper looked like this, they were hours away from dying. (How sad is it that we have other recent emaciated calves, also from the "baby boom" year, to compare to?)

In the late afternoon it was announced that the collaborative research team of NOAA and others had successfully administered another dose of an antibiotic to J50. This sounds like good news, but word was it was quite distressing for those watching. J50, flanked by her family members, all of them swimming erratically; I would not be at all surprised if they recognized the boat, or the gun (used to shoot the dart with antibiotics), and wanted to evade it. I've seen the whales do the same thing myself when I've been a guest on a research boat with whales that do not want to be approached.

So here we find ourselves in this moral gray area. What is the right thing to do to help these whales, and what crosses a line? The line is clearly different for each of us, and I guess we each have to figure out where that is for ourselves.

I would not be at all surprised if J50 is not with us tomorrow. Then again, I said the same thing yesterday, and this tenacious little whale showed up out of no where, seemingly back from the dead. It's hard to know how to process these emotions and these stories told by these whales. All I know is that their messages - whether meant for us or not, sent so clearly by both J35 and J50 - cannot fall on deaf ears, and cannot be in vain. We are all struggling right now with what we are witnessing, and how much to criticize or stand up for what we think is wrong and how much to step aside because we all have different ideas of what "help" means. All I can do is report what I see and how I feel about it, with full acknowledgment that others feel differently. For me, attempting to sample and medicate a dying whale is not going to save this population, as sad as J50's story is. I do not want to see us try to use synthetic drugs to save these whales as we watch them deteriorate and die one by one. While it is not so simple to say that J35's calf died because she was malnourished or J50 is dying because she is starving, the truth is simple: more salmon will help all of the problems they are facing. With more fish, they will carry more healthy calves to term and be able to raise them. With more fish, they will metabolize fewer of the toxins they carry in their blubber. With more fish, they will have stronger immune systems, and be less susceptible to disease. We cannot continue to attempt sensational band-aid solutions that make us sound like heroes but do nothing of substance for the whales. Today, we are three weeks away from the governor's task force issuing their draft recommendations, and perhaps then we will see if there are people who have the courage enough to make the tough, difficult decisions that will result in the type of bold action these whales really need to survive.


Vera said...

You never cease to amaze me with your writing skills and your dedication to the Southern Residents. I took an excerpt from your blog near the end and forwarded it to the governor's office. :-) With credit to you, of course.

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing.
This remains a Sad Tale of a Whale and would remain until the dams wont be opened and they dont get their food! Watch them die one by one of starvation! That's most horrible!

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing.
This remains a Sad Tale of a Whale and would remain until the dams wont be opened and they dont get their food! Watch them die one by one of starvation! That's most horrible!

Unknown said...

This reading is beautiful, strong and you are amazing with the words put together to inform us of what is happening. We ALL would LOVE for these beautiful beings to live forever but if we cannot get the changes to happen, we will be their demise. Politicans NEED to stay tracking the dams down and work to keep all pollutants from the waters in whatever way possible. THANK YOU for all you do.