Encyclopedia of Puget Sound

When should medical experts intervene to save a killer whale?

The death of a young female orca in September has sparked a discussion of how and whether scientists should step in with medical care for distressed animals in the wild. Medical intervention has become routine for some endangered mammals, but scientists say Puget Sound’s resident orcas present a series of unique challenges and ethical questions. In part one of our two-part series The Orca Docs we look at how scientists are preparing to treat endangered southern resident orcas that face starvation and risks of disease.

Scientists in a boat use a long pole to capture the breath of an orca. Photo: Pete Schroeder
Scientists collect breath samples of an orca using a long pole with petri dishes attached at the end. Photo: Pete Schroeder

The story of Springer, an orphaned orca rescued in Puget Sound and returned to her family in Canada, has been told many times. What is not well known, however, is how an ordinary tree branch sparked an up-close connection with humans that allowed the life-saving rescue to proceed. Another young orca named Scarlet was not so lucky, yet her death last summer has become part of a national discussion.

Sixteen years after her rescue, Springer, or A73, is living a normal life with her extended family in British Columbia, where she has given birth to two healthy offspring.

Last year’s death of 4-year-old Scarlet, or J50, has left experts wondering if they did enough to help the starving whale or if they should have let nature take its course. In this article, we look at two case studies that may inform future medical interventions for Puget Sound's endangered orca population.  

A tale of two orcas

In a much-publicized rescue attempt last September, experts tried to provide salmon to an emaciated Scarlet. The last-ditch effort proved fruitless, and veterinarians were unsuccessful in diagnosing any internal problems from a distance. The young whale seemed to waste away until she disappeared and was declared deceased. Since her body was never recovered, nobody knows whether an infection, parasites, congenital defect or other problem may have contributed to her severe state of malnutrition.

What is more understood is that Scarlett’s entire community, the southern resident killer whales, are suffering from a shortage of food. Adult whales in the population appear thin, and the growth of young orcas seems stunted compared to northern residents in British Columbia. Females are either not getting pregnant or having miscarriages at a high rate.

Memories of Springer’s successful rescue and Scarlet’s untimely demise are wrapped up in ongoing discussions about when it is appropriate for humans to intervene with wild orcas, said Lynne Barre, killer whale recovery coordinator for NOAA’s West Coast Regional Office. It’s all part of the wider ethical deliberations about how far one should go to save endangered species.

“A conversation is happening nationwide,” Barre said. “When is intervention appropriate and when is it not? Our experience with J50 has helped us move forward on those considerations. While every case is different, we have developed a series of questions to help us decide if intervention is feasible or practical.”

Scarlet probably won’t be the last southern resident considered for medical intervention. At least two other orcas appear to be in declining health and may not survive for long. Important considerations for any intervention include a whale’s age and physical condition, potential stress for the animal and its close-knit family, the social role of the individual in its community, and the orca’s potential to reproduce and expand the population.

Related blog post

Health assessments planned for two ailing orcas 

Southern resident killer whalesThe two whales of greatest concern are J17, a 42-year-old female named Princess Angeline, and K25, a 28-year-old male named Scoter. Both are reported with “peanut head,” a condition in which an orca has lost so much body fat that a depression appears behind the blowhole.

Marine mammal veterinarians and biologists are moving forward with plans to compile medical records on each of the 75 surviving orcas in the southern resident population. To develop the new program, planners are taking clues from ongoing programs with other species, such as bottlenose dolphins in Florida, gorillas in Africa and North Atlantic right whales on the East Coast.

Springer and the stick

It remains a mystery why a 2-year-old orca from Canada ventured into Puget Sound — some 300 miles outside her pod’s territory and far from any family members. By the time Springer settled down in the Vashon Island ferry lanes in January 2002, she had lost significant weight and was suffering from an uncomfortable skin disorder.

Video trimmed to clip showing Springer playing with a stick.

Orca researcher Mark Sears of West Seattle, one of the first to notice Springer, said she had been pushing around pieces of wood and bits of kelp, as he watched from his small boat. Orcas are social animals, but Springer was all-alone except for the ferry that kept going by at regular intervals. When it stopped, Springer would sometimes rub up against the large vessel.

“She was so in need of tactile stimulation,” Sears recalled. “One day I noticed she was rubbing on a stick about 4 feet long.”

Springer pushed the stick up to the little boat, and Sears used the stick as both a toy and a back-scratcher. He took the stick home and attached an eyehook and soft rope. It became an ongoing object of engagement as he returned to visit the whale.

“I would throw the stick out and she would come right over to the boat,” Sears said.

Interactions between humans and marine mammals are not normally recommended, even for biologists with federal permits. For average people, such close encounters are considered a violation of federal law. But for a lonely whale, the man and the stick seemed to help Springer cope with her isolation. At the same time, the stick became the key that allowed experts to get close enough to assess her condition.

The turning point came when medical experts noticed the sweet, fruity smell of ketones on Springer’s breath, a sign that she was malnourished and burning up her fat reserves and starting to break down her muscles for energy, noted Brad Hanson, a marine mammal biologist with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. It was time to make a decision: Should they let nature take its course, which could result in a slow and lonely death for the young whale, or should they attempt to nurse her back to health and reunite her with her family in British Columbia.

Canadian authorities had made it clear that they would not allow the whale to enter their country unless they were assured that Springer was free of disease. A breath sample from her blowhole had raised suspicions that she might have an inborn metabolic disorder.

The only answer was a blood test, Hanson said, but that posed a dilemma. The easiest way to take blood was to first capture the whale. But if it turned out that Springer did have a disease, she would need to live out her life in captivity — a result that nobody wanted.

The moment of truth

Pete Schroeder of Sequim, a marine mammal veterinarian, had spent years overseeing the medical care of killer whales and dolphins in captivity. Captive animals can be trained to hold still while blood is taken from a vein in a flipper, dorsal fin or tail fluke, but wild animals are quite different and can be unpredictable. When Schroeder was told that Springer could be encouraged to swim up next to a boat by reaching out with a special stick, the veterinarian accepted the challenge of taking blood from a moving whale.

Getting a blood sample without confining the whale was a pivotal moment in the rescue. The sample was large enough for several tests, all of which cleared the way for Springer to return home.

At the moment of truth in early May 2002, Springer swam up to the boat and allowed Hanson to rub her with the stick. Jeff Foster, another whale expert, reached out for her dorsal fin and tried to slow her down, but she kept going and circled back around.

On the second attempt, Schroeder synchronized his movement with that of the slow-moving Springer. Schroeder was able to locate a vein in Springer’s dorsal fin, and he inserted a hypodermic needle as the whale kept swimming. Together, the team played out a 14-foot section of sterile tubing that was attached to the needle protruding from the fin. At the other end of the tubing, a large syringe was filling with blood. Springer circled back around to the boat, and Schroeder smoothly withdrew the needle.

“She was conditioned to be rubbed with the stick,” Schroeder said, “and that made the difference.”

Getting a blood sample without confining the whale was a pivotal moment in the rescue. The sample was large enough for several tests, all of which cleared the way for Springer to return home. The young whale was shown to be malnourished and had some intestinal parasites, but she was otherwise healthy. A second blood sample confirmed those findings.

A month later, on June 13, Springer was captured without incident and moved to a net pen at the nearby National Marine Fisheries Service Laboratory in Manchester. Live salmon were slid down a tube into her pen while her caregivers remained out of sight as much as possible. The idea was to keep her from associating people with food. In a short time, her skin condition cleared up and she gained 150 pounds.

On July 13, Springer was transferred to a catamaran and made a trip by water to Dong Chong Bay on Hanson Island, British Columbia. The next day, Springer was released to follow a group of northern resident orcas that had been calling to her through the water.

Springer, orca A73, being lifted by a crane. Photo: NOAA Fisheries
A crane lifts Springer in a custom-made sling from a temporary holding pen to a vessel that returned her to home waters in British Columbia. Photo: NOAA Fisheries

Nobody knew whether Springer would be welcomed by the other orcas, and she seemed to struggle to keep up at first. But eventually she became fully integrated into the whale community. In 2013, Springer gave birth to her first calf, designated A104 and later named Spirit, followed in 2017 by a second calf, A116, who has not yet been named.

The trials of Scarlet   

Unlike 2-year-old Springer, who was found alone in Puget Sound, 4-year-old Scarlet remained surrounded by her family, including her mother, J16 or Slick, and her 11-year-old sister, Echo or J42. As with Springer, there was always the hope that Scarlet would grow up to give birth to a number of babies. Scarlet’s offspring would be especially precious, since they could help expand the critically endangered southern resident population.

Scarlet had raised concerns among killer whale researchers from the time she was born, according to Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research. She started out life as a “runt,” he said, and she never caught up in size with her age group.

Balcomb and his associates maintain records on the births and deaths of all the southern residents, along with general observations of physical conditions and behavior. Shortly after Scarlet was born in 2014, the researchers noticed unusual “rake marks” on her back, most likely caused when an adult whale used its teeth to pull the baby from the birth canal, according to Balcomb. Her name “Scarlet” refers to the scars on her back.

Nobody knows if the suspected birth trauma had a lasting effect on her health, but no overt problems were evident as she became an active youngster. She captured the hearts of whale watchers as she leaped out of the water and splashed around on the surface.

While Scarlet was always small for her age, experts began noticing a loss of weight during the spring of 2018. Her breath developed a bad odor, something like a “dumpster,” according to one observer.

Hanson and Foster, who had worked together with Springer, were able to take a sample of Scarlet’s breath in July by driving a boat alongside her and reaching out over her blowhole with a pole that had a collection device on the end. Unfortunately, the sample was small, and lab tests failed to reveal any dominant bacteria, which could have connected Scarlet’s condition to a specific disease and treatment.

Petri dishes at the end of a long pole to capture orca breath samples. Photo: Pete Schroeder
Petri dishes at the end of a long pole capture orca breath samples. Laboratory analysis of the breath samples revealed that killer whales can carry a variety of pathogens, including disease-resistant bacteria. Photo: Pete Schroeder

By August, concerns were running high for the young whale, who continued to lose weight. Side-by-side aerial photos taken from a drone on Aug. 1 and a year earlier showed that Scarlet had become dramatically thinner, essentially emaciated. Observers said she was struggling at times to keep up with her pod. On Aug. 9, an antibiotic was administered to her with a dart but only part of the dose went in.

Through August and into September, experts continued to watch Scarlet whenever she returned with her pod from the Pacific Ocean. Though her condition was considered grave, she continued to surprise observers with her survival and occasional bursts of energy. On Sept. 4, she received another dose of antibiotics, as the medical team pondered other treatment options.

On Monday, Sept. 10, a team of experts got together in Friday Harbor to discuss the idea of capturing Scarlet and nursing her back to health, with Springer as a model. Unlike Springer, however, Scarlet was not a lone whale. A major concern was how her family and the other orcas would react to a capture operation. Would they rush to defend her?

Some experts argued that she should be left alone to die with her family, if that was to be the outcome. They argued that Scarlet was in far worse nutritional condition than Springer was at the time of her capture. Scarlet might die during capture operations or need continued care for the rest of her life.

Others contended that an immediate capture and treatment was the only hope to save her life and provide an opportunity for her to bear offspring.

It was decided that even a brief capture to examine her up close and take blood would not be attempted if other whales were close enough to hear her calls of distress. Before a capture would be considered, she would need to be alone at some distance from the other orcas.

Two options remained, assuming she came to be alone: 1) A capture and examination on a boat, followed by quick treatment and release, or 2) potentially moving her to a net pen for a longer rehabilitation and later release. As it turned out, Scarlet went missing shortly after the meeting and was never seen again.

Officials say they are likely to face the same quandary with any future rescue of a sick orca: Early intervention would likely lead to stress among other whales in the social group, but later intervention would reduce the chance of success from a medical perspective.

Some, like Ken Balcomb, downplay the role of medical experts in trying to save the southern residents from extinction.

“These whales have amazing fortitude,” he said. “They can do super-hero things, but they can’t do them if they don’t have food. That’s the only real answer.”

Experts are preparing to take breath and fecal samples from two other southern resident orcas now showing signs of malnutrition. Without a medical status, officials have not started discussing the pros and cons of a medical intervention with those animals.

Among animal-welfare advocates, there is no agreement about how far humans should go to help endangered species, because every situation is unique to the species and to the individual animals of concern.

“Medical decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis,” said Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute, based in Washington, D.C. “The one thing you should not do is permanently remove an ailing animal from its natural habitat.”

For orcas, she said, if the only alternative is to keep the animal in a “concrete box” for the rest of its life, then any planned intervention should be called off, and the animal should be allowed to die among its family.

Up next: We look at how scientists are intervening in the health of other endangered animals, including mountain gorillas, dolphins and seals and how this is informing efforts to protect orcas here in Puget Sound. Read Part 2 of The Orca Docs: Wildlife rescues may inform orca strategies.


About the Author: 
Christopher Dunagan is a senior writer at the Puget Sound Institute.