There is a high level of concern about the health of a young Southern Resident killer whale, J50, who has been documented to be in very poor body condition in recent months. Since early August NOAA Fisheries and response partners have implemented a medication strategy to try to administer antibiotics and dewormer. To assess the effectiveness of medication, and to monitor her general condition, SR3 has continued its collaboration with cetacean health experts at NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center to collect aerial images for ongoing photogrammetry research.
Working under a research permit from NOAA Fisheries, we have been able to fly a custom-made research drone high (typically >100ft) above the whales, to non-invasively collect images to measure the width (to infer fatness) and length (to monitor growth) of the whales. In particular, we have been able to document a dramatic decline in condition of J50 between 2017 and 2018, and a worrying continuation of this decline in the last month (see photographs below). Of further concern, our quantitative measurements from these images indicate that her mother (J16) has also declined in condition over the last month, perhaps due to the burden of helping to catch and share food with J50.
Our collaborative research team will be working around the San Juan Islands for the remainder of September, with a primary aim of documenting the condition of all individuals in the population to add to a 10-year time series to assess changes in the nutritional health of Southern Resident killer whales. These data will support management actions aimed at maintaining an adequate food supply.