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'Scary' situation for killer whale species as mother-and-daughter pair found in poor health

A Southern Resident Killer whale and her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter are under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) radar due to their rapidly declining health, which appears to be a "scary" situation for these creatures, says an expert.

A series of aerial photos show the adult female, named J17, in declining health with a significant loss of weight since previous updates in September 2015 and 2018. In the first photo she is pregnant with her daughter, J53, and is in the best condition that scientists have recorded her in.

Her current condition shows a fat reduction, or loss of blubber, around the head — best shown by the indentation in the white patches around her eyes — which is called "peanut head."

"Her condition is contrasted to September 2018, when she was also very lean but had not yet developed such an obvious "peanut head", and to September 2015 when she was clearly pregnant (note width at mid body) and in peak recent condition," says an update on the NOAA website, which notes the photos were taken at more than 100-feet above the whales and with a permit.

There are a total of 75 Southern Resident Killer Whales left on earth and the condition of the killer whales is a call to action, says Joe Gaydos with the SeaDoc Society out of the University of California who noted the death of J50 last year, a four-year-old orca.

<who>Photo Credit: San Juan County Marine Resources Committee</who>Whale warning flag

“It’s a scary thing to happen on the tails of what happened last year to J50 and actually J17 was looking thin last fall as well, and really didn’t bounce back over the winter,” he said.

“The possibility is real that we could lose her,” he said.

Researchers believe that several aspects are causing the frightening conditions including malnutrition and disease.

The NOAA Fisheries do not plan to intervene with either whales but will continue to gather information, and add to the health assessments by collecting feces, breath and scraps of the whales' prey (which will indicates whales' diet, potential pregnancies and exposure to pathogens).

Jonathan Wilkinson, Fisheries and Oceans Minister, announced sweeping new rules this month to protect the Southern Resident Killer Whales off of the BC coast — requirements which keep ships 400-metres away from the whales as well as had some salmon fisheries close.

With files from The Canadian Press

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