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Orca Whale J50 'Missing and Now Presumed Dead'

Animals

The ailing orca whale J50 was declared "missing and now presumed dead" by the Center for Whale Research Thursday, after a three-day search by the organization in the waters between Washington state and Canada failed to locate her.

She would be the third Southern Resident killer whale to die since June, bringing their numbers down to 74.


J50 belonged to the same pod of Southern Resident killer whales as J35, the mother who captured international sympathy by carrying her dead calf for 17 days last month.

"Watching J50 during the past three months is what extinction looks like when survival is threatened for all by food deprivation and lack of reproduction," Center for Whale Research Founding Director Ken Balcomb wrote in a press release. "Not only are the Southern Resident killer whales dying and unable to reproduce sufficiently, but also their scarce presence in the Salish Sea is an indication that adequate food is no longer available for them here, or along the coast."

J50 had been growing weaker since 2017, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had decided this week to take her into captivity in order to treat and potentially rehabilitate her, The Seattle Times reported.

But a massive search Thursday conducted by NOAA, the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network, Soundwatch, whale-watching boats and a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter in Washington and the Marine Mammal Rescue vessel, the M Charles midwater patrol vessel, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Straitwatch and a Coast Guard helicopter in Canada did not result in any sightings.

She was last seen one week ago, Sept. 7, and was absent from a gathering of around 60 whales from her own J pod, as well as K and L pods, on Thursday.

NOAA spokesperson Michael Milstein told The Seattle Times his agency had not given up entirely, despite Thursday's declaration.

"We have had a huge amount of help today, and it is really important that if she is there that we find her," Milstein told The Seattle Times. "We certainly have not determined at this point that we are giving up. And we are determining that day by day, we are not setting a timeline."

The capture effort was the last in a series of increasingly dramatic attempts to save J50, who had gotten so emaciated that she had trouble swimming and keeping her head above water.

Veterinarians and biologists in the U.S. and Canada working with NOAA sampled her breath, injected her with antibiotics and fed her Chinook salmon off the back of a boat.

Wildlife advocates emphasized the importance of restoring the population of Chinook salmon, the orcas' primary food-source, in the Salish Sea.

'It is a heartbreaking reminder that we cannot save these whales on a case-by-case individual basis. What J50 needed, and what her family continues to need, is healthy and abundant Chinook salmon, which these orcas depend upon for survival," Defenders of Wildlife Northwest Representative Robb Krehbiel said in a statement. "If we are unable to restore the salmon that these orcas need, more whales will starve to death."

The Center for Whale Research agreed with this diagnosis.

It called for the restoration of the natural Chinook salmon runs throughout their historic range and recommended the breaching of the Lower Snake River Dams in Washington, which the center said kill millions of salmon.

Salmon populations in Canada's Fraser River have been harmed by overfishing and pollution from mining, chemical spills and industrial and agricultural development, the Center for Whale Research said.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.