Orphaned killer whale surprises ocean scientists with survival

Wednesday, March 27, 2002

SEATTLE -- A young killer whale hanging out alone in Puget Sound is in good shape, according to experts who initially had doubts that she could live in a solitary state.

The whale is eating and active and "not giving any indication that intervention is called for," National Marine Fisheries Service spokesman Brian Gorman said Monday.

She's one of two young whales in the region that became separated from their family groups, or pods, and for months have managed on their own -- unique in the experience of scientists who have studied resident Northwest orcas.

"If nothing else we'll learn a great deal more about killer-whale behavior from all this," Gorman said.

The young female was first spotted in January in the middle of Puget Sound near Seattle.

Initially there were concerns that she was in poor health, based on her paint-thinner-like odor, which indicates she is digesting her own fat and may not be eating enough, and a sloughing skin ailment common to the species dubbed "killer whale pox."

The feeling then was that "we had no choice but to let her die or put her in an aquarium," Gorman said.

But when scientists learned more, the sense of crisis faded "and the aquarium-rescue option basically came off the table."

Not getting worse

Daily monitoring has determined her condition is not getting worse, though it's not yet known whether she's getting better. Over the weekend, scientists obtained samples of her respiratory gases, Gorman said. Analysis will take about a week and will provide the first objective information on her condition, he said.

Some observers worry she is not as active as she should be, but perhaps that's because "she's not keeping up with a family group. Maybe this is how solitary calves behave," Gorman said. "We're treading new ground here in many respects."

The female was orphaned from her Canada-based family group last year.

Whale activists want the orphan reunited with her family group, but it's not known whether they would accept her after months of separation -- or if there was some reason for her separation, undetectable by humans, that would prevent reconciliation.

The other orphan is from a pod based about 100 miles north of Seattle.

Both are eating a lot of fish and nuzzling up to logs and branches in an apparent effort at comfort through contact.

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