Young Southern Resident orca Scarlet (J50) missing, presumed dead

I’m a huge sucker for an underdog.  Any kind of story with the downtrodden little guy, the scrappy long shot – I’m in and I root for them with my whole heart.  I just really like to see a happy ending, and things turn around just when you thought they couldn’t get any worse.  Sadly, the story of Scarlet (J50), is an underdog tale that doesn’t end happily, and this is not a movie we can turn away from to return to normal life.  This is the real story of the critically endangered Southern Resident orcas, who are dying before our eyes.  Yesterday (September 13), the Center for Whale Research (CWR) confirmed all of our worst fears – Scarlet is missing and presumed dead.  While members of her community, J, K, and L pods, have come together in the first large gathering of Southern Resident orcas seen in their summer home in several years, Scarlet has not been among them. 

I think her underdog status is part of the reason why Scarlet meant so much to me personally, and to everyone who loves and follows the Southern Resident community.  Not just because she was born during the last time things were looking especially bleak for this unique family of orcas, and kick-started a “baby boom” of hope that things were turning around for the population, but also because she entered this world in true, dramatic underdog fashion. 

Scarlet was born into a typical orca family, so close that no one could tell who her mother was at first, until researchers confirmed she was the daughter of J16 (Slick), a mother that everyone thought was past her child-bearing age. Her birth was apparently difficult, and researchers inferred that she was “midwifed” out of her mother, reading the story from the tooth-mark scars on her back that led to her nickname: Scarlet.  From the beginning, Scarlet quickly overcame the troubling circumstances of her birth and proved to be an independent, rambunctious, spirited little orca.  Local naturalists and researchers often shared stories of Scarlet breaching multiple times in a row, or wandering off on her own, exploring a world new to her.  Everyone who spoke of Scarlet did so with a smile on their face; you couldn’t help but feel the joy this young whale brought to all the humans around her – she probably brought the same joy, and some exasperation, to her mother and siblings.

southern resident orca calf
Scarlet (J50) swims with mother Slick (J16) shortly after her birth

Sadly, all eyes were again turned to Scarlet in recent months, as the three-and-a-half year-old orca returned to her family’s summer home in poor condition, and continued to decline over the course of the summer.  Despite her liveliness and cheerful attitude, for some reason Scarlet was failing to thrive and remained exceptionally small – researchers describe her as the size of a one-year-old.  She lost body fat over the summer and became severely emaciated, often lagging behind her family and struggling to keep up. 

An unprecedented response effort was launched, bringing together a partnership between the U.S. and Canada, with help from Tribes, rescue organizations, and researchers, with an ambitious plan to medicate Scarlet and attempt to provide her with salmon.  The team sought to learn why Scarlet’s health was declining when her family members – mother Slick (J16), brother Mike (J26), and sisters Alki (J36) and Echo (J42) – seemed healthy.  Pairing breath and fecal samples with aerial imagery from drones and visual assessments, the response team attempted to treat Scarlet with antibiotics and dewormer to address the possible health issues of bacterial infection and parasites. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had started to prepare for a live capture of Scarlet, intending to take her into the same seapen originally set up for Springer, a Northern Resident orca who was found alone and out of her normal range in 2002.  A highly controversial suggestion, capturing Scarlet would have allowed the response team to examine her directly and try to determine the cause of her illness and possible treatment.  But the stress of being captured could have been deadly for Scarlet, and have significant impacts on her family.  The Southern Residents are survivors of a horrific capture era, and many people in the region did not want to see one behind nets again.  To take input from concerned members of the public, NOAA had scheduled two meetings in Washington State for the weekend.

NOAA’s plan for capture and treatment would have moved forward only if Scarlet live-stranded (became beached on land or unable to swim) or was separated from her family, but they did not define how they would determine separation.  Scarlet had been lagging 1 km or more behind her family at times, and even being physically separated she could still be communicating acoustically with her mother and siblings.  The plan would include an assessment of Scarlet and either additional treatment for eventual return to her family, or if she was determined too sick to survive, try to reunite her to die in peace with her family.  However, the difficult decision came too late for Scarlet, who was hopefully with her family in her final hours, undisturbed by humans.

 

Aerial images of J50
Scarlet's (J50) body condition declined dramatically over the summer

The Southern Resident orcas face a complicated, interconnected web of threats to their survival.  The main issue is a lack of food, specifically Chinook salmon, placing all the orcas at risk of nutritional stress.  Contaminants in their environment can weaken their reproductive and immune systems, and can kill the salmon they depend on.  Noise and disturbance from commercial and industrial activities in the ocean makes it hard for the orcas to forage, navigate, and communicate.  Each of those threats intensifies the effects of the others, and the combination likely contributed to Scarlet’s tragic, early death.

Today, I am mourning the loss of Scarlet, my favorite of the “baby boom” calves and the underdog that so many were rooting for.  It has been an incredibly difficult summer for the orcas, starting with a historically late return to their summer foraging areas, the loss of a young adult male, the death of a newborn calf heartbreakingly mourned by her mother, Tahlequah (J35), and watching Scarlet fade away.  With her loss, the Southern Residents are now at a precarious population level of just 74 orcas left in the wild.

But out of sadness comes a renewed determination to do everything I can, and ask that all others do the same, to help save this endangered community of orcas.  The threats ultimately come from human-caused changes to their environment – we have dammed their rivers, killed their salmon, and polluted their homes with chemicals and noise.  It is up to every single one of us to take action to reverse these changes and forge a path where we can live side-by-side with our orca neighbors.

That will require bold, sweeping changes to policy in how we use our environment, both in the Pacific Northwest that the orcas call home and throughout the U.S. and Canada, as well as personal changes in our daily lives.  Even if you live far away from the ocean, your choices make a difference for orcas and salmon – switching to reusable bags or biodegradable cleaning products helps watersheds be healthier for salmon and the food they rely, and salmon feeds orcas and helps them survive.  Changes you make can also inspire others to make changes, and the transformation of how we interact with our natural environment is what the orcas ultimately need for their long-term survival.

But today I am sad, and I am taking time to reflect on the life of Scarlet and what we can learn from her all-too-short story.  I choose to believe she was not only a symbol of hope, but also a message of optimism and positivity in the face of adversity.  Saving the Southern Resident orcas may be an uphill battle, but if we face it like Scarlet, leaping out of the darkness and forging our own path, it’s a battle that can be won.

 

Southern Resident orca J50
Scarlet (J50) displaying her trademark bellyflop breach

What we’re doing:  WDC is an active voice in the Washington State Task Force, which will decide on state-level actions to address threats to the Southern Residents and the salmon they rely on.  We’ve been attending the meetings, have shared information and resources with the Task Force, and submitted comments on behalf of WDC and with our partners in the Orca Salmon Alliance.  We’re encouraging the community of people concerned with the Southern Resident orcas to come together for #BoldActionNow, advocating for bold, comprehensive actions throughout the orcas’ range.  Our ongoing Don’t Let Orcas Be Dammed and MigrationNation campaigns focus on salmon recovery through river and habitat restoration, and we are fighting to expand the orcas’ critical habitat, reduce the impacts of Naval activity, and uphold the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act – two landmark conservation laws that provide vital protection to orcas and salmon.

What you can do: Sign our letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service asking them to expand critical habitat now, and submit your recommendations to the Task Force at this website.  You can review a list of recommended actions from the Orca Salmon Alliance, and check out this webpage we put together for suggested changes you can make at home, every day, to help orcas and salmon.