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Firing a dart into a wild, sick orca ‘a little bit different,’ sharp-shooting veterinarian says

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 6, 2018, 8:50 a.m.

Martin Haulena, head veterinarian at Vancouver Aquarium, fires a needle-tipped dart at ailing orca J50 on Monday, as seen from a frame from his GoPro footage of the encounter. (Martin Haulena)
Martin Haulena, head veterinarian at Vancouver Aquarium, fires a needle-tipped dart at ailing orca J50 on Monday, as seen from a frame from his GoPro footage of the encounter. (Martin Haulena)

Siting down the barrel of his rifle, Martin Haulena took careful aim.

It was a tricky shot, kneeling in the bow of a moving boat, in pursuit of a moving and fragile target: J50, a critically endangered southern-resident killer whale, swimming nestled among her family members Monday.

Haulena is part of a team of veterinarians, biologists and other experts trying an unprecedented intervention to save a wild young orca, feared to be near death.

If his shot comes in too hard, he could embed the needle-tipped dart in her flesh, doing more harm than good. Shoot too soft, and the dart wouldn’t fly true. Miss and he could hit her dorsal fin, where, with no blood circulation, the medicine in the dart would hit a dead end. Totally unacceptable of course would be hitting an eye or her belly. Vets take an oath to, first and always, do no harm.

He fired, letting loose the 30-centimeter-long dart, loaded with antibiotics, from the CO2-powered rifle, a DanInject, used by veterinarians all over the world for remotely injecting animals, from bears to white-tailed deer to giraffes. A sea-lion expert himself, Haulena has darted plenty of entangled sea lions, to anesthetize them so he can disentangle them from debris.

But a wild, moving killer whale? That was a first.

Dr. Martin Haulena, head veterinarian at Vancouver Aquarium, administers antibiotics to J50 using remote injection. He is onboard a boat driven by killer-whale expert Deborah Giles.His aim was true: With a thwack, the needle sailed from the rifle and stuck, right where he wanted. And while there was a bit of a blow out, with some of the medicine leaking, he got a good dose into the whale, who swam right on, seeming not even to notice, according to video of the intervention captured on Haulena’s Go-Pro.

It was his only opportunity all day; Haulena, head veterinarian at the Vancouver Aquarium, had hoped to also get some dewormer into J50. But it was not to be. That will remain a priority this week, if conditions are right. Namely: The whale has to be at extremely close range – about 10 meters – and the water calm. Conditions were perfect Monday when he made the shot, Haulena said. Yet still he had only one chance; not one other time all day was the position of the whales swimming in the wild and his ability to make the shot just right.

“Darting animals in the wild is something we do,” he said. “Darting a moving whale that only has a bit of itself out of the water from a moving boat, that is definitely a little bit different. Like everything else, it is a matter of trying something and adjusting as you get used to it.”

Haulena has already modified his technique from his first shot at J50 on Aug. 9, in which only about half the dose was administered because the needle came out. This time under an amendment in permits from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans he used a dart with a collar to stick in better, and used slightly less velocity on the shot. Next time, he might try even less – but not so much as to let the shot wobble. “You still need a fair amount of pressure for it to fly straight, you don’t want a dipping dart,” he said.

Getting a close look at J50, Haulena said he only felt more worried about the young whale, who to him looked skinnier than ever. “I am not sure the antibiotics will help,” Haulena said. “It is great she is still alive. That gives us hope. But she is in a state of body condition from which other whales have not returned.”

Joe Gaydos, science director with the SeaDoc Society, a nonprofit science and conservation group, is the veterinarian on rotation this week to help with J50.

Getting the shot right if he gets a chance is just one of the things on his mind. “That is relatively simple compared with deciding whether to intervene, how much to intervene, managing expectations,” Gaydos said.

Like many, he is amazed J50 is still alive – and over last weekend when she was temporarily not seen with her family, he feared the worst. “We were berating ourselves: we didn’t do enough, we should have acted sooner. It was almost like Lazarus when she did show up, this is an animal that is easy to root for. She has a lot of heart.”

It is frustrating for veterinary professionals to work amid so much uncertainty; without a blood sample, for instance it is hard to know exactly what is ailing the whale, Gaydos said. A dewormer is a second thing to try this week, to at least reduce any load of parasites she might be carrying.

“It is always frustrating when you are on the front line of something, treating free- ranging animals when people haven’t done this before,” Gaydos said. “But I feel like we are doing everything we can do without putting her at risk, in that regard I feel like we are doing the right thing.”

For those who have known J50, it’s difficult to watch her struggle. “It is hard to imagine a whale in worse condition than she was in August, but she is even smaller and skinnier,” said Taylor Shedd of Soundwatch, a boater-education program of the Whale Museum at Friday Harbor. Out doing boater education with whale watchers all summer, he has witnessed J50’s fight to survive. “There is some kind of internal drive to push forward and not give up.”

Ken Balcomb, founding director of the Center for Whale Research, saw J50 just a few days ago and said she was thin to the point of being “grotesque – I hate to say that,” said Balcomb, adding he did not think she would live.

Others are not yet ready to go there. “You look at her and you think, how can you even swim; you have no fat. I still hold out hope. She is this tenacious animal, with this strong will to live; whatever it is, she is still hanging on,” said Deborah Giles, science and research director for Wild Orca who has worked on several research projects with orcas since 2005. She is also one of the few experts in the region permitted to drive a boat amid the whales — as she did Monday, to help Haulena deliver the dart. It took 100 percent attention of everyone on the boat to the whales’ every motion, moving like a member of the pod, Giles said.

She feels good about doing what she can to help J50, a whale believed to have survived a difficult birth, being pulled out of her mother by other members of her pod, midwifing her with their teeth. “She is just a phenomenal animal, a damn spunky whale,” Giles said. Once seen breaching, or leaping from the water, 40 times in a row, exuberance for life has always been J50’s trademark, Giles said.

“If any animal could make it through with a little extra support it would be this animal,” she said.

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