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Canada, US mull options for orphaned baby whale
( 2002-03-06 14:01 ) (7 )

An orphaned killer whale stranded in Washington state's Puget Sound is suffering from a stress-related skin complaint and her long-term chances are poor, wildlife officials said on Tuesday.

The two-year-old female orca, known only as A73, has been stranded since January and is catching fish near Vachon Island. But the experts say she is too young to survive without the other members of her pod. She has a skin condition similar to herpes in humans and her health is getting worse.

John Ford, an orca specialist at the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said options for biologists include doing nothing, which could lead to the whale's death, caring for her in captivity or trying to return her to the family pod.

"Its mother is dead," said Ford, noting that intervention by biologists could lead to the undesirable result of the calf becoming dependent on humans.

"It seems to be slowly deteriorating in health... Its long term prognosis is not good."

Brian Gorman of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle, Washington, said any attempts to save the orca will have to come soon.

"We've got a few weeks before things turn nasty for this calf," he said. "Once things get really bad, any rescue operation has an immediate danger (to the whale)."

The experts said returning the calf to her pod poses problems, partly because they do not know exactly where the group is. During summer, the group lives off northern Vancouver Island on Canada's west coast, and that means the issue has become an international one.

"We are working with our US counterparts to decide what assistance would be required," said Debra Phelan, a spokeswoman with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Gorman said many of the thorny decisions that need to be made to save the whale have more to do with diplomacy than with biology.

"We obviously couldn't plunk a whale down in Canadian waters without permission," he said.

He was doubtful about the success of returning the whale to its family.

"She'd probably be unsuccessful in getting back into her pod," he said. "She has no brothers or sisters. Killer whales display all the (behaviors) we find repulsive in humans. They're clannish and xenophobic."

Interventionist options may include keeping the animal in an ocean cage or putting it in an aquarium, and the final decision will be made by an international advisory panel. Sea World, the Vancouver Aquarium and the Oregon Coast Aquarium are among facilities monitoring the whale.

The Oregon aquarium was the home of Keiko, the killer whale that starred in the 1993 film "Free Willy". After 20 years in captivity, Keiko was returned to his native Icelandic waters in 1999 where he now lives in an ocean bay pen.

Vancouver's aquarium no longer has killer whales. The last one, a 25-year-old female named Bjossa, was moved to Sea World in San Diego, California, in April, 2001 where she died that October.

Ironically, a second orca calf, a three-year-old male, has also been found alone off Vancouver Island. But he appears healthy and has found a good source of fish. 



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