Scarlet Fever: Saving Scarlet or Spinning Scarlet?

mark leiren-young
Sep 13, 2018 · 4 min read

The Plan to Save J-50 — the Emaciated Orca

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Scarlet (J-50) learning to fly.

You must have heard about the dramatic rescue plan to save Scarlet (J-50)— the emaciated young endangered southern resident orca. I’m a big fan of the Disney version of this story where Americans, Canadians and the Lummi Nation swoop in to give the dying young orca the medical treatment she needs, before sending her home to her family with a Free Willy flourish. I not only want to see that movie, I want to write that movie. But I don’t think we’re living that movie.

I was talking about Scarlet on CFAX radio yesterday right after sitting in on the virtual press conference about the headline-grabbing plan to save the sick orca. The last vet to see her, Joe Gaydos, from the SeaDoc Society said Scarlet was like “the Energizer bunny.” It was astonishing how much energy the little orca still had. He also said she was the “thinnest” orca he’d ever seen.

Since the press conference I’ve fielded all sorts of questions about the potential rescue mission and the more I think about it, the less convinced I am that the new proposal is about saving this orca than about setting the scene for explaining why it was impossible to save this orca (who had not been seen in several days).

  1. Yes, there is a rescue plansort of. But if you read beyond the headlines/clickbait (does anyone still do that?) the plan depends on an almost impossible number of pieces falling into place. The proposal to capture, diagnose and treat the dying little orca basically depends on a scenario just shy of Scarlet swimming away from her family, leaping into NOAA’s boat and signing a medical release form. The plan requires Scarlet to be seperated from her family — or beached — and appear unable to catch or find them. Oh, and humans have to be able to spot this tiny, struggling orca when she’s miles away from her pod. So if you’re in favour of — or opposed to — a bold, dramatic rescue attempt — it’s on the table, but unlikely.

2. If there is a “hidden agenda” it strikes me as less likely to be “let’s send her to SeaWorld and rename her Shamu” than “let’s pray J-Pod swims out into the Pacific before we have to risk a rescue going sideways on CNN.”

3. No one proposed putting Scarlet in a tank. The only option presented to the media was a sea pen run by NOAA in Washington State. So if the Whale Sanctuary Project is looking for another reason to choose a west coast site… Pretty please…

4. Yes, breaching the Snake River Dam would be awesome. #FreetheSnake But if the Snake River Dam was vaporized tomorrow, salmon would not magically appear in time to save Scarlet.

5. Comparisons to Springer are dodgy. Springer was sick and seperated from her family when she was rescued by humans before being returned to her pod. Scarlet is dying — but (when last seen) still swimming near her family. The proposed rescue seems based on Scarlet ending up in the same situation as Springer.

6. Comparisons to Morgan are dodgier. Morgan is an orca from Norway — where people still eat whales for lunch— who was rescued and taken into captivity while ill. She ended up in an aquarium in Spain for “research” and was put on display and used as breeding stock. #FreeMorgan But Spain doesn’t have a lengthy history of cetacean captivity battles. Scarlet is a dual citizen in two countries that couldn’t even agree on how, if, or when to give her medication. Canada and the US have laws against capture and display. And the North American anti-captivity movement has never been more active, vocal and high profile— or had fewer local captive orcas to fight for. It’s hard to believe any aquarium choosing to display Scarlet in North America wouldn’t be committing corporate suicide.

7. My take? The more I mulled what I heard at the press conference, the more it felt like the players were setting the scene to say, “we tried everything.”

When the waves settle and the grieving is done I’ll be curious to know what people who know whale world think should have been tried — if anything- to save Scarlet.

Most of the solutions I’ve seen proposed relied on Dr. Who intervening, since they required time travel. They posit a past where we didn’t dump so much crap in the water, over-fish or catch so many orcas for display in the ‘70s and/or a future where Snake River is free, all fish farms are land-based and quiet oceans are full of happy Chinook.

It would be lovely if we actually learned something from this slow-motion shipwreck. So when this happens again… and there will be a ship-strike, an entanglement or another illness… Scarlet’s legacy will be having a plan in place that saves the next orca.

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Paging Dr. Who?


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