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Active search for sick endangered killer whale called off, days after she was presumed dead

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has called off the active search for a sick killer whale that garnered international attention.

The southern resident killer whale known as J50 hasn’t been seen for several days and earlier in the week was presumed dead by a scientist, but NOAA and Fisheries and Oceans Canada hadn’t given up hope, until now.

“It seems like the window of time she would likely be alive has passed,” said NOAA spokesman Michael Milstein on Saturday.

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Dan Bate, a spokesman for the department of fisheries, said the DFO and Straitwatch, a marine conservation organization, continued looking for J50 on Saturday, but to no avail.

On Thursday, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research in Washington state said he believed J50 died sometime between Sept. 7 and 10.

“There is no chance that she will still be alive, so we’re writing her off,” he said.

Balcomb, who tracks killer whales, said he believes J50 became so emaciated that her remains sank.

“No significant blubber layer, her lungs wouldn’t hold much air to float the carcass so she probably sank somewhere – in deep enough water that she’s not going to buoy up from decomposition.”

Milstein, however, said he hadn’t given up hope that the whale’s remains might yet be found.

“There have been killer whale calves in the past that have been found on shore so there’s a possibility,” he noted, adding that an examination of the carcass could provide researchers with important information.

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Though the active search is over, Milstein said the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network, the U.S. Coast Guard and mariners would keep a lookout for the orca’s remains.

The death of J50 would reduce the southern resident killer whale population to just 74 animals.

Earlier this month, whale experts feared J50 was dead after she wasn’t seen for a few days, but she later reappeared with her family.

The young orca was treated with antibiotics in August and then again this month but the medicine didn’t appear to be effective.

Last week Canadian and American discussed plans to possibly capture J50, treat her, and then release her back to the wild.

Martin Haulena, a veterinarian with the Vancouver Aquarium who fired an antibiotic-filled dart at J50 on Aug. 9, said he agrees with the assessment of those who believe J50 has died.

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“Obviously, we are all very sad but it was not unexpected,” he said.

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