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Saving the Whales, One Orca at a Time

By: Sacha Adorno Published: Oct 3, 2019

An orca, or killer whaleWhat do killer whales off the U.S. Pacific coast and wild mountain gorillas in Central Africa have in common? On the surface, not much. But digging a little deeper, members of each group exhibit unique, identifying characteristics and endearing personalities. They are part of complex, tightly knit family structures. And both populations are at risk.

“When it comes to protecting these species, the approach is comparable,” said Dr. Joe Gaydos, V’94. “Veterinary intervention is helping save mountain gorillas from extinction, and now we’re applying similar tactics to saving whales.”

Dr. Joe Gaydos
Dr. Joe Gaydos

Treating Individuals, Saving Populations

Gaydos is senior wildlife veterinarian and science director at the SeaDoc Society, a UC Davis research and education nonprofit that ensures the health of marine wildlife in the Pacific Northwest’s Salish Sea.

The number of whales in these waters is lower than ever before — “currently at 73 animals,” Gaydos said. At the same time, thousands of miles away, the highland mountain gorilla population, once on the critically endangered list, is experiencing a promising rebound after years of veterinary care for sick and injured members.

For decades, wildlife veterinarians have monitored the health of single gorillas, much like medical doctors do human patients. Tracking gorillas at a discrete level provides opportunities to reduce threats to the larger group, like deforestation, dwindling food sources, and the overall health of gorilla trackers and their families.

“The gorilla program started with things like removing snares, and evolved into a One Health initiative,” explained Gaydos. He visited Rwanda to learn about the work of Gorilla Doctors, a UC Davis field program and “sister” to SeaDoc. “As veterinarians, we have to be both reactive and proactive. We help individual animals to strengthen entire species.”

It’s a strategy SeaDoc and partner organizations believe can work for whale pods in the Salish Sea. They’re creating a shareable database of medical records for each whale, following the animals’ health over time.

The Sea of Superlatives

This effort is happening in the body of water Gaydos calls a “sea of superlatives.”

The Salish Sea spans Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands, and waters off Vancouver, British Columbia. Home to 172 bird species, 253 fish species, and more than 3,000 species of invertebrates, it’s one of the world’s largest and most biologically rich inland seas.

Map of the Salish SeaAlthough, according to Gaydos, even with such incredible marine life diversity, everyone really, really loves the whales. Among the 37 mammal species in the sea are “three ecotypes of killer whales— one eats salmon, one specializes in sharks, and one strictly eats marine mammals. People travel from all over to see them.”

City to Country to Sea

Orca tailToday, the Penn Vet alumnus spends many days among the Salish Sea’s creatures — either swimming with them or watching from the water’s surface — a world away from where he launched his veterinary career in Philadelphia.

“My passion has always been the outdoors — camping, fishing, hunting, wildlife,” he said. “When it came time to choose between a rural vet school and Penn Vet, I thought it wouldn’t bode well for me to be outside all the time. I was better off in an urban area, where I’d hunker down and study.”

In Philadelphia, Gaydos enjoyed proximity to Philadelphia’s unique offerings, like the Philadelphia Zoo. “I did an externship at the Zoo, where I had great exposure to wildlife without having to travel,” he said. And post-graduation, through a Zoo connection, he worked in Zimbabwe with “lions and black rhinos and cheetahs... it was awesome!”

After Africa, Gaydos went into mixed practice in West Virginia before earning a PhD in medical microbiology.

“Just as I finished my degree, I saw a listing for the SeaDoc position,” he recalled. “I didn’t have any marine wildlife experience but applied anyway.” They hired him. (Gaydos’s learning curve was so steep, he had “so many questions,” at one point a colleague asked if he was in the witness protection program.)

“All the cool things I’ve ever done in my life, I’ve been terrified of,” he said. “But I have a really strong foundation from Penn Vet. The School trains thinkers more than technicians, and this has served my work well.”

Celebration in Mourning

SeaDoc’s work is hard. Though teeming with wildlife, the Salish Sea is under threat. Years of overfishing, shipping, and toxic waste have disrupted the delicate ecosystem, leading to some heartbreak.

In 2018, Gaydos and his colleagues mourned the loss of J50 — aka Scarlet — a four-year-old Orca and SeaDoc patient. Over the summer, Scarlet started losing weight. Diagnostic tests were limited, but non-specific. Gaydos and others suspected the bacteria was stressing the whale’s immune system, keeping it from fighting whatever was making her sick. For two months, they tried administering antibiotics through salmon and dart gun. But despite intense medical intervention, Scarlet failed to thrive and was last seen a year ago. She is presumed dead.

“We get discouraged,” said Gaydos. “I try to celebrate the small successes.”

Successes like new policies for hunting scoters. Over the past 25 years, the marine bird’s populations dropped by 50 percent. SeaDoc research found hunting in the area was unsustainable, a conundrum in a geography where the practice supports 6,800 jobs annually.

As a result of SeaDoc’s study, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife enacted a policy dramatically curtailing hunting and made a plan to completely stop all harvest if the scoter population falls below 55,000 birds — a win/win/win for birds, hunters, and SeaDoc.

As for the whales, it’s too early to tell what the future holds. “The gorillas took decades to rebound,” said Gaydos. “But if we never try — if we don’t keep at it — we may never get to that point with the whales. A few decades from now, we hope to look back and celebrate large-scale success for the Salish Sea, whales and all.”

A pod of orcas