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Using Whale Breath to Find Out What’s Ailing Orcas

Scientists have a new tool to figure out what’s ailing Puget Sound’s resident orcas. They’re studying whale breath, which is no easy feat.

April 5, 2017

Scientists have a new tool to figure out what’s ailing Puget Sound’s resident orcas. They’re studying whale breath, which is no easy feat.

“We had petri dishes that were mounted on an extendable pole,” explains Linda Rhodes, with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. “We had to position the boat close enough to the whale so that when it surfaced and exhaled we would be able to pass the petri dishes through the plume.”

Rhodes and her colleagues found salmonella, staphylococcus, and other bacteria and fungi that can cause diseases.

“When animals have these sorts of pathogens, when they have these sort of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, it doesn’t bode well for their overall health,” says Deborah Giles, with the Center for Whale Research, who was not involved in the study.

The researchers say the bacteria they found could have made their way into the whales from stormwater or agricultural runoff, leaking septic systems, or sewage treatment plants, particularly from Victoria, B.C., which doesn’t have a secondary treatment plant to remove bacteria from sewage.


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A pod of orcas in the waters of Washington's San Juan Islands. Whale advocates are raising concerns about increased harm to marine mammals if the Navy steps up bombing and sonar exercises in the waters off Washington, Oregon and Northern California.

Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

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