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Using Whale Breath To Find Out What's Ailing Orcas


A file photo of orcas in Puget Sound with Seattle in the background.

A file photo of orcas in Puget Sound with Seattle in the background.

NOAA/Candice Emmons

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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