American and Canadian scientists are considering a Hail Mary effort to save an endangered orca that may have only days to live.

Michael Milstein, spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States, said the four-year-old female killer whale known as J50 appears emaciated, lethargic and has lost about 20 per cent of her body weight.

J50 is one of just 75 remaining southern resident killer whales that ply the coastal waters from British Columbia to California. Her health is so important because she is one of the few whales in her pod with the potential to reproduce.

The same pod includes a whale known as J35, who has been seen as recently as Wednesday pushing the body of her deceased newborn calf through the water.

Researchers have already taken breath samples from J50 to try to figure out why she’s starving.

“It’s clear from the signals that are there that something very serious is happening,” NOAA microbiologist Linda Rhodes said from her lab in Seattle.

The pod is currently off the west coast of Vancouver Island, out of range of the response vessels scientists from the U.S. and Canada would use to assess her health from the water, Milstein said.

“The hope is when they come back into range they’ll be in a position where first we do a veterinary medical assessment,” he said. “The assessment would tell us in more detail how urgent the situation is and lay the groundwork for next steps.”

Those next steps would include feeding the underweight killer whale chinook salmon with medication in it - a strategy the U.S. department believes hasn't been used before.

“There have been instances where people have fed wild whales,” Milstein said. “But in terms of feeding an obviously ailing animal in a way that can deliver medication - which is the goal - that has never been attempted.”

If J50 is willing to accept food from the scientists, there may be hope for her recovery, but time is running out.

“The biologists and vets watching her really believe it's an urgent situation,” Milstein said. “They've seen few, if any, animals that have deteriorated to this point recover. But they also know this whale seems to have a will to survive. She's been hanging on.”

Scientists believe J50 may be suffering from an infection.

The Lummi Nation in Washington State is working with researchers to donate the fish for the rescue effort, if needed.

Dr. Martin Haulena, a veterinarian with the Vancouver Aquarium is on the assessment team monitoring J50 and hopes to join NOAA boats Sunday to do a veterinary assessment. They are hoping the whales move into a more protected area, to give them a better chance of getting a close look at the sick whale.

“Ideally it’s in low wind and calm seas, that’s the ideal situation, ” Haulena said . “That would be a lot more likely in the interior of the Salish Sea, through Puget Sound or along the Gulf Islands, somewhere we have a little more protection.”

Haulena says the team is trying to find a solution that won’t negatively impact the rest of the pod.

“What we don’t want to do is cause harm for the rest of the whales while trying to do good for this one whale,” Haulena said. “It’s kind of come to the point where we are looking at medicine pointed at the individual in order to save the population."

He said all options are on the table, with the goal of minimizing impact and maximizing treatment for young whale, as she could play a critical role for the population.

“Every animal is absolutely critical to their survival. Especially a young female who hasn’t bred yet,” Haulena said.  

With files from CTV Vancouver’s Sheila Scott and the Canadian Press