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Sick orca's condition improving, researchers remain 'cautiously optimistic'

Researchers say orca J17, who showed signs of ailing last year, does not seem to have worsened in condition and may even be getting better.

Three months after researchers feared the worst for an ailing Southern Resident killer whale, J17 was spotted Friday in an improved condition. 

Whale researchers with the Center for Whale Research observed the 42-year-old orca swimming with the J Pod in the northern Haro Strait. In an update published on Monday, the team said her condition appeared to have improved since her last sighting in December/January. 

"However, her breath still smelled awful so the CWR will remain cautiously optimistic that she will survive," the post read.

J17 has a dire condition called peanuthead, a sign of malnutrition in orcas. Back in December, J17 was spotted with her pod but was not socializing with the group. 

If J17 dies, researchers worry her son J44 won’t survive much longer either, because there’s a three times greater chance a male orca dies after his mom does.

RELATED: Struggling orca population holds steady after facing record low

After seeing its population briefly dip to the lowest levels on record, the Southern Resident orcas appear to be holding steady, according to the latest estimates.

A calf born at the beginning of the year is believed to still be alive. 

As Governor Jay Inslee's Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force kicked off its second year, Lynne Barre, NOAA Fisheries recovery coordinator for Southern Resident killer whales, told the group they would continue to track L124, aka "Lucky," and its mother. When the young orca was just a few weeks old in mid-January, it was reportedly in good spirits, "bouncing around" between several members of L Pod. 

If recent sightings are accurate, that means the Southern Resident orca population is an estimated 75. Though low, it's up one after a tough year that included a calf's death that caught the world's attention when its mother carried it for more than two weeks. 

Meanwhile, the orca referred to as K25 is still alive, despite showing signs of declining health heading into 2019. From what researchers have been able to observe, K25's health has "not necessarily worsened" since October 12, Barre told the orca task force.

However, researchers noted K25 didn’t look completely healthy.