A baby orca was seen swimming with K pod earlier this month, possibly bumping the endangered Southern resident killer whale population to 88.
On June 3, Center for Whale Research staff members Kelley Balcomb-Bartok and Erin Heydenreich observed J, K, and L pods for about four hours off the west side of the island.
“The whales were first reported off the south end of San Juan Island, then slowly travelled north up the coast of the island in tight social groups,” they reported.
“Center for Whale Research staff encountered the whales as they swam in three large, tight and tactile groups very close to the shoreline. Staff confirmed that members of K pod and L pod were among the playful social groups, though it has not been determined yet if all the whales from the Southern Resident population were present.
“During the encounter a small calf was observed swimming in close proximity to sisters K-14 and K-16, both reproductive age females. Later in the encounter, staff determined that the calf was indeed a new calf in K-pod, and observed the calf primarily traveling very near K-14 and her older offspring K-26 and K-36.”
“This newborn is good news, along with no reports of any whales missing from K or L pod as yet,” said Tom Averna, owner of Deer Harbor Charters.
The Southern residents are so called because they spend a lot of the year in this region. J is here much of the year, while K and L travel as far as California but return in the summer. Before they were sighted off the west side of San Juan Island June 3, K and L pods were last seen Jan. 27 off Monterey, Calif., and on Feb. 29 off Sekiu, Wash., according to the Center for Whale Research. When the pods return to the San Juan Islands in early summer, the Center for Whale Research gets their first good look at who is present, including any new calves, as well as who may not have made it through the winter. Ken Balcomb, founder and director of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, said “These orcas are icons and indicators of the quality of Puget Sound and coastal waters. How they fare in coming years will tell us a lot about our own fate.”
Meanwhile, the Orcas Network reports that Governor Christine Gregoire has signed a proclamation declaring June as “Orca Awareness Month,” to focus attention on the plight of the fragile Southern Resident Community of orcas, and to speed up efforts to recover the population. The Southern Resident orcas were listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act in November 2005.
Major factors in the decline of the Southern Resident orca population include captures for marine parks in the 1960s and 70s, declining salmon runs, toxic pollution, loss of habitat, and increasing vessel traffic and noise levels in Puget Sound and the ocean.
“Orcas are highly efficient hunters, but Chinook salmon runs are in steep decline throughout the Southern Resident orcas’ range, and they may not be finding enough food. Last winter they were seen off Central California about the time the west coast salmon fishery for California and Oregon was closed due to disastrously low runs,” said Howard Garrett, President of Orca Network.
Information about Orca Awareness Month is on the web at www.orcamonth.org.