Tis the season to view orcas | Guest column

Tis the season for one of the best for shore-based viewing of orcas in the inland waters.

by Susan Berta

and Howard Garrett

Orca Network/Langley Whale Center

In search of fall/winter salmon returning to creeks and rivers, members of the Southern Residents first showed up in Puget Sound Sept. 18 and 19, a week or two earlier than usual. Members of L pod were confirmed on Sept. 18 and both Js and Ls were confirmed the next day. As of this news release, members of all three pods have now come inland 28 times, more than their average number of fall/winter visits, with another month or two to go during fall chum salmon season.

In recent decades, the Southern resident orcas typically begin their annual visits into Puget Sound in early October, spending fall and early winter months coming and going feeding on Puget Sound salmon after spending summer feeding on spring and summer Fraser River Chinook salmon in their core summer habitat; the San Juan and Canadian Gulf Islands, Georgia and Juan de Fuca Straits. With Fraser River salmon stocks at record lows J, K and L pod had little food to bring or keep them inland – they were pretty much absent over the summer months; Js were inland the most, L pod less and K pod hardly at all.

Southern resident orcas were only sighted in the San Juan Island/Strait of Juan de Fuca area 22 times from July – September 2017, versus 62 times in 2016 (and when compared to earlier decades when all three pods were typically present in the San Juans on a near daily basis from June through September, the difference is even more dramatic).

To further highlight the extreme decrease in prey availability, Oct. 15 marked the first time the L54s, with two adopted adult male orphans L84, and L88, were seen inland in 2017 at all when they showed up in Puget Sound; meaning they spent no time in their core summer habitat.

After two years of difficulty and loss for this clan came more sad news in September with the loss of calf J52, the first surviving offspring of J36, announced by the Center for Whale Research, bringing this critically endangered population down to 76, the lowest in over three decades.

“With the passing of J52, three of the six whales born in J pod during the so-called baby boom, which began in December 2014 with the birth of J50, have now died; and, two mothers, J14, J28, and a great-grandmother, J2, in the pod have also died. No southern resident killer whales from any of the pods have been born alive and survived thus far in 2017 – the baby boom is over. This population cannot survive without food year-round,” Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research said. “All indications – population number, foraging spread, days of occurrence in the Salish Sea, body condition, and live birth rate/neonate survival – are pointing toward a predator population that is prey limited and non-viable.”

Chinook salmon is the main diet for Southern resident orcas, but especially in lean years like these, the fall/winter runs of chum salmon provide an important food source for Southern resident orcas. Since the 2005 Federal listing of the Southern resident orcas under the Endangered Species Act, Orca Network has been assisting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries and the Center for Whale Research to help track the orcas’ winter travels in Puget Sound and along the outer coast.

“We were concerned whether or not the Southern Resident pods would come into Puget Sound this season, given the lack of sightings in their core summer habitat,” said Howard Garrett of Orca Network. But from September – November, Southern residents have come into Admiralty Inlet and Puget Sound 20 times, versus 11 in 2016; and they have already been sighted eight days in December, showing the importance of the fall/winter salmon especially in years when summer Chinook runs fall short.

For 17 years, Orca Network’s Whale Sighting Network (WSN) has encouraged whale watching from shore, or from Washington State Ferries in the inland waters. Trained WSN volunteers and citizens document the travels and behaviors of J, K, and L pod during these Puget Sound fall/winter forays, providing important information on habitat use and which salmon runs are most important for Southern Residents

The Orca Network website shows recent whale sightings as well as archives back to 2001 and includes a Whale Sighting Viewpoints map for volunteers and citizens to use to see whales from land-based viewpoints around the sound, with descriptions of over 100 public viewing locations and directions to help find them.

The map can be zoomed into each location and can be accessed from www.orcanetwork.org/Viewpoints.html. The map and current sightings are also displayed at Orca Network’s Langley Whale Center at its new location, 105 Anthes Ave, Langley, Whidbey Island.

Observers can help by calling in any whale sighting immediately and when possible photographing the whales to help provide IDs. Whale reports may be called into the toll-free number, 1-866-ORCANET, emailed to info@orcanetwork.org or posted on the Orca Network Facebook page.