Behavior of Puget Sound orcas is raising concernsJune 12th, 2009 by cdunagan
The Southern Resident killer whales, which frequent Puget Sound, are acting a little strangely of late and their actions are making a few people nervous.
I always look forward to hearing about their arrival to the San Juan Islands in early June. Ideally, someone will see all three pods of orcas getting together in one big reunion called a “superpod” with more than 80 whales splashing about together.
Last year, the superpod occurred on June 3, according to Howard Garrett of Orca Network. Sometimes the orcas show up earlier than that and sometimes they come in later, but generally by mid-June all three pods are hunting chinook in and around the San Juans.
Their “late” arrival this year is not the only thing that’s disconcerting, however. J pod, which is generally in and out of our inland waters frequently, was gone the entire month of April. Now the pod is gone again and has not been seen since May 25.
Also worrisome is how the whales have split into smaller family groups. Nine animals in L pod (known as the L-12s) have been around until possibly leaving today. Meanwhile, twice that many whales in L pod are somewhere unknown.
Two members of K pod have been in and around the islands, but another 16 or so whales are somewhere else.
“It is very worrisome,” said Susan Berta of Orca Network. “I know a lot of researchers who want to wait for the data, but things seem to be changing and we are getting these oddities. Also, they are absent more and more.
“All the naturalists that we have talked to are just really surprised at this,” Susan told me. “They think that it is not something good to have these bits and pieces of pods showing up and the larger groups not showing up.”
Nobody knows where most of the orcas are right now, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, said Brad Hanson, a researcher with the National Marine Fisheries Service. It’s pretty clear that there aren’t many salmon in the San Juan Islands at the moment.
We are either seeing a weak run of chinook salmon or a late run, Brad told me. Maybe the whales have found some fish somewhere else.
“It’s like when you go fishing, do you leave fish to find fish?” he asked. “If they are in a spot with adequate foraging opportunities, they may just stay there.”
There are rumors of more abundant salmon in the Queen Charlotte Islands in Canada — a vast area with lots of inlets where orcas could easily go unreported.
“These animals are mobile predators,” Brad noted. “They can move throughout their range in a very short period of time. Fish are either late or low, but they are not present right now. We hope they (the whales) are taking advantage of fish somewhere else.”
Lack of food in low-fish years has serious implications for the whales’ reproductive capabilities, as Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research recently documented. The abundance of fish could well determine whether the Southern Resident population rebuilds or goes extinct. That’s why so much attention is being paid to saving the salmon, for the sake of the entire ecosystem.
“If the whales were here now, we’d be concerned,” Hanson said, “because it would mean they’re not finding fish somewhere else.”