Orcas starting to follow chum salmon into Central Puget Sound

Chum salmon are beginning to make their way into Central and South Puget Sound, which means the orcas are likely to follow.

Given this year’s dismal reports of chinook salmon in the San Juan Islands, we can hope that a decent number of chum traveling to streams farther south will keep the killer whales occupied through the fall. But anything can happen.

Data from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Data from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

On Oct. 2, orcas from J and K pods — two of the three Southern Resident pods — passed through Admiralty Inlet and proceeded to Point No Point in North Kitsap, according to reports from Orca Network. The whales continued south the following day and made it all the way to Vashon Island, according to observers.

On Tuesday of this week, more reports of orcas came in from Saratoga Passage, the waterway between Whidbey and Camano islands. See the video by Alisa Lemire Brooks at the bottom of this page. By yesterday, some members of J pod were reported back of the west side of San Juan Island.

The movement of chum salmon into Central Puget Sound began in earnest this week, as a test fishery off Kingston caught just a few chum last week, jumping to nearly 1,000 this week. Still, the peak of the run is a few weeks away.

The predicted chum run for Central and South Puget Sound this year is about 526,000 fish, up from last year’s count of 503,000, according to Aaron Default, fish program biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The average annual return over the past 10 years has been about 640,000 chum, boosted by a couple of exceptionally high years. (See chart.)

Orca Network's map of good whale-viewing locations.
Orca Network’s map of good whale-viewing locations.

For Puget Sound as a whole, the forecast is for 1.2 million chum, compared to a 10-year average of about 1.5 million.

It is yet to be seen how the orcas will respond to the schools of chum coming south, but their fall travels could offer the opportunity for a lot of people to watch the whales from shore without disturbing them at all.

This year, Orca Network trained 45 new volunteers as observers/naturalists. They live in Island, Snohomish, King, Kitsap, Pierce, Thurston and Whatcom counties and will be on hand at many of the observation locations, said Alisa. of Orca Network.

“Our volunteers are provided with up to date ID guides and information to share with others while viewing whales from the shoreline, to educate about the orcas, their habitat, and prey,” said Alisa, coordinator of Orca Network’s whale-sighting program, in a news release.

Last November, Alisa was watching the whales from shore with another volunteer, Sara Hysong-Shimazu, when they spotted a newborn orca off Alki Point in Seattle. They took photographs of the calf, and the Center for Whale Research later confirmed that it was the first baby born to L-103, a 13-year-old mom named Lapis. The baby was named Lazuli.

Orca Network has developed a map of some good locations for viewing whales when they come south. The best way to stay advised of whale movements is through the Orca Network Facebook page.

Observers should carry binoculars or another viewing scope to get a better view from shore. If you have a decent camera and can get a picture of one or more dorsal fins, orca researchers might be able to use your pictures. Orca Network would like to be alerted immediately to any whale sightings. Whale reports may be called in to the toll-free number, 1-866-ORCANET; emailed to info@orcanetwork.org, or posted on the Orca Network Facebook page.

Whale sightings reported to Orca Network will be provided to researchers studying the Southern Residents, which are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. If possible, observers are asked to note the location, time, direction of travel and approximate number of whales, as well as any specific behaviors, such as breaching, spy-hopping or feeding.

Observers who choose to go out in boats must follow federal and state regulations for whale watching as outlined on the Be Whale Wise website.

“We are very fortunate to live in a place where we can look out from nearby shorelines and see those majestic black fins parting the waters,” said Howard Garrett of Orca Network. “We are thankful for the hundreds of citizens who report sightings each year, providing valuable data to help in recovery efforts for the endangered Southern Resident orcas.”

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