Tracking J pod for 30 days — mostly during the month of January — lends support for the idea that this group of Southern Resident killer whales strongly depends on the inland waters of the Salish Sea, perhaps more so than K and L pods.
A satellite transmitter was attached to L-87, a 22-year-old male orca named Onyx who has been spending his time with J pod. The tracking effort is part of a study to determine where the whales travel in winter. While one month of tracking doesn’t prove much, it is interesting to know that J pod can hang out for days around Texada Island in the Strait of Georgia without being noticed.
The following video, courtesy of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, depicts travels of the whales from Dec. 26, when the tag was attached, to Jan. 23, when the tag apparently fell off.
The tracks end just as the orcas seem to be leaving the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but so far we don’t know if they continued or turned back.
When the whales moved into Central and South Puget Sound, as shown by the satellite tracks, observers watching from shore and on ferries reported the whales each time, noted Brad Hanson, who is leading the tracking study for the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. On the other hand, the whales were infrequently reported while in the Strait of Georgia and Strait of Juan de Fuca, he said.
“One thing that was interesting to see,” he noted, “is that the movements are completely different from what they do in summer.”
In summer, J pod often moves north into Canada but not much beyond the Fraser River near Vancouver. These winter travels show the J pod moves farther north and stays in the northern part of the Strait of Georgia for extended periods of time.
What they are finding there to eat has not been fully studied, but some percentage of chinook salmon reared in local waters are known to stay inside the Salish Sea, never swimming out to the ocean.
Past studies based on recorded killer whale calls have shown that J pod moves into the open Pacific Ocean on occasion, but the whales rarely travel very far down the coast. The recording equipment was moved this winter to strategic locations to better distinguish how far south J pod travels in winter, Brad said.
Over the next couple months, researchers will continue to look for opportunities to attach tags to killer whales, he said. A cruise aboard a large research vessel in March will attempt to follow the Southern Residents, identify their feeding areas and determine what they are eating in the ocean.
For more information, check out NOAA’s webpage, “2014 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging.”