Tag Archives: San Juan Islands

Southern Resident orcas make it back to Puget Sound in good condition

Killer whale observers were gleefully surprised this week when all three pods of Southern Resident orcas came into the Salish Sea — and all were in reasonably good shape.

K-25, a 26-year-old male orca named Scoter, is seen breaching Monday when a large group of Southern Residents arrived in the Salish Sea.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

Remember, these same whales have been missing from Puget Sound for practically the entire summer — a period when they traditionally remain in and around the San Juan Islands while feasting on salmon. This summer has generated concern among those who understand the ways of whales. Some observers have feared that the orcas, wherever they were, might not be getting enough to eat (Water Ways, Aug. 18).

That fear has largely disappeared, said Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research who has been studying these animals for more than 40 years.

“There were no fat whales among them,” Ken told me, “but they had to be finding something (to eat) out there.”

Ken’s only concern was with a couple of young calves, 2 and 3 years old. They remain small for their age. (Ken calls them “runts.”) They probably have not received complete nutrition, given that the whales don’t seem to be finding chinook salmon in their regular feeding grounds.

“We know that there is a problem with juvenile and infant survival,” Ken said, but there is hope that these calves will make it.

Before they entered the Salish Sea this week, the three pods must have met up in the Strait of Juan de Fuca if not the Pacific Ocean, as all were together when they were spotted Monday morning near the south end of Vancouver Island by whale observer Mark Malleson.

The Center for Whale Research sent out two boats. Ken and Gail Richard boarded the Shachi and met up with the leading group of orcas just east of Secretary Island. Ahead of the pack was J-19, a female orca named Shachi, who appears to have taken over the leadership role from Granny, or J-2, the elder matriarch that led J pod for decades before her death.

Read Ken’s full report of the encounter on the Center for Whale Research website. For some observations about Granny, check out these Water Ways reports:

On Monday, J-pod whales were clustered in their family groups along the Vancouver Island shoreline, while those in K pod were farther offshore and trailing J pod, according to Ken’s report. Not all of L pod was there, but those in the area were spending time in their family groups, or matrilines, even farther behind and farther offshore.

Some of the whales were sprinting into tidal waters to catch salmon close to shore on the incoming tide of Monday afternoon, Ken said.

“The salmon tend to move into the Salish Sea with the flood tides and hang back in nearshore eddies and bays in ebb tides,” Ken wrote in his report, “so the whales foraging and traveling east suggested that there were at last sufficient numbers of salmon to bring them all of the way in.”

As the whales captured fish, their social interactions with each other increased, at least among the family groups, Ken told me.

Meanwhile, the second boat from the Center for Whale Research, Orcinus with Dave Ellifrit and Melisa Pinnow aboard, met up with the whales just west of Discovery Island east of Victoria. After a breakaway by the Shachi crew to transfer photos from Mark Mallinson, both boats continued to follow the whales until sunset. At dusk, the entourage ended up right in front of the center’s shoreline base on San Juan Island.

Spurred on by this rare (for this year) sighting of all three pods, the five photographers in the three boats shot more than 3,500 photos in one day, Ken reported. Some of the best portraits and ID photos are shown with notes of the encounter. Other photos and expressions of excitement can be seen on Orca Network’s Whale Sighting Report.

The researchers reported that all the whales in J and K pods were present — except for K-13, who had been reported missing (Water Ways, Aug. 18). Of the 35 orcas in L pod, 22 were seen on Monday. The missing whales are not a concern, Ken said, because the 13 not spotted were all members of matrilines that apparently were somewhere else.

“It is not unprecedented for L pod matrilines to be very widely separated at times — e.g., part of the pod in Puget Sound while others are off California!” Ken noted in his report. “All of the whales today appeared to be frisky and in good condition, though we clearly have a few runts in the youngest cohort of whales – probably having been in perinatal nutritional distress due to recent poor salmon years in the Salish Sea.”

The next day, Tuesday, the whales were spread out in small groups in Georgia Strait on the Canadian side of the border. Yesterday, they traveled back through Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands, then headed on west toward the Pacific Ocean. It will be interesting to see what happens next, as these fish-eating orcas continue to hunt for chinook salmon and then switch this fall to chum salmon when the chinook grow scarce.

The Center for Whale Research’s efforts to keep track of the Southern Residents is funded in part by the federal government, but the center’s other work involving orcas depends on donations and memberships. Go to “Take Action for Orcas” for information.

Four ‘missing’ orcas return to San Juans;
L-54, where are you?

Welcome back Racer, Ballena, Crewser and Fluke!

And would anyone like to write new words to an old song that we could use to invite the last five orcas to the party in the San Juan Islands? (Read on for details.)

A 29-year-old female named Racer (L-72) and her 11-year-old son Fluke (L-105) are among the four orcas spotted in the San Juan Islands this week. It was the first time the group was seen in inland waters this summer. One group of five still has not returned. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research NMFS PERMIT: 15569/ DFO SARA 272
A 29-year-old female named Racer (L-72) and her 11-year-old son Fluke (L-105) are among four orcas spotted this week in inland waters.
Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
NMFS PERMIT: 15569/ DFO SARA 272

I reported last week in Water Ways (July 1) that nine Southern Resident killer whales had not yet returned to the San Juan Islands this year. I’d like to update you with the news that four of the nine have now been seen, so we’re just waiting for the final group of five.

Dave Ellifrit, Lauren Brent and Darren Croft with the Center for Whale Research did an amazing job Sunday tracking down 65 killer whales in and around Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands. Meanwhile, Ken Balcomb photographed another 11 from the porch of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. Read Dave’s report of the encounters on the center’s website, listed as Encounter Number 59.

“Due to forest fires in several different places in British Columbia, there were dark clouds coming out of the northwest which made the sun red and the lighting a weird shade of brown-yellow.,” Dave reported in his notes. “A little after 0930, we left the L group and headed about a half mile north to a male who was foraging by himself. This was K21 and we saw him actively chase a salmon before he headed off to the west.”

The four “missing” whales spotted for the first time this year in inland waters are known to travel together. As I reported in last week’s blog entry, the groups of orcas have grown smaller and more spread out, apparently because their prey — chinook salmon — are not arriving together in significant numbers.

The latest four arrivals are Racer (L-72), a 29-year-old female, and her son Fluke (L-105), an 11-year-old male; Ballena (L-90), a 22-year-old female; and Crewser (L-92), a 20-year-old male. Ballena is Crewser’s aunt, and they are the last two members of what was once an extended family.

Yet to arrive to the party in the San Juans is a group known as the L-54’s. Some of you might remember a sitcom from the early 1960s about two New York cops, Toody and Muldoon. Anyway, the name of the show was “Car 54, Where Are You?” and it had a catchy theme song (See YouTube) that featured prominently the title of the show.

It just occurred to me that we could rewrite the words to the song, which would ask the question: “L-54, where are you?” If anybody wants to take this challenge, I’ll post your new words on this blog.

As for the group itself, L-54 is a 38-year-old female named “Ino.” She is closely followed by her 9-year-old son, L-108 or “Coho,” and her 5-year-old daughter, L-117 or “Keta.”

Also traveling with the L-54 family is L-84, a 25-year-old male named “Nyssa.” This orca is the last surviving member of what was once called the L-9 subpod.

Another lone male, L-88 or “Wave Walker,” is 22 years old. He is the last surviving member of what was once called the L-2 subpod, and he now travels with the L-54’s as well.

This group — presumably all five — was last seen in March in the western end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and in February in the Pacific Ocean near Westport.

Ken tells me that NOAA Fisheries funds his census work for exactly 42 days, and the funding has now run out with more work to be done. His nonprofit organization is continuing the search for the “missing” whales mainly with contributions, including memberships. See “SupportingThe Center for Whale Research.”

With the disbursed pattern of orcas in recent years, some changes are needed, Ken said. Perhaps he can get some additional funding to search for the whales later in the year, travel to coastal waters or contract with researchers already working in the ocean.

Another option is to provide an annual list of the whales identified in inland waters when the 42 days of funding runs out, he said. That idea would not allow a complete census each year, but the whales would eventually show up and could be counted at that time. That’s the system used for counting Northern Residents in upper British Columbia, Ken said, noting that researchers up north often don’t see all the orcas in any one year.

Increased funding for research projects, including census counts, could come as a result of the new “Species in the Spotlight” campaign launched this spring by NOAA. The Southern Residents, listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, are among eight well-known species considered at the greatest risk of extinction.

Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA Fisheries, made this statement when announcing the new campaign:

“Of all the species NOAA protects under the ESA, these eight species are among the most at risk of extinction in the near future. For some of these species, their numbers are so low that they need to be bred in captivity; others are facing human threats that must be addressed. If we act now with renewed commitment and intensified efforts, we can help these species survive and thrive.”

The other seven “Species in the Spotlight” are Gulf of Maine Atlantic salmon, Central California Coast coho salmon, Cook Inlet beluga whales, Hawaiian monk seals, Pacific leatherback sea turtles, Sacramento River winter-run chinook salmon and California Coast white abalone.

The campaign, which ends next May, will follow a detailed five-year plan to be unveiled in September.

Orca census shows increase in Southern Resident population

A census of the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is due today, and it appears that the total population of the three Southern Resident pods is 82, up from 79 last year at this time.

But that’s not the end of the story, because two small groups of orcas have not been seen recently — so a final count must wait, according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, which conducts the annual census.

J-36, a 16-year-old female named Alki, swims with her young calf J-52 (middle) and her sister, J-50 (far side). Both of the young orcas were born within the past year. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, NMFS permit 15569/ DFO SARA 272
J-36, a 16-year-old female named Alki, swims with her young offspring J-52 and her sister, J-50. Both of the young orcas were born within the past year.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
NMFS permit 15569/ DFO SARA 272

The three Southern Resident pods, well defined years ago, are no longer the same, Ken told me. The tendency the past few years is for the whales to split up into smaller groups of one or more families, known as matrilines. Immediate families tend to stay together, but larger groupings such as pods and subpods are becoming less certain.

“They’ve decided to mix it up,” Ken said. “This is definitely different. If we were trying to determine pod structures right now, we couldn’t do it. It’s all mix and match.”

The Center for Whale Research records the annual census on July 1 each year and reports it to the federal government by October.

Four orca births can be reported since the last census was taken:

  • J-50 a female calf born to J-16, named Slick, last December
  • J-51 a male* calf born to J-41, named Eclipse, in February
  • L-121 a male* calf born to L-94, named Calypso, in February
  • J-52 a female male calf born to J-36, named Alki, in March

*Update: Sexes not confirmed by Center for Whale Research, and J-51 likely a male. (See comments.) I’ll update later.

These were the first births among Southern Residents to be reported since August of 2012. Some people see these newborns as a hopeful sign for the future of the population, which is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

So far, one death has been confirmed over the past year. That was J-32, an 18-year-old female named Rhapsody, who was found dead on Dec. 4 floating near Courtenay, B.C. The young whale was pregnant, and experts believe that the death of the fetus inside her body could have led to her death as well. For more details , see Water Ways from Dec. 7 and from Dec. 12.

While there is no reason to believe that any other deaths have occurred over the past year, nobody can be sure, at least not until the last two groups of whales can be observed. If any animals are truly missing after their family groups are carefully observed, we could see one or more whales added to the death list.

In all, nine whales have not been seen this spring or summer since returning to the San Juan Islands. One of the two groups of whales was spotted off the Washington Coast in February, when all the whales were present. One of the uncertain groups was reported yesterday near San Juan Island, but I have not heard whether any “missing” whales were identified.

Since the census report is not due until October, there is time to see whether any more whales have died this past year. If any more deaths are identified, the researchers will need to make a judgment about whether the death occurred before or after the July 1 census cutoff. We can certainly hope that all the whales will be accounted for.

Ken suspects that the pod groupings are becoming less distinct because of the changing pattern of available prey, primarily chinook salmon. When large schools of wild chinook head back to the rivers, killer whales can work together to herd the fish and gain an advantage.

Ken says hatchery chinook may not school together as much as wild chinook, so the advantage goes to smaller groups of orcas if the majority of salmon are from hatcheries.

“The prey field has changed for them,” he said. “Back when we named the pods, the bulk of the fish were wild, and they were coming through in pulses. All these fish were related and from the same river system. Now with the hatchery program, there are less pulses and the fish are more spread out.”

The chinook also are much smaller than they used to be, he said, so it takes more effort to get the same nutritional benefit.

The Center for Whale Research, now in its 40th year, conducts its census work in Puget Sound under a grant from the National Marine Fisheries Service. The grant is fairly limited, so the center began offering memberships a few years ago to raise money for additional research.

This year’s membership drive is nearly halfway toward its goal of 750 members, with 329 members signed on as of yesterday. An individual membership costs $30 a year. For details and special member benefits, go to “Supporting the Center for Whale Research.”

In a related development, Ken recently took a trip into Snake River country in Eastern Washington, the source of upstream habitat for many of the salmon that come down the Columbia River. His experience and what he has learned about the Snake River dams has placed him among advocates for dam removal in this hotly contested debate.

After returning from his trip, Ken wrote an essay posted on the National Geographic blog “Voices: Ideas and Insights from Explorers.” Here are some excerpts from the blog post:

“Until recently, dam removal was against my conservative nature…

“In truth, already well known to others but not to me, these four Snake River dams are obsolete for their intended purposes and are being maintained at huge taxpayer expense for the benefit of a very few users. Plus, they are salmon-killers in a former river (now a series of lakes) that historically provided spawning and rearing habitat for millions of chinook salmon…”

“The technological fixes for the dams have not improved wild salmon runs, and there is nothing left to try. As a nation, we are dangerously close to managing the beloved Southern Resident killer whale population to quasi-extinction (less than 30 breeding animals) as a result of diminishing populations of chinook salmon upon which they depend…

“Returning the Snake River to natural condition will help salmon and whales, and save money. Please do not wait until all are gone. Call or write your representatives today!”

J pod killer whales still making the rounds, mostly up to the north

UPDATE, Jan. 30, 2 p.m.
K pod was in Rich Passage and heading toward Bremerton when I talked to Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. He did not know the location of J pod at that time.
—–

Over the past week, J pod continued to hang out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and general San Juan Islands area, as revealed by a satellite transmitter attached to J-27, a 24-year-old male named Blackberry.

For the past month, J pod has remained in the inland waterways, traveling from the mouth of the Strait up into the Canadian Strait of Georgia, approaching Campbell River. J pod is one of the three orca pods that frequent Puget Sound. The location of K and L pods remains largely unknown among whale researchers.

J pod travels, Jan. 21-25 Map: Northwest Fisheries Science Center
J pod travels, Jan. 21-25
Map: Northwest Fisheries Science Center

Since my last report in Water Ways on Thursday, Jan. 22, the Northwest Fisheries Science Center has posted two maps showing the travels of J pod. See “2015 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging.”

From Wednesday, Jan. 21, to Friday, Jan. 23, the pod stayed mainly in the outer portion of the Strait of Juan de Fuca west of Sekiu, venturing a short way into the open ocean, before turning back and shooting up past Saturna Island, north of the San Juans, by the next afternoon.

J pod travels, Jan. 24-27 Map: Northwest Fisheries Science Center
J pod travels, Jan. 24-27
Map: Northwest Fisheries Science Center

The whales traveled south through the San Juans Saturday night and were back in the Strait on Sunday. At that point, the satellite tag was automatically switched off to conserve its batteries. When it came back on Tuesday, the whales were at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where they meandered about for nearly for a day.

As of this afternoon, there were indications that J pod and possibly K pod were coming past Port Townsend on their way into Puget Sound. Some people are reporting visual sightings of unidentified orcas, while others are reporting orca calls on the Salish Sea Hydrophone Network. I’ll update this as new information comes in. Orca Network’s Facebook page is usually the place to go for the latest.

Capt. Jim Maya’s favorite whale photos of 2013

I always look forward to the annual photo gallery created by Capt. Jim Maya from his favorite photos of the year. Jim owns the whale-watching company, Maya’s Westside Whale Watch Charters, which operates out of Snug Harbor on San Juan Island, so he gets to see a lot of things.

Here’s Jim’s message for the year:

“Each year about this time I go through my images from the year and try to pick out favorites. Sometimes it had to do with the emotion of day and the memory or the company on the boat. Other times, special lighting, composition, and other elements. I still haven’t gotten the shot of a breaching Orca with a salmon in its mouth, with an eagle after the salmon, in front of a lighthouse and a mountain and a rainbow. No, I don’t even own Photoshop!”

I’ve selected eight of my favorites from the 18 that Capt. Jim sent me. For a full gallery of photos, go to Maya’s Photo Gallery.

Transient killer whales travel along the north side of Stuart Island. Look for a deer in the upper right corner.
Transient orcas travel along the north side of Stuart Island. Look for a deer in the upper right corner.
A transient from the group passing by Stuart Island.
A transient from the group passing by Stuart Island.
Transients pass in front of San Juan Island and Mount Baker.
Transients pass in front of San Juan Island and Mount Baker.
Transients feed on a sea lion in Haro Strait, San Juan Islands.
Transients feed on a sea lion in Haro Strait, San Juan Islands.
>
Lime Kiln Lighthouse on San Juan Island.
Lime Kiln Lighthouse on San Juan Island.
Southern Resident orcas, San Juan Islands.
Southern Resident orcas, San Juan Islands.
A humpback stayed with Maya's boat for an hour.
A humpback stayed with Maya’s boat for an hour. The group named the whale “Wendy.”
Humpback whale fluke seen in the sunset, Haro Strait.
Humpback whale fluke seen in the sunset, Haro Strait.

Orca Awareness Month marks whales’ return

UPDATE, June 7, 2013
Orca Network reported last night:
The L12s, who had been with J pod for a two days, departed late in the afternoon June 2, then returned June 5 with most, if not all, of the rest of L pod. These 60+ orcas traveled up and down their familiar route from south of San Juan Island well into Georgia Strait for the past two days, passing Lime Kiln Lighthouse this evening, heading south.
—–

June is Orca Awareness Month, as proclaimed by Gov. Jay Inslee, and whale observers are now waiting for all three pods to get back together for their annual salmon feast in the Salish Sea.

In previous years, the three Southern Resident pods might have shown up by now, but it would not be surprising to see them as late as the end of this month or even early July.

Killer whales off the south end of Stuart Island last night. Photo by Capt. Jim Maya
Killer whales off the south end of Stuart Island last night.
Photo by Capt. Jim Maya

J pod has been around our local waterways following an unusual absence, as I reported in Water Ways last month (May 16). As of last night, J pod was near Stuart Island, which is just south of the Canadian border, according to a report from Capt. Jim Maya of Maya’s Westside Charters. Jim, who sent the photos shown on this page, called it “one of my best evenings ever on the waters of the San Juan Islands.”

Earlier this week, J pod was seen several times with 10 members of L pod, known as the L-12 subpod, which includes a year-old calf, L-119.

The rest of L pod and K pod have not been back for awhile, although K pod was spotted along the west side of Vancouver Island on May 20. K pod is the one tracked for three months this past winter by researchers with the National Marine Fisheries Service. See Water Ways, April 5.

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J pod returns after an extended absence

J pod, one of the three groups of killer whales that frequent Puget Sound, returned to the San Juan Islands yesterday after an unusually long absence.

J pod returned to the San Juans yesterday after being gone more than 70 days. Photo courtesy of Capt. Jim Maya
Photo courtesy of Capt. Jim Maya

J pod typically passes through the area throughout the winter months. It is K and L pods that spend more time in the open ocean along the West Coast. Until yesterday, J pod had been gone for more than 70 days, according to Capt. Jim Maya of Maya’s Westside Charters.

Orca Network received reports that J pod was off Victoria around noon. The pod moved east and then north along San Juan Island, shuffling along the west side between Lime Kiln State Park and Henry Island all afternoon. They were last seen heading north up Haro Strait.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research reported that all the members of J pod were accounted for and no animals had died through the winter, which is cause for celebration. (See Orca Network’s Facebook page.) It appeared no babies had been born either. The last J pod calf was J-49, first spotted in August of last year.

K and L pods should begin to make their appearances in the inland waters in the near future. Whether they stick around probably depends on how many salmon they encounter. Typically, these Southern Resident orcas begin to roam around the San Juans and lower Strait of Georgia in early to mid-June, as chinook salmon return to rivers in the region.

Photo courtesy of Capt. Jim Maya
Photo courtesy of Capt. Jim Maya

Orca photos: Capt. Jim offers his favorites of 2011

Capt. Jim Maya of Maya’s Westside Charters on San Juan Island sent me his favorite photos of 2011.

“Though perhaps not technically my best,” he wrote. “they are my personal favorites. I hope you enjoy them and have a great 2012.”

Jim sent the photos on Jan. 1, so the delay in getting them online is all mine. The captions below each picture are Jim’s comments about the events and circumstances of the moment. Click on each photo for a better view.

Nov. 19. Ts with Sucia Island and Mt. Baker. We first found them at Speiden Island thanks to Kim and Karl Bruder, who run Lonesome Cove. Evening light. / Capt. Jim Maya
Aug. 26. Spectacular speed swimming! We call it porpoising for some reason. Strait of Georgia headed toward the Frazer River. Wish the lighting had been better, but you get the idea. / Capt. Jim Maya
May

ADDITIONAL PHOTOS
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Killer whales return to Salish Sea — with new baby

Killer whales of the Salish Sea and Puget Sound returned to the San Juan Islands with a newborn calf yesterday, as I described in a story for tomorrow’s Kitsap Sun.

The newborn orca, K-44, was photographed with his mother in Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands.
Photo: Center for Whale Research

While J pod and portions of K and L pods have been seen in inland waters lately, the major portion of K and L pods have not been around for weeks.

I was ready in early June to write about their return, because that is often when they arrive in Washington state to spend much of the summer. On Tuesday of this week, when L pod was reported off the West Coast of Vancouver Island, I began checking with marine mammal and salmon experts to find out what might be keeping the orcas away.

I was getting ready to write something about the missing orcas and their search for chinook salmon when they suddenly showed up with the new baby. I will save some ideas about the orca-salmon connection until I can put my thoughts into a coherent form. For now, it’s good to celebrate the arrival of the newborn with no apparent deaths among the orcas seen so far.

Of course, nobody knows how long they will stay or where they will travel over the next few months before heading into Central and South Puget Sound in the fall.

The new baby, designated K-44, is one the youngest calves ever identified by gender. (He’s a boy.) Frequently, months or even years will go by before researchers get a good look or photograph of their undersides. Check out diagram at Center for Whale Research (click on “Questions & Answers”) to see how you can tell males from females.

Websites worth watching:

Orca Network’s sightings page (with signup for e-mails)

Salish Sea Hydrophone Network (with links to past and present underwater sounds)

Whale of a Purpose

Center for Whale Research

It's a boy! / Photo: Center for Whale Research

Killer whales live wild and free in the San Juans

Knowing the precarious nature of the Southern Resident killer whale population, it’s hard for me to write about the loss of individual animals, as I did in Tuesday’s entry in Water Ways, when I reported the deaths of three orcas.

Life goes on, but it’s hard to duck a mild feeling of gloom when I think of these families struggling to survive — with some whales dying before their time and a number of female whales failing to mother any calves in the peak of their reproductive years. Given uncertainties about food, disease and unknown catastrophes, I’m reminded that the risk of extinction remains very real. We’ll hear more about this potential in the coming months, as the National Marine Fisheries Service completes its five-year status review under the Endangered Species Act.

All in all, it’s been a good summer for killer whales in the San Juan Islands, according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research. The orcas appear to have found enough salmon to be considered a healthy size, and it appears they are fit to go into winter.

Capt. Jim Maya of Maya’s Westside Charters sent me some nice photos of the orcas in the San Juan Islands. He said I could share them with you. It’s an important reminder that these animals live in tight-knit family groups, traveling together, sharing food and helping each other raise the young ones. To me, that’s what it means to be wild and free, no matter what their future may hold.

(Click to enlarge.)

Photos by Capt. Jim Maya