September Sighting of the Month – The Southern Residents

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News from the Southern Resident Orca that inhabit the inshore waters of the Salish Sea off Oregon and Washington State in the US, and British Colombia in Canada, has been sad of late to say the least. At the beginning of September scientists from the Center for Whale Research announced the news that 3 year old J50 Scarlet is presumed dead after an attempt to administer antibiotics to help with her deteriorating condition. The news follows J35 Tahlequah’s unprecedented 17 day vigil carrying the body of her dead calf that brought international attention.

The challenges facing this beloved community of orca, now reduced to 74 individuals, are complex and the solutions not easy.

On September 13, in a welcome piece of positive news, WCA Partner Western Prince Whale Watching had an incredible encounter with nearly the entire Southern Resident community, with all of J, K and a portion of L pod sighted within the San Juan Islands area.

Naturalist Traci describes the encounter that day:

‘Just before our morning departure on the Western Explorer II, we got word that some Southern Resident killer whales were out near Victoria, BC headed our direction. It was a beautiful morning with just some light wind chop and we started heading in that direction from San Juan Island. As we headed out our Captain and Owner, Ivan, said to me “Sounds like a lot of whales. I’m hearing we might have members of all 3 pods”. If this was 10+ years ago, a sighting like this would be more common, almost expected even. But with continuing dwindling of Chinook salmon in the area, “Superpods” are increasingly rare and there simply isn’t reason for these animals to stick around for extended periods. Last couple years we have had a loose interpretation of a superpod in September, with nearly all 3 complete pods. Still, a gathering of 60+ Southern Resident killer whales is special, and an impressive sight to see.

When we got close we slowed down to assess the spread. Fins popped up everywhere. Big lines of 7-10 animals pierced the surface of the water as far as I could see. It was emotional to see this special community in this large gathering. At the time, NOAA was still searching for J50 who had been missing a few days and presumed dead. A Coast Guard helicopter was flying low and from group to group, hoping she was still alive. The animals streamed by in large groups, socializing as they went. The occasional breach, tail lob, cuddle session and playing with kelp.

Watching whales in the San Juan Islands for the past 12 years for me has been emotional. We are seeing the slow decline and behavioral changes of the most beloved Southern Resident killer whales, whilst seeing the rise of the Bigg’s killer whales and humpback whales. One thing in nature is always true, nothing stays the same. As we continue to watch the variety of whale species in the San Juans, we continue to hope telling their story is changing minds and hearts on what it will take to bring this incredible culture of killer whales back from the brink.


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