Marine Adventures in the Salish Sea

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The Salish Sea is the ecosystem that includes Washington State’s Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the San Juan Islands, as well as British Columbia’s Gulf Islands and the Strait of Georgia. The name recognizes and pays tribute to the first inhabitants of the region, the Coast Salish. This breathtaking area is home to a large variety of marine animals estimated at 37 species of mammals, 172 species of birds, 247 species of fish, and over 3000 species of invertebrates! Various species of whales can be found in the Salish Sea including 2 eco-types of orcas, resident orca (fish-eaters) and Bigg’s orca (marine mammals eaters), who are named in honour of Dr. Michael Bigg. Other whales include humpback whales, minke whales, gray whales and recently the odd sighting of fin whales.

For the orcas it is a tale of two different & opposite fortunes. The Southern Resident killer whales (SRKWs) have been struggling over the last decade. This season, since the beginning of May, the SRKWs (consisting of 3 pods, J, K and L) have been seen in the Salish Sea for less than 48 hours (back in July) and appear to have been spending their time off the coast of Vancouver Island and Washington instead. This is unprecedented and the least they have been seen in the Salish Sea during the summer months since records began. In further devastating news, it was recently announced by the Center for Whale Research that three more adults (one from each pod) have been missing and are now presumed dead, bringing the total population of SRKW to a record low of just 73.

The Southern Resident orca struggles are mostly due to a lack of Chinook salmon, their favourite food, as wild Chinook salmon stocks have collapsed in the Salish Sea. It is a worrying downward trend for these orca. The cause of this downward decline is a hotly discussed topic among researchers, environmental groups and the local whale watchers that are members of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. However, the biggest reason for the decline of the SRKW’s is lack of Chinook salmon, especially Fraser River Chinook which the SRKW’s relied on for their summer foraging. As the Fraser River Chinook salmon runs have declined, so have the numbers of the SRKW’s. In 2005 they numbered 89 members now they are down to only 73. Ken Balcomb (founder of the Center for Whale Research), one of the top experts on the SRKW’s, believes that unless we tackle the growing problem of dwindling Chinook salmon and soon, there is little hope for the survival of the SRKW’s. As a result various groups are looking at ways to restore Chinook salmon on both sides of the border. These efforts include Salmon Restoration projects on the Fraser and other smaller river systems. Dam removal, such as the project on the Elwha River a few years ago (salmon are already returning to the spawning grounds) and a call by many for the removal of dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. This winter there have been two new calf born bringing a little hope but every effort must be made to restore wild Chinook salmon if we hope to save the SRKW’s.

Southern Resident orca breaching near False Bay. Image: 5 Star Whale Watching

While the Southern Resident orca continue to struggle, Bigg’s orca (also known as transient orcas) are thriving in the Salish Sea! Their numbers have exploded over the last few years due mostly to the abundance of their favourite food, harbour seal, harbour porpoise and sea lion. During the last 5- 7 years there has been a ‘Baby Boom’. This is staggering and great news for the Bigg’s orca. It also shows that if orcas can find enough food in the Salish Sea they can overcome other issues such as pollution, increasing vessel noise (especially from large ships and ferries, which account for over 60% of vessel noise in the Salish Sea) and climate change. Bigg’s orca are the top ocean predator and have high levels of PCB’s and other human made pollutants. Yet they are thriving due to the abundance of food in the Salish Sea. In 2017 and 2018 there was a record number of sightings of Bigg’s orca in the Salish Sea. Although usually spotted in small pods (2-7 orcas) at times superpods of between 30-50 orcas have also been spotted.

Bigg’s orca south of Salmon Bank. Image: 5 Star Whale Watching

It is not only Bigg’s orca that are thriving in the Salish Sea, so too are humpback whales, which were almost wiped out in the Pacific due to whaling. Since commercial whaling ended humpback whale numbers have rebounded and they began to return to the Salish Sea 15 years ago. In 2017 and 2018, the “humpback comeback” continued in the Salish Sea with a record-number of humpback whales being spotted. At times 60–80 animals could be seen together. These numbers had not been recorded in the Salish Sea for over 100 years. Not only were the animals being seen in record numbers, they were also very active. Behaviours included breaching, lunge feeding, bubble-net feeding, and other acrobatic displays were witnessed. An increasing number of calf’s are also being seen in the area with many of them returning year after year, such as “Split Fin” who was born in 2006 and has returned every year since. It is wonderful to see these whales grow up! The humpback whales are not only returning in ever increasing numbers but also staying in the Salish Sea longer. They can now be seen as early as April all the way until late December and even early January!

Lunge feeding humpback whales

Whale watching companies in British Columbia and Washington State are working together with accredited conservation organisations such as 1% For the Planet, the Center for Whale Research, and the Pacific Salmon Foundation to ensure the long-term safety and conservation of the local marine wildlife and their environment. The Pacific Whale Watch Association has been instrumental in forming best practice responsible whale watching and wildlife viewing guidelines. This organisation that consists of both Canadian and American companies operating in the Salish Sea, also works closely with the local research community. This cooperation helps increase the knowledge and understanding of the Salish Sea eco-system.

One of the oldest companies in the area, Five Star Whale Watching emphasises that there is much more to see in the Salish Sea than just whales. “It’s about more than just seeing orcas or other whales, it’s about connecting people with the ocean, it’s about shaping the way people see the world, it’s about experiencing something organic and wild, and that is what is truly special about what we do” stated Andrew Lees, owner of Five Star Whale Watching. Whale watching and marine eco-tours provide the ultimate west-coast experience—a mix of fun, adventure, conservation and education!

About the Author: Andrew Lees is the owner of Five Star Whale Watching, Victoria’s longest running whale watching company and has been in the marine industry for over 20 years. Andrew is also a Captain and Marine Naturalist and loves passing in his knowledge and passion of the Salish Sea

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