Southern Resident Killer Whales are Back

Posted September 8, 2017 at 6:00 am by

Good news from Ken Bal­comb at the Cen­ter for Whale Research…

J19, K27, K44 - Photo by Melisa Pinnow, Center for Whale Research

They’re back! For the first time in more than two months, a large assem­blage of South­ern Res­i­dent killer whale pods has returned to the inte­ri­or waters of the Sal­ish Sea. This pop­u­la­tion has dra­mat­i­cal­ly decreased in num­ber in recent years, and this sum­mer was unprece­dent­ed by their almost com­plete absence in the core area of their sum­mer habi­tat around the San Juan Islands and south­ern Van­cou­ver Island where they occurred almost dai­ly in pre­vi­ous years.

Their fre­quent occur­rence in this habi­tat for the past half cen­tu­ry earned them the name “res­i­dent”, giv­en to them by Dr. Mike Bigg ear­ly in his pio­neer­ing study of ‘killer whales’ in the 1970s. These are extreme­ly viva­cious and charis­mat­ic ani­mals, as indige­nous to the Pacif­ic North­west as its orig­i­nal human inhabitants.

For sev­er­al weeks, there have been reports of killer whales com­ing in off Jor­dan Riv­er in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. But, each time it has turned out that the whales found were Bigg’s Tran­sient killer whales. On Sep­tem­ber 4, Mark Malle­son (CWR staff) con­firmed that incom­ing whales he encoun­tered west of Sher­ing­ham light­house were RESIDENT killer whales!

The first whale iden­ti­fied was J19, who seems to have tak­en over as leader after the pass­ing of long­time matri­arch J2 in the win­ter of 2015/16. J pod was in sev­er­al matri­line groups clos­est to the shore­line of Van­cou­ver Island; the Ks were in loose matri­line groups a lit­tle far­ther off­shore and a lit­tle behind the Js. The Ls that were present were very spread out in matri­line groups much far­ther behind and far­ther offshore.

K25 breach - Photo by Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

There was some for­ag­ing activ­i­ty going on with all groups con­duct­ing occa­sion­al sprints into churn­ing tidal waters (the tidal cur­rents in the east­ern Strait of Juan de Fuca had gone from big ebb to big flood with a very brief slack at 1205). The salmon tend to move into the Sal­ish Sea with the flood tides, and hang back in nearshore eddies and bays in ebb tides, so the whale for­ag­ing and trav­el­ling east sug­gest­ed that there were at last suf­fi­cient num­bers of salmon to bring them all of the way in. It was inter­est­ing to see that J and K pod whales came east­er­ly through Race Pas­sage, while L pod whales came east­er­ly to the south of Race Rocks as far as mid-strait.

By the time the South­ern Res­i­dents were in front of the Cen­ter for Whale Research on San Juan Island, our pho­tog­ra­phers had tak­en over 3,500 pho­tographs and doc­u­ment­ed all of J pod present (24 whales), all of K pod present (18 whales), and 22 L pod whales (13 whales from L pod were not seen or pho­tographed today, but that is not alarm­ing because they are from matri­lines that were not rep­re­sent­ed in this assemblage).

All of the whales seen on Sep­tem­ber 4 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.

About the Cen­ter for Whale Research (CWR)
Since 1976, the Cen­ter for Whale Research (CWR) has been the lead­ing orga­ni­za­tion study­ing the South­ern Res­i­dent killer whales on the water in their crit­i­cal habi­tat in the Sal­ish Sea. CWR per­forms health assess­ments to ensure the via­bil­i­ty of the whale pop­u­la­tion, inform­ing elect­ed offi­cials of their ecosys­tem needs, and shar­ing the whales’ sto­ry with the world. Our 42 years of research has cre­at­ed the only long-term data set about the behav­ior, health and social dynam­ics of the South­ern Res­i­dent killer whales.

For more infor­ma­tion on the South­ern Res­i­dent killer whales, please refer to our web­site

K25 breach — Pho­to by Ken Bal­comb, Cen­ter for Whale Research

J19, K27, K44 Pho­to by Melisa Pin­now, Cen­ter for Whale Research

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One comment...

  1. Just love hear­ing the whales are back. love the JKL pods.

    Comment by Diane Shafer on September 9, 2017 at 4:34 pm

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