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Southern Resident Orcas - long absences punctuated by sporadic sightings

A closer look at July 4 Encounter #33 with J Pod

By Katie Jones, CWR Orca Survey Outreach & Education Center Manager

J31 and J56 during Encounter #33

(Photograph by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research)

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It is no secret that the Southern Resident killer whales don’t spend as much time in the inland waters of the Salish Sea as they used to. Sightings have slowed to a trickle during months where in the past, they would have been around almost every day: foraging, socializing, resting. Now there are long absences punctuated by sporadic sightings that come from places elsewhere - often along the outer coast where they are hopefully finding more food to eat. This year has been much of the same - their absence has been combined with rivers lacking large returns of Chinook salmon. It’s the second year on record where there were no sightings of Southern Residents in the inland waters during May. June was also very quiet, with only a brief appearance by members of L pod late in the month.

How will July look? So far, it’s shaping up to be a little more eventful. Members of the K12s and the K13s were sighted up in Blackfish Sound off the north end of Vancouver Island on June 29. They traveled down the inside of Vancouver Island and showed up on the west side of San Juan Island on the morning of July 1. That’s a distance of around 200 miles traveled in a little over two days! Researchers and orca enthusiasts alike were excited to see them (See Encounter #31 for photos and a summary of the day). Then on July 4, we received some more exciting news. The K12s and K13s had since departed the area, but J pod was seen in the Strait of Juan de Fuca heading east toward the San Juan Islands. J pod had not been sighted in inland waters since mid-April (although there had been a few sporadic sightings of them near Tofino and Ucluelet). Once again, researchers and orca enthusiasts jumped into action.

Katie Jones and Dave Ellifrit taking ID photographs during Encounter #33 (Photograph courtesy of Joanne Richardson)

Dave and I arrived on scene with members of J pod just south of the Hannah Heights area on the west side of San Juan Island. Our encounter began a little after 3:00 pm, and the whales were spread out doing longer dives and being a little challenging to track in some cases. During our encounter, the whales remained exceedingly spread out over miles, and we often only encountered each individual traveling alone or in pairs at times. There was only one period where we had a group of five traveling closely together. It was very short-lived, and the whales spread out again almost as quickly as they had joined one another. This “spread out” pattern is very common these days. It’s bittersweet thinking of the past when there was more food available. The whales would spend big chunks of time traveling and socializing in large groups. Nowadays, those sights are a rarity. For the duration of the afternoon, we did our best to document everyone in J pod. By 8:00 pm that evening, we had put in several hours of some good effort, but we still had to find one whale - J36. As we motored back toward our home base of Snug Harbor, we received word that perhaps J36 was in a little group just outside the harbor. We stopped to take a look, and sure enough, there she was! Every member of J Pod was documented and accounted for, and we made the slow putt into Snug Harbor at 8:30 pm.

Map showing the stops and the distance traveled during Encounter #33 on July 4

The encounter definitely had its challenges, but one by one, we were able to see and photograph every member of J pod, and our encounter ranged from Eagle Point on San Juan Island to abeam of Spieden Channel north of Roche Harbor. We covered many miles. It took hours for us to do what may have only taken half the time during encounters in past years when the whales would spend more time grouped up, and they would commonly be in the inland waters during the summer months. Nowadays, we just have to assume that they may not stick around for very long, and therefore, it’s very important to document everyone as well as we can while we have the opportunity.

After the encounter, the work sorting through many photographs begins. I took over 700 images, and Dave took more than 400. It can take hours to look at and process these photos and pick out the usable shots. Out of the entire encounter with J pod, I was able to get five of what I would consider really good ID images. Many others were decent, but not catalog quality photos.

It is July 9 as I write this blog post, and as I mentioned previously, it is often assumed that the whales will not stick around long when they do make an appearance here in the inland Salish Sea. However, this is the sixth-day that members of J pod have been doing what we have long called “the west side shuffle” - traveling up and down the west side of San Juan Island searching for salmon. It’s very difficult to say how long they will stay; their company has certainly been welcomed. I sincerely hope they are finding enough salmon to keep their tummies full.

J49 during Encounter #33

(Photograph by Katie Jones, Centre for Whale Research)


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