Three deaths and two births. Over the past year, the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population has declined by a total of one, according to the annual census report submitted yesterday by the Center for Whale Research.
Now the number of whales in all three pods stands at 73, down from 74 last year and declining from 98 animals the past 25 years.
The births of J59 last February and K45 in May have been widely reported, along with the death of the much-loved K21, a 35-year-old male named Cappuccino. But the new report also acknowledges the deaths of two other males: 28-year-old L89, named Solstice, and 11-year-old K44, named Ripple.
Neither of these whales has been seen since last November. They would normally be spotted around their mothers, who have been observed on several occasions. But since males are known to wander at times, researchers were reluctant to declare them deceased before they were able to encounter larger numbers of whales.
“We didn’t notice anything wrong with them,” noted Michael Weiss, research director for the Center for Whale Research, referring to observations of the whales before they disappeared.
While a juvenile male orca was reported entangled in a net off the Oregon Coast in June, the body was never recovered and limited pictures did not allow for identification, Michael said. We’ll probably never know if the dead animal was 11-year-old Ripple, the youngest whale in K pod before K45 was born this year.
UPDATE: A tribute to the two orcas now confirmed as deceased has been posted on the Orca Network Facebook page (right). It includes comments from people who remember these whales.
It is sad to experience the loss of any members of this critically endangered population, especially young ones, Michael said. But from the standpoint of population dynamics, it is better to lose males than females of reproductive age. And the good news is that at least one — and maybe both — of the calves born this year is a female.
J59, the known female, is the daughter of J37, a 21-year-old named Hy’shqa, who also has a 10-year-old son. The newest calf, K45, was born to K20, a 36-year-old named Spock, who has an 18-year-old son. The new babies have not yet been named. See Water Ways from this past July.
Both youngsters appear healthy, and Michael observed that J59 was the center of attention and social activity among J pod whales. “She seemed to have a lot of different ‘aunties’ looking in on her,” he said.
“I’m sure glad that we have some new kids,” he added, “or this would have been a heart-breaking year.”
Overall, Michael said, the J pod population has been pretty stable of late, but K pod has been trending downward the past few years, and L pod has been in decline since 1995. See population chart, CWR via Orca Network.
One interesting factor this year, Michael said, is that J pod has been into Puget Sound more frequently and for longer times than in recent years. Years ago, J pod typically remained in Puget Sound during much of the summer, while the other two were somewhat less frequent visitors. But that changed, and J pod became absent like the others for more than a decade.
Why J pod was around more this summer is not easy to explain. Michael said. Were the whales finding more food this year, or were they just looking around after having less success in other places? The answer could be revealed in part by looking at salmon abundance when numbers become available. Measurements include sport and commercial fishing success — including areas where test fisheries are used in research.
Studies have shown that the resident orcas prefer Chinook salmon over any other kind of fish. Numbers of Chinook have declined drastically from historical levels, and Puget Sound Chinook are listed as a threatened species. During the fall, when Chinook runs decline, the orcas often move into Central and South Puget Sound, where they feed on chum and occasional coho salmon. So far, they have not moved south.
It is good to remember that many of the orcas seen in Puget Sound these days are transients. They consume marine mammals, including seals, rather than fish. Visits by transients, also called Biggs killer whales, have become more and more frequent in all corners of Puget Sound in recent years.
Currently, all three pods of Southern Residents appear to be foraging in the Strait of Juan de Fuca close to where the strait enters the Pacific Ocean, according to researchers with the Center for Whale Research.
As for their condition, a few whales were showing weight loss in late spring, Michael said, but most seem to have recovered, at least somewhat. None appear to be in extreme danger, as viewed from surface vessels, he added. Still, aerial surveys by drone, which have led to some fairly precise warnings of pending problems, have not been reported since July. See SR3 news release.
In June, I reported on a number of studies and programs focused on the effects of vessels on Puget Sound orcas. Online presentations, including a discussion of the drone work, were made at the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference. See Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.
The annual census reports for Southern Resident killer whales describe the population and the condition of orca families as of July 1 each year. By contract, the Center for Whale Research is allowed until Oct. 1 to submit the reports to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This year’s announcement of the census report.
Last year, my report on the 2021 census showed three births and one death, increasing the population to 74. See Water Ways, Sept. 21, 2021.