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J47, a 12-year-old male named Notch, plays with his 2-year-old brother J57, named Phoenix, in waters near the U.S.-Canada border. The two young whales are the offspring of Tahlequah, J35, who became famous in July 2018, when she mourned her dead calf for 17 days. // Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, federal permits NMFS 21238 and DFO SARA 388

As winter approaches, salmon and orcas are still a commanding presence

With salmon and orcas still on the move and facing ever-changing weather conditions, I thought it might be time for a brief update to my blog post of Nov. 21.

At the time of the last report, the Puget Sound region had gone through a 13-day dry spell, which followed a period of brief and limited precipitation. Low stream flows were making it tough for chum and coho salmon to go upstream when they should have been at their peak of spawning. Many unfortunate fish were dying before they could spawn, and others were spawning in the lower sections of streams, practically on top of one other.

The arrival of rain on Nov. 22 — the day after my last report — provided a much-needed boost in streamflow throughout the region. For many salmon, it was “too little too late,” according to Jon Oleyar, a biologist for the Suquamish Tribe who surveys the streams of East Kitsap County. For other salmon, however, the rains opened the door to a major migration into the streams.

J41, a 17-year-old female named Eclipse, spyhops in waters near the U.S-Canada border. // Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, taken under federal permits NMFS 21238 and DFO SARA 388

In Chico Creek, one of largest chum-producing streams in Puget Sound, the run was largely over by the time the rains came. Many spawners were forced to lay their eggs in the lower reaches of the stream, Jon told me. In the tributaries of Chico Creek, including Lost and Wildcat creeks, almost no fish made it up to the prime habitat in the upper reaches.

On the other hand, rains apparently were not too late for nearby Barker Creek, a smaller stream that enters saltwater on the opposite side of Dyes Inlet from Chico Creek.

“I saw fish numbers increase five-fold with the increase in flow,” Jon said. “I was pleasantly surprised there were so many fish that waited as long as they did.”

Beaver dams and other natural obstacles in Barker Creek hindered the upstream migration of chum, as they did in other streams with low water. Where high flows returned before the end of the salmon run, many salmon were able to find a way around or over the obstacles. Still, the late rains this year has limited the upstream spawning.

The rains from Nov. 22 to Nov. 28 were followed by varying amounts of snow and rain, continuing through this week. Accumulated snow helps to maintain streamflows in the absence of rain when the temperature gets above freezing.

Throughout Puget Sound, the response to rains by salmon depends on local conditions. Some streams too low for salmon passage received an unexpected surge of chum once the rains started, thanks in part to larger-than-predicted chum runs. (See Nov. 21 blog post.) Coho salmon, which seemed to wait for higher waters, generally came in later and may have had a better opportunity to reach the higher tributaries.

Now that most of the salmon have spawned, we must wait to see if future weather conditions allow the eggs to survive and finally hatch. As Jon pointed out, threats to their survival include very-high-flow conditions and flooding that can wash the eggs out of the gravel or bury them in sediment.

Salmon productivity also depends on other factors, such as the condition of the stream and the nature of the watershed. Natural conditions generally allow rain to soak into the ground, which contributes to steadier streamflows through the winter — as opposed to the higher, damaging flows that occur when the surrounding area is covered by buildings and pavement.

Even with the best habitat conditions, salmon survival depends on the whims of weather. That may be why, through adaptation, salmon that go to the ocean together don’t all return at the same time. Each year, a fair number of 3-year-old and a few 5-year-old chum are in the mix of returning spawners, along with the 4-year-olds that dominate the overall numbers.

Southern Resident orcas

The late arrival of rains that led to a delay in salmon migration may have encouraged the fish-eating Southern Resident killer whales to stay longer in the Salish Sea, from South Puget Sound up into Canada’s Georgia Strait.

A family group known as the J16 subpod moves through waters near the U.S.-Canada border. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, taken under federal permits NMFS 21238 and DFO SARA 388

“We went into the fall with extremely low expectations,” said Dave Ellifrit, a longtime marine mammal expert with the Center for Whale Research. “We were pleasantly surprised when the whales were able to stay around.”

This year was notable for the four-day-long “Superpod,” which occurred Nov. 7-10 when all three pods — J, K and L pods — got together in Central Puget Sound. Experts say these get-togethers appear to be important social events, occurring when the whales are not struggling to find food.

On Nov. 11, the whales made their way north, where they were spotted two days in a row before moving into Canada, as reported by Orca Network, an organization that keeps track of whale movements.

A week later, on Friday, Nov. 18, J pod split off from K and L and came south, where Dave Ellifrit observed the individual whales while taking the beautiful photos seen on this page. Dave’s observations and photos can be seen on the Center for Whale Research “Encounters” page.

From the San Juan Islands, J pod continued south into Puget Sound, where the group spent the next day, Nov. 20, foraging in Possession Sound and Saratoga Passage on the east side of Whidbey Island before traveling around to the west side.

In the early morning hours of Nov. 22, K and L pods were heard on the Port Townsend and Bush Point (west Whidbey) hydrophones on the Orcasound network as they made their way south and returned to Puget Sound once again. Although visibility was poor, a large number of unidentified killer whales were reported near Kingston, while J pod could be seen in Saratoga Passage.

The following day, K pod spent the morning foraging at the south end of Vashon Island before meeting up with J pod between Vashon Island and West Seattle as the sun was setting.

“Pods have merged and after some directional changes all are grouped together,” wrote Alisa Lemire Brooks, whale sighting network coordinator for Orca Network, after witnessing the gathering from shore. “They were facing north, barely moving, when in same spot they next surfaced all facing south. It was beautifully surreal. They are facing southbound but are just drifting in one big logging cuddle under where the light meets the color, north of the ferry lanes mid channel. It’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen with orcas.”

On Nov. 24, J and K pods were seen traveling north into Possession Sound, entering Saratoga Passage at sunset. The following day, Nov. 25, K pod was back at the south end of Vashon Island before heading north through Colvos Passage. Meanwhile, J pod traveled farther north, reaching Port Townsend at sunset. On Nov. 26, K pod repeated its travels from the south end of Vashon up through Colvos Passage before leaving Puget Sound.

On Dec. 1, J pod was observed traveling south past Whidbey Island and later Edmonds. The next day, the pod was seen foraging in that same area before traveling north through Admiralty Inlet on Dec. 3.

Two days later, on Dec. 5, K pod was spotted again off Vashon Island before nightfall, and the next day the same whales were seen leaving Puget Sound through Admiralty Inlet. On Dec. 7 and 8, Orca Network received scattered reports of J and K pods in the Kingston-Edmonds area as well as South Whidbey.

Click on image for comments and videos from yesterday’s encounter.

Yesterday (Friday, Dec. 9), J pod met up with K pod, which had been making excursions as far south as the southern tip of Vashon Island. Alisa of Orca Network joined a shore-watch party at Point Robinson, where folks watched the assorted orcas swim by.

“Friends with big wide open hearts and arms welcomed one another and welcomed Js and Ks who passed in mixed pod groups, some super close while others streamed by short distance away offshore,” wrote Alisa, who shared comments and two videos of the encounter.

Although a few late runs of chum and coho salmon still exist, I can’t help but wonder how hard the whales must be looking for food right now. Can they still find time to cement the social bonds that hold them together?

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