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L25, named Ocean Sun, was spotted lingering in kelp beds by observers with the Center for Whale Research during a recent encounter on June 23. Estimated to be more than 90 years old, she was one of the whales listed in early census reports during the 1970s and is believed to be the oldest living orca among the southern residents. // Photos: copyright Center for Whale Research taken under federal permits NFMS 27038, DFO SARA 388

Southern resident orca numbers decline during census year; Bigg’s orcas continue to expand

Although the official census report won’t be submitted for a couple months, at least two southern resident killer whales have died over the past year, with one of them being a little more than a month old. This unnamed, deceased baby, designated J60, was the only new birth reported among the endangered orca population in the last 12 months.

This situation is nearly the reverse of what I was reporting a year ago on Our Water Ways, based on observations from the Center for Whale Research. At that time, we were happily reporting two births among the three pods and — remarkably for the first time — no deaths during the annual census period that ends on July 1 each year.

However, soon after this blog post, a 22-year-old male named K34, or Cali, went missing. He was last seen in August, putting him on the death list for this year’s census. The young calf who lived only a short time was born around Christmas last year. He was designated J60. After only a few observations, he was reported missing on Jan. 27 by the Center for Whale Research. The calf had been seen with at least two different females, and his mother was never precisely identified. Monika Wieland Shields of Orca Behavior Institute offered some interesting speculation about that situation.

As of today, experts at the Center for Whale Research are concerned about the apparent absence of yet another southern resident orca, L85, a 33-year-old male named Mystery. He was not seen during limited encounters with L pod, but there is the possibility that he was away from the group he had been traveling with.

L85, Mystery, photographed in Puget Sound on Sept. 3, 2013 // Photo: Andrew A. Reding, used with permission

On May 27, Dave Ellifrit, Michael Weiss and Katie Jones with the Center for Whale Research encountered most of L pod in Haro Strait between Vancouver Island and the San Juan Islands.

“We were confident that the L54s and L88 were not in Haro Strait today,” according to a report of the encounter. “Of the rest of L pod, the only whale we could not find was L85. Since L pod were spread out for most of the day, there is still a chance he will show up later, so we won’t have any more to say about him until we have more encounters with the L12s and a complete census of the population.

“L85 was looking a little thin in August of 2023,” the report continues, “but he was still alive in November.”

This whale, Mystery, was missing during a later encounter as well, but more observations are needed before his status can be determined, said Michael Weiss, research director for CWR, which maintains the official census of the southern residents.

“We need to get in a few more encounters,” Michael told me. “Adult males can be tricky, because they can sometimes go off and forage on their own.”

Mystery’s mother, Misky (L28), died in 1994 when Mystery was just 3 years old. His aunt, Olympia (L32), cared for him until she died in 2005. For now, there is concern about his status, which is still somewhat a mystery.

Michael said a team from the Center for Whale Research is about to go out to feeding grounds in and beyond the Strait of Juan de Fuca for additional observations of the southern residents. A report on the number of southern resident orcas as of July 1 must be submitted by Oct. 1 (as provided by a contract with the federal government), allowing time to draw conclusions.

If Mystery is among the deceased orcas, the annual census will drop to 73, down from 75 in July 2023. 

Emergency whale-watching rules

For the fourth year in a row, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has issued emergency rules to protect “vulnerable” whales within the endangered southern resident population. The rules require commercial whale-watching boats to stay 1,000 yards from these 16 whales at all times. WDFW officials are strongly encouraging all boaters to conform to these same guidelines. Next year, under a new law, the 1,000-yard limit will apply to nearly all boaters around any southern resident orca, as I described in a June 26 blog post.

The whales getting extra protection this year are animals determined to be in poor body condition, rapidly declining condition or pregnant, as determined using a drone along with special photogrammetric techniques employed by SR3 — Sealife Response, Rehabilitation and Research — between June 2023 and May 2024.

Of the 15 whales in poor or rapidly declining body condition, nine are from J pod and six are from L pod, according to a memo from SR3. Five were also reported as vulnerable last summer.

“It is very concerning that there are so many whales in poor condition, the most we have identified during our 17 years of measuring their body condition using photogrammetry from aerial photographs,” said Holly Fearnbach, SR3’s marine mammal research director, as reported in a news release. “We will continue to monitor their condition and hope to see improvements.”

The specific whales and details of their body conditions are provided in the text of the emergency rule (PDF) and on the WDFW website.

While the rule applies to commercially licensed whale-watching boats, everyone is encouraged to stay back 1,000 yards from the whales to give them extra room and reduce the noise in hopes of improving their ability to catch fish. For recreational boaters, state law currently requires vessels to stay at least 300 yards from the southern residents and at least 400 yards in front and behind these whales. Boaters must also reduce their speed to 7 knots within 1,000 yards. For details, check out the Be Whale Wise website.

Puget Sound visits increase

In recent years, many observers have lamented that the southern residents have been seen less and less in the Salish Sea, particularly around the San Juan Islands. Experts attribute that to a shortage of spring Chinook returning to the nearby Fraser River, forcing the whales to look for food elsewhere.

This year, things seem to have turned around a bit, as confirmed by Monika Wieland Shields of Orca Behavior Institute. According to Monika’s numbers, the southern residents were spotted in the Salish Sea on 74 days during the four-month period of March-June. That compares to 48 days last year and 45 days in 2022.

This increase is also confirmed by the Center for Whale Research, which generally takes a boat out to study the southern residents at every opportunity. This year, as of July 1, the researchers have had 19 encounters during this calendar year, compared to 11 during the same time last year. The number for 2022 was in between with 16 encounters.

The presence of the whales most likely means they are finding Chinook salmon to eat, Michael noted. He said he hopes that this is a sign of a larger salmon run in the Fraser and other nearby rivers, as opposed to poor conditions elsehwere, such as the prime feeding ground at Swiftsure Bank near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Limited data from fisheries so far suggests that the Fraser run is larger than in recent years.

“Behaviorally, there has been quite a bit of socializing … and quite a bit of foraging with successful prey chases,” Michael said. “I wouldn’t want to say things are good, but it seems like a reasonably OK year for them. They are getting time to socialize, which is good, but quite a few whales are looking a bit thin. We hope that their being in the Salish Sea so much this year means that it’s a good year for fish.”

Meanwhile, it’s worth mentioning that the other “subspecies” of orcas in our area, the Bigg’s killer whales (see Water Ways, June 28) has been increasing steadily in population. These orcas have been seen much more often by observers, including passengers on commercial whale-watching boats where the focus has been off the southern residents. The reason for the increasing Bigg’s population is simple, experts say. These marine mammal eaters have a fairly ongoing and abundant food supply — primarily seals, sea lions and harbor porpoises.

Orca Behavior Institute is reporting 879 individual sightings of Bigg’s for the first six months of this year, compared to 631 for the same time period last year. Each sighting represents a single group of whales counted on a single day, so the same group seen over two days is recorded as two sightings. Nearly every day, at least one group is observed in the Salish Sea.

For the Bigg’s, this year’s counts are on pace to set another record for sightings, something that has occurred every year over the past decade except for 2020. The slight dip that year may have been the result of fewer people getting out on the water because of the Covid-19 epidemic, according to Monika.

“What’s happening with Bigg’s killer whales right now is truly remarkable to witness,” said Erin Gless, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, as quoted in a news release last November. “People once referred to them as ‘transient’ killer whales because sightings were so rare, but now we’re seeing them almost daily, and we have their food to thank for that.” 

Growing populations of seals, sea lions and porpoises began when federal governments in the U.S. and Canada ended bounty programs on the animals and then protected them — and all marine mammals — from hunting. Some say that Bigg’s killer whales are an ally of the endangered southern residents, because Bigg’s eat some of the predators that eat the salmon that are critically important to the southern residents.

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