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New calf L127 with her mother L94, a 28-year-old female named Calypso. Photo: Center for Whale Research (Federal permits: NMFS 21238 and DFO SARA 388).

Two new baby orcas with no deaths over the past year could make for a remarkable census

This year’s census for the Southern Resident killer whales apparently will document two new calves but no deaths for the 12-month period ending July 1. According to my unconfirmed records, this will be the first time in nearly 30 years that no deaths will be reported in the annual census update.

Consequently, the overall population for the three orca pods rises from 73 in 2022 to 75 in 2023. These numbers won’t be official until the Center for Whale Research submits its annual report to the federal government sometime before Oct. 1. But Dave Ellifrit, who leads the center’s Orca Survey, told me that it appears that the whales have all been accounted for.

Last year’s census includes two births — yet three deaths during the same period took the population a step lower, as I reported in Our Water Ways.

Latest observations

On a calm and sunny day in July, Dave and his associate Mark Malleson located nearly all the Southern Residents together in the Pacific Ocean near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca (Encounter #37). According to Dave, only one whale from K pod was not spotted. Dave was not concerned, however, because the whales were spread out across the water, making the search somewhat challenging. The K pod whale had been seen earlier in Monterey Bay along with other K and L pod whales, he noted.

New calf L126 is seen with his aunt L77, named Matia, during a July 8 encounter that located nearly all the Southern Resident orcas. Photo: Center for Whale Research (Federal permits: NMFS 21238 and DFO SARA 388).

While I am still trying to confirm my numbers, it appears that the annual census reports show deaths within the Southern Resident population every year since 1994. That’s near the peak year for the population, when the numbers grew to 98 following whale captures in the 1960s and ’70s. After that, a series of population declines was observed.

The first of two new baby orcas this year was first reported on June 19 near Tofino, BC. (Facebook with photos). On June 30, the Center for Whale Research was able to confirm not just one but two new calves (Encounter #31). They are the first calves born in L pod since 2021 and the first born in the L12 subgroup since 2018.

One calf, designated L126, is the first offspring of L119, an 11-year-old female named Joy. The other new whale, designated L127, is the third offspring of L94, a 28-year-old female named Calypso. Further observations revealed that L126 is a male, and L127 is a female. Check out CWR news release along with Encounter #33 and Encounter #34.

It is worth noting that when females are born to the Southern Residents the cause for celebration is somewhat heightened, because females provide a greater hope for future population growth among the endangered orcas. Orca Network keeps up-to-date on the births and deaths.

The two young whales, believed to be more than two months old when first sighted, were doing well as of July 18, when the research group SR3 obtained aerial photos of the whales. Work by the group involves taking precise measurements of the animals using noninvasive photogrammetric techniques using a drone that flies more than 100 feet above the whales.

Vulnerable orcas protected

SR3, which stands for Sealife Response, Rehabilitation and Research, played a major role in establishing an emergency rule imposed in late June by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to protect the Southern Residents. The rule requires commercial whale-watching boats to stay at least one-half nautical mile away from 11 whales declared “vulnerable,” including one in late-stage pregnancy (J36, a 24-year old named Alki) and 10 whales in poor body condition. The same distance applies to new calves under age 1. The agency encourages all boaters to keep an equal or greater distance away from these animals.

Population changes for J, K and L pods plus all three pods (top line). Click to enlarge. Chart: Center for Whale Research

The emergency rule essentially continues the required distance for commercial whale-watching boats into the whale-watching season of July-September. Some whale-watching companies are now avoiding the Southern Residents entirely, focusing instead on Bigg’s (transient) killer whales and other whale species.

The designation of “vulnerable” is applied to killer whales whose body measurements have declined significantly and in specific ways, putting them at a two to three times greater risk of mortality. Among the 11 whales with that designation this year are six that were identified as vulnerable last year. See news releases from WDFW and SR3.

New legislation passed this year will eventually require all boaters to stay 1,000 yards away from the Southern Residents — with a few exceptions, such as for safety or at direction of the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Service. That distance, which is roughly equal to one-half nautical mile, will go into effect in January 2025. The goal is to reduce noise and interference from boats, giving the whales a greater ability to communicate and find their food through echolocation.

“This vulnerable orca designation is an interim measure to bolster protection for the most vulnerable of this already vulnerable population,” said Julie Watson, policy lead for WDFW’s killer whale program. “We’re looking forward to having the new vessel regulations in place in 2025 when the whole population will be granted greater protection. In the meantime, we encourage all boaters to start now and give this endangered population ample space.” 

Meanwhile, WDFW is seeking members for a new Orca Regulations Communications Advisory Group, which will help develop outreach and education strategies in advance of the mandatory 1000-yard distance for recreational as well as commercial boats. Formation of the new group was called for as part of the orca-protection law, Senate Bill 5331.

Orca travels into Puget Sound

Whale observers are in agreement that the historical migration patterns of the Southern Residents are no longer being observed. Years ago, J pod would typically come in and out of Puget Sound, particularly through San Juan Islands, during the winter months. All three pods could be counted on to spend the summers in the area, feasting on Chinook salmon returning to the Fraser River in Southern British Columbia as well as rivers in Northern Puget Sound.

While J pod was around this past winter and into spring, summer visits have declined drastically among all three pods. In recent years, the whales seem to be coming into Puget Sound occasionally, as if to check on the availability of salmon, then quickly returning to the outer coast. It appears, according to observers, that they may be seeking out adult Chinook headed to the Columbia River and smaller streams along the coast of Washington and Oregon, even into California. These changes in foraging patterns are discussed in a new research paper by Monika Wieland Shields of Orca Behavior Institute.

“Documented here are the first-ever total absence of the Southern Residents in the Salish Sea in the months of May, June, and August, as well as their continued overall declining presence in the spring and summer, while fall and winter presence remains relatively high,” the report says. “It is key that management efforts consider these shifting presence patterns when setting both seasonal and regional protection measures aimed at supporting population recovery.”

Center for Whale Research

Since last December’s death of Ken Balcomb, the Center for Whale Research has undergone some reorganization, following a plan outlined by Ken before his death. Ken had served as director of the research organization from its inception in 1976.

Michael Weiss

First, Ken brought Michael Weiss on board as research director in May of last year. The next month, Ken’s brother, Howard Garrett, was elected as vice chairman of the board of directors, which was reorganized with new members. After Ken’s death, Howie, who also operates the entirely separate Orca Network, became chairman of the board.

Ken had articulated a plan for the future of the organization with three core functions: research, education and conservation. Although the center has no overall director at this time, Darren Croft, Ken’s longtime friend and collaborator, has assumed the unpaid role of science advisor, helping to support the organization in all of its functions. See brief bios for Michael and Darren on CWR’s website along with those of other key staff members.

The education function of the center largely takes place at the Orca Survey Outreach and Education Center in Friday Harbor. The center with gift shop includes displays, activities and occasional speakers. It is open and free to the public weekdays except Tuesday.

Howard Garrett

Conservation, Howie says, “is the underlying theme to everything.” That includes support to remove dams on rivers, protect and restore habitat, and improve water quality, all important to salmon, a critical food source for the Southern Resident killer whales. Balcomb Big Salmon Ranch, a 45-acre property purchased on the Elwha River, is part of the overall ecosystem-restoration effort.

“Big Salmon Ranch represents Ken’s desire to have a demonstration of restoration in harmony with the Elwha restoration,” Howie noted.

Since two dams were removed from the river, salmon habitat is on the mend, and biological surveys on the ranch property will help document the changes, he added. For more about the Elwha, read the series Returning home: The Elwha’s genetic legacy.

The Center for Whale Research recently committed to the purchase of a new research vessel, a 23-foot aluminum T-top manufactured by Life Proof Boats in Bremerton. Fund raising is well underway for the $200,000 research craft designed to be safer and more efficient in all kinds of weather. For details, read Michael Weiss’ blog post on the center’s website.

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