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J58, the newest member of J pod, swims with its mother Eclipse (J41) off the southern end of Vancouver Island on Monday. J pod has visited South Puget Sound recently.
Photo: ©Center for Whale Research, under NMFS permit 21238 and DFO SARA permit 388

Young orca calves take part in fall excursions into South Puget Sound with their mothers

The two orca calves born to J pod in September are still alive and doing well, according to Mark Malleson of the Center for Whale Research, who spotted J pod on Monday near the Canadian city of Victoria. (Check out Mark’s encounter report.)

This is good news, of course, for the highly endangered southern resident killer whales, which frequent Puget Sound and the Salish Sea. But winter months still lie ahead, so we hope that they can find enough food to make it through their first winter, a challenging time for young orcas.

When sighted Monday, the calves, J57 and J58, were swimming close to their mothers, J35 (named Tahlequah) and J41 (named Eclipse), respectively. Review my report on this year’s orca census, Water Ways, Sept. 15.

J57, born in September, travels close to his mother Tahlequah (J35) near Victoria, British Columbia on Monday. // Photo: ©Center for Whale Research, under NMFS permit 21238 and DFO SARA permit 388

J pod has been visiting Central and South Puget Sound in recent weeks, as they often do when their primary prey, Chinook salmon, decline in numbers during the summer months. The orcas then begin to rely on fall chum salmon, their secondary prey species.

J pod began its forays into South Puget Sound near the end of September, with sightings as far south as Kingston and Edmonds. By mid-October, they had made one run all the way to the south end of Vashon Island, and they returned to that area again in early November. That venture was followed by an overnight trip in mid-November, when they may have been accompanied by K pod, according to sighting reports from Orca Network.

“The one observation I would make is that the whales have been very spread out,” said Howard Garrett of Orca Network. “In almost every report, it is miles between the leaders and the trailers. That is an indication that they are searching everywhere for fish.”

In other words, if the whales had been bunched closer together, it would be a sign that they were finding plenty of fish, he said.

The chum run in Central and South Puget Sound has been low the past two years. Early this year, experts predicted that about 200,000 chum would be coming into South Sound this fall, compared to an eight-year annual average of just under 550,000. The final count for this year is expected to be even lower than the prediction.

The chum run was low last year, too, and still the whales were finding fish somewhere, as they traveled widely from Puget Sound into Canada and along the West Coast. Successful births provide evidence that something is going right for a change.

Nevertheless, the overall population of the three southern resident pods has remained at a low level, currently just 74 whales — barely above the recorded minimum, as shown in a graph from the Center for Whale Research.

Howie and I kicked around the highly speculative notion that the orcas might be extending their diet to other fish. He mentioned the “regime change” resulting from the death of Granny (J2), who had been the leader of J pod for as long as researchers have been studying the whales. Granny was believed to be older than 100 when she died nearly four years ago.

It’s not clear who is leading J pod now or even if there is a new leader so far, Howie told me. Understanding the thinking of these intelligent underwater animals has always been a challenge for us land-based creatures. Why do the whales go one way, then turn around, and sometimes turn around again? If the hunt for Chinook and chum salmon becomes less fruitful, could the whales shift to other salmon species or even non-salmon types of fish? Could a new leader change the travel patterns?

Sp far, this year’s travels into and out of Central and South Puget Sound have been similar to last year’s. That could mean one or more trips south before the end of the December. When that happens, people often go out to watch the orcas safely from shore after learning about their location on Orca Network’s Facebook page.

Sighting locations are shown on maps created by Orca Network for the Puget Sound region and the Whale Trail for locations farther away. I subscribe to the idea of leaving the orcas to themselves in winter rather than watching from a boat — with an occasional exception for licensed researchers. On another website called OrcaSound you may hear the whales calling to each other. One can also sign up for notifications when whale calls and other interesting sounds are detected on the hydrophones.

Like whale watching from shore, observing chum salmon swimming upstream to spawn is another good family outing. Most of the chum coming this year have moved upstream by now, and dead fish are littering the stream banks, according to Jon Oleyar, who walks the streams for the Suquamish Tribe to estimate the size of salmon runs. Still, he said, there are a few stragglers to be found on some streams.

Jon said the recent ongoing, yet light, rains were “perfect” for the salmon. But before that streamflows were low and fish were congregating in the lower reaches of the streams. Public concerns were running high.

“I was fielding calls from people worried about beaver dams and the fish getting upstream,” Jon told me. “Once the rain came, the fish were up into all the tributaries and spread out through all the streams. I haven’t seen that in years, if ever.”

In Kitsap County, Chico Salmon Park is a good location to see salmon at this time. You may spot some fish from a late run of chum in Gorst Creek, where colorful coho are also on the move through Bremerton’s Otto Jarstad Park.

A few years ago, I produced a map for the Kitsap Sun with videos of salmon-viewing spots in Kitsap County. See also Kitsap Salmon Tours. The Seattle PI has some suggested spots for Seattle, while Parent Map magazine has a list of salmon-viewing sites in East King County and a separate list for South King County. Feel free to add your favorite salmon-viewing spots in the comments section below.

The natural cycle of salmon and orcas is truly a wondrous sight to watch. For good or bad, the fates of these animal are tied to human efforts to protect and restore the conditions that allow them to thrive.

We can celebrate the two new orca calves born in September, along with two young survivors from last year, and possibly another young orca on the way (Times Colonist, Oct. 24, 2020). But our celebration must be tempered with the realization that an equal number of whales have died in the same time period — and it will take many, many more births to bring the Southern Residents back from the brink of extinction.

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