FRIDAY HARBOR, Washington—The trend that San Juan Island whale watchers observed in late May—when the entirety of the endangered Southern Resident J pod spent eight days cruising the Salish Sea, with repeated visits to the island’s west side—picked up again in the third week of June. Once again, J pod came back to repeatedly forage for Chinook salmon in Haro Strait and other area, but this time they were accompanied by the L12 subpod, comprised of 10 orcas—including the Southern Resident matriarch L25 Ocean Sun, estimated to be in her 80s.
They certainly appeared to be happy and well-fed, and the presence of at least one brand-new calf that was romping and delighting the shoreside audience was a sign that the resident orcas are recovering gradually from the grim years of 2015-2019, when their numbers dropped into the low 70s. But a recent study from the University of British Columbia—telling us that the population’s underfed status and lack of available prey persists even now—demonstrates how those appearances can be deceiving.
I was present on the west side, particularly at the Lime Kiln Point Lighthouse, for a number of these visits, and was able to capture both some decent photos and some remarkable vocalization recordings with a hydrophone. One of them, from their June 4 visit, was especially entertaining (the first 1:30 or so is almost all echolocation, and then it takes off):
A similar passby two days later was just as fascinating, as these overheard conversations always are.
The calves were still romping, and the adults put on high-energy displays like breaching and spyhopping with regularity, all indicating they were being well-fed. Once again, the scientists collecting the scat samples found plenty of indications that they were eating well.
The UBC study released in late June, however, found that the Southern Resident killer whale (SRKW) population still isn't getting enough to eat, and hasn't been since 2018:
The animals have been in an energy deficit, averaged across spring, summer and fall, for six of the last 40 years—meaning the energy they get from food is less than what they expend. Three of those six years came in the most recent years of the study, 2018 to 2020. The average difference in energy is 28,716 calories, or about 17 percent of the daily required energy for an average adult killer whale, the authors say.
"With the southern resident population at such a low level, there's a sense of urgency to this kind of research," says lead author Fanny Couture, a doctoral student at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries (IOF) and Ocean Wise. "Both killer whales and Chinook salmon, the southern resident's main prey, are important, iconic species for the west coast of Canada. Studying what is happening to the population may help offer solutions, both for the southern residents and potentially other killer whale populations in the future."
Salmon abundance has fallen victim to culture-war politics in the Pacific Northwest, with conservative inlanders convinced that removing four key salmon-killing dams on the Snake River—believed to be the central factor in recovering the Columbia River’s endangered Chinook runs—is a slap in the face from liberals who don’t understand their way of life.
There has been halting progress on that front. Gov. Jay Inslee signaled earlier this year that dam removal was being viewed as the best option for the salmon and began a legislative initiative toward that end. East Side Republicans, however, have been fighting it tooth and nail, while the public utilities that run the dams are fighting even harder, pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into an ad campaign to convince Washington and Oregon residents that the costs of dam removal are too high.
Some photos from the late-June visits:
Editing the orcas to see if I am caching.