FRIDAY HARBOR, Washington—The summer of 2021 continued a trend of decreasing presence by Southern Resident orcas in the Salish Sea, one that began in 2016 and has seemingly deepened every year since. Other than a handful of brief visits—including one by all three of the population’s pods that seemed to herald the imminent death of an iconic male, K21 Cappuccino, which reduced their numbers to 73 whales—the so-called resident whales have not appeared at all in their traditional summertime waters.
But for the past two weeks or so, they appear to be making up for lost time. After appearing on Sept. 1 off the western side of San Juan Island, all three pods—Js, Ks, and Ls—have been steadily prowling the waters of the Salish Sea as they have in the past, ranging up mostly to the Strait of Georgia and hanging out off of the mouth of the Fraser River near Vancouver, British Columbia.
These whales are chasing salmon—specifically, Chinook salmon, the fatty fish that comprises about 80% of their diet. There had been reports from fishermen this summer that a large and bountiful run of Chinook were lurking off the western side of Vancouver Island, which is where the Southern Residents largely were sighted this summer.
Now, finally, they are pursuing those salmon—which had numbers in the Salish Sea that actually have been high since August—as they make their way back up to the Fraser, where they originated. And it’s been delightful.
The Orca Behavior Institute (OBI) put together a graphic showing the SRKWs’ movements about the Salish Sea and even down into Puget Sound for a brief visit.
Among the whales spotted in these visits has been the young calf J56 Tofino, a 2-year-old who appeared to be in poor condition earlier this summer, creating restrictions for whale-watching operations. However, the Orca Behavior Institute reports that she appears to have recovered:
J56 was energetic, actively foraging and breaching several times. She does not show any sign of “peanut head” from what we could tell. While her designation as a “vulnerable whale” indicates she’s at an increased risk for mortality, what we saw today gives us hope that she can make a full recovery.
Among a sprightly J pod group this week was an energetic-looking J56 Tofino (in rear, behind her mother, J31 Tsuchi).
I happened to see J56 Tofino and her mother, J31 Tsuchi, one evening near Lime Kiln Lighthouse, and I can attest that she was energetic and playful. She is one of the whales romping playfully in the video atop the post, as well as in this still photo.
In the meantime, I also was able to record their voices one recent morning through the Orcasound hydrophone on the western side of San Juan Island. The waters were still, and the vocalizations echoed sweetly down the cavernous canyon that comprises Haro Strait. Enjoy!
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