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Environment

Winter Whale Watching At Its Best Around Puget Sound, Despite Bad Summer For Orcas

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Elaine Thompson / File
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AP Photo
A southern resident J pod orca whale swims in Puget Sound in view of Mount Rainier and downtown Seattle in January, 2014. This year, resident Orcas are showing up more frequently in inland waters such as these, apparently foraging for chum salmon.

Despite a very bad summer for local resident orca whales, this winter is shaping up as a premium time to see them from the shore. Orca watchers say the Southern Residents seem to be foraging for chum salmon after finding less Chinook than usual this year.

The citizen-powered nonprofit Orca Network says this holiday season may be one of the best ever for viewing southern resident killer whales from points all around Puget Sound, as they are venturing more frequently into inland waters.  People have reported sightings from well-populated areas such as West Seattle's Alki Point and Ballard's Shilshole Bay, as well as from  local ferry runs. 

“They’ve already come in 8 times during December and they’ve been in over 20 times through October and November,” said Orca Network co-founder Susan Berta.

She says that’s a big improvement and about twice as often as normal for this time of year. During the summer, sightings were at a historic low, about a third of normal numbers. The local J, K and L pods hardly showed up in their normal feeding grounds in the San Juan Islands and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The theory is that they stayed out at sea because their preferred diet of Chinook Salmon was too scarce closer in. But now they’ve switched to the next-biggest species, chum, which is running through Puget Sound.  

“Because they weren’t able to get enough food during the summer, they’re just trying to find whatever salmon they can find, wherever. But we are encouraged that they seem to be finding enough chum to make it worth coming down into Puget Sound,” she said. “So hopefully they’re finding enough chum salmon to keep coming back.”   

The Orca network website has a map with over 150 different places to watch for them, as well as recent siting statistics from Whidbey Island to Vashon, Port Townsend and Sooke, BC.

On that site you can also report what you see and contribute to the citizen science that helps support critically endangered local killer whales.

After recent deaths, the population of Southern Resident orca whales is at a 30 year low, with only 76 left in the wild.  

This year, transient orcas and Humpback whales have been seen in higher numbers throughout the Salish Sea, which could at least partially explain the scarcity of Chinook in greater Puget Sound.  

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