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Orcas make their way to Salish Sea, but sick whale lags behind

Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press file
Four orca whales swim in the Salish Sea in July 2015.

There’s good news – and some concerning news – about the endangered southern resident killer whales that were missing from the Salish Sea.

All three families of the much-loved orcas – the J, K and L pods – were seen mingling, tail slapping and breaching on the west side of the San Juan Islands Tuesday night, a good sign after a long absence. The J pod hadn't been seen there for an unprecedented 108 days prior. 

The pods moved on quickly — a sign there was probably no food in the area.

And we now know one of the whales did not join his family when they left.

K-21 – also called Cappuccino – might be close to death. The 35-year-old orca was discovered in distress near Race Rocks in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, severely emaciated and with a collapsed dorsal fin.

The Orca Behavior Institute said in a release that, based on photos, they do not think it’s a condition from which he can recover. His death would bring the total number in the population to 74, including two calves born last year.

This news comes on the same day that the southern residents received new habitat protection.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has finalized rules that add nearly 16,000 square miles of foraging areas and migratory pathways to their critical habitat. It now extends from the Canadian border to Point Sur in California. While environmentalists praised the action, many also called for more habitat protections for salmon, to aid in the orcas’ recovery.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to