It’s peak season for whale watching in the Salish Sea. But the iconic southern resident killer whales that for decades spent their summers here have been scarce, likely because of a lack of salmon.
The cherished J pod of southern resident orcas has been missing now from the Salish Sea for more than 100 days. J-pod orcas include well-known individuals such as the matriarch J-2 Granny, who died in 2017 at an estimated age of 105 years old, and J-35 Tahlequah, who raised awareness globally for the plight of her endangered species with a ‘tour of grief’ in 2018, as she carried her deceased calf through the water for an unprecedented 17 days.
J pod is one of three families in the population of endangered southern resident killer whales that feed nearly exclusively on Chinook salmon – and, as it has declined, at times on other species of salmon. For decades, the inland waters of the Salish Sea has been the core summer habitat for these fish-eating orcas.
“J pod, in particular, is sort of the most resident of the three pods. They have traditionally spent the most time here being seen almost every single month of the year. And we've started seeing a decline in the amount of time all three pods are spending here,” says Monika Wieland Shields, who directs the Orca Behavior Institute in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.
“So for us to go 100 days during the peak season without seeing J pod is just unprecedented in the last 40-plus years of observation of these whales."
She says the southern residents normally come in to feast on the summer run of Chinook returning to the Fraser River. But that food has apparently become unavailable.
“And the fact that the whales aren't here is a good indicator that the fish aren't here either.”
More fish are available on the outer coast, where the whales have been spotted. She says the last time J pod was seen in the San Juans was on April 10. Members of K pod appeared briefly in Salish Sea on July 1. They then headed back west to the outer coast; prior to that, K and L pods were last documented in inland waters in late February.
Members of all three southern resident families were spotted off the western end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca in July. But none of them have been seen on their typical summer route to follow Chinook salmon migrating toward the Fraser River.
Many other species of whales in the area are thriving, including humpbacks, minke whales, gray whales and the Bigg’s killer whales (also known as transient orcas) that feed on marine mammals.
But scientists and whale watchers alike miss the summer tradition of seeing the familiar southern residents. And Wieland Shields thinks the orcas miss the San Juans too.
“This is traditionally where all three pods would come together. They would have greeting ceremonies; they would have super pods. And probably a lot of intermixing and interbreeding would happen in the summer months when they were feasting on salmon,” she says.
The culture of these whales has been documented on the beaches and islands of the Salish Sea. Their absence is a loss, Wieland Shield says.
“Not just physically, of them finding enough to eat, but also culturally – of what this place means to them and the fact that they've had to abandon it,” she says.
The total population of southern resident orcas now stands at 75. That includes two new calves born to J-Pod last September – among them, J-57, son of the legendary orca mother Tahlequah.