Our last report discussed concerns about the decreasing number of Southern Resident orcas, down to just 78 in this endangered population of orcas after two deaths in L pod and no births in any of the pods since August 2012. Then, in early September, we were elated to discover a new calf for L pod, little L120, born to L86. This little calf gave us hope for the future of Southern Residents, but that hope was not long lived. By mid-October, the calf was determined to be missing and presumed dead, bringing the population back down to 78.
Between 1998 and 2013, one or more surviving calves have been born into the Southern Resident community of orcas every year, except for 2000 (though a calf was discovered in early January, 2001, that could have been born in December of 2000). Most years two or more calves were born, some years four or five calves have been born.
So two years with NO surviving calves does not bode well for the Southern Resident orcas. As we sponsor and attend meetings to discuss endangered Chinook salmon, which these orcas need to survive, we become more and more frustrated that researchers and agencies continue to argue about why this population is not recovering, and what actions need to be taken.
Dr. Lance Barrett Lennard stated it very well at a workshop yesterday - saying we can't wait until we prove the orcas need more salmon. We know they are not getting enough salmon, and we need to take the precautionary principle and do everything we can to save the salmon and the whales while there is still time. Lance, and John Durban of NOAA, have been doing photogrammetric studies of the Southern Residents with aerial photography, which clearly shows when whales are too thin, or whales that are pregnant. John will be doing a presentation about this research at our annual Ways of Whales workshop on Whidbey Island on Jan. 24, 2015, along with other presenters discussing different types of whales. It's a wonderful way to learn about the whales of the Salish Sea - join us if you can!
To leave you with some good news, we have had many great orca sightings in the inland waters of the Salish Sea since October, and through our Orca Network Facebook page and our Whale Sighting Network, we have enabled thousands of people to see and enjoy the whales from shore, or through photos and reports shared by those lucky enough to see the whales. To help get people to good viewpoints, Orca Network has produced a new map of Whale Sighting Viewpoints which has been very successful and popular.
The more people who get to watch the whales swim by our urban shorelines, the more they come to know and love them, and become advocates for them. We appreciate your support in making the Sighting Network possible, and hope you are one of the lucky ones who gets to see whales swim through your neighborhood soon!
We prefer good news and stories of interest, but we have just learned that the Center for Whale Research has determined that two Southern Resident orcas, L53 Lulu and L100 Indigo, have not been seen with their families in 2014 and are presumed deceased. 37-year-old female L53 lost her mother, L7, in 2010, and had no siblings. L100, a 13-year-old male, was born to L54 Ino and had two siblings, L108, an 8-year-old brother, and L117, born in 2010, gender still unknown.
This brings the Southern Residents' overall population down to 78, the same number that led to their listing as endangered under the ESA in 2005. No newborns have been seen since August, 2012. Many factors may influence birth and death rates, and our understanding of the causes of this decline is still evolving, but a strong correlation has been demonstrated between overall Chinook salmon abundance and resident orca birth and death rates. It's a refrain heard often among those who study and advocate for these precious orcas, but our most productive course of action continues to be to help in any way possible to restore salmon habitat throughout the known range of the Southern Resident orcas, which extends from SE Alaska to central California. This may involve some difficult conversations at times to present the case for more salmon-friendly lifestyles, but it alsocalls for widespread dedication to small or large restoration projects in neighborhood habitats and watersheds, and everyone in the Pacific Northwest lives near historic salmon habitat, and opportunities to help in any local area can be easily found.
The good news is that this summer we have had sightings of all three pods regularly off the San Juan Islands in the US, and the Gulf Islands in British Columbia, appearing to be finding lots of food. This is a huge relief after last summer when the whales spent less time in the inland waters of the Salish Sea than had ever been witnessed in the 38 years this population of orcas has been intensely studied. We are hoping this fall the orcas show up often in Puget Sound, where they tend to follow salmon runs from October through January. This is where Orca Network's Whale Sighting Network plays its most important role - tracking the orcas (the Southern Residents, as well as the mammal-eating Transient orcas) to help determine which areas are important critical habitat and feeding areas for them, and to help researchers obtain information on which salmon stocks the orcas feed on during the fall/winter months.
You can sign up to receive our Whale Sighting Network updates on our website and/or follow sightings on a more real-time basis on our Facebook page. Citizens and volunteers play an important role in reporting sightings to our network, providing important data for researchers and agencies to work toward recovering this endangered population of orcas.
Your support helps us help the whales, and we truly appreciate your interest and donations ~
Orca Network is excited to see our "Whale Sighting Network" pod increase in size and scope, with over 10,000 on our Whale Sighting Network email list; and our Orca Network Facebook page is now over 62,000 "Likes" and is a popular place for people to find out where the whales are, and to learn how to help them.
We love receiving your whale reports, and it's fun to learn about different encounters with the many species in the Salish Sea and beyond that are reported to us, often along with stunning photographs. We have created a community of caring eyes on the ocean, to share stories, actions, issues, and events with each other, all helping to increase our collective knowledge about the cetaceans who are our neighbors.
But these sightings provide more than just basic location information, or pretty pictures. The data collected through each report becomes part of our Sightings archives, and those archived reports have provided data about changing populations of orcas, humpbacks, and gray whales in our area. We have learned things about our small local Gray whale community and their prey (ghost shrimp) through changes in their feeding areas. Our sightings have shown that the Humpback whale sightings are increasing, and Transient, marine-mammal eating orcas are frequenting the inland waters of the Salish Sea more often, while the salmon-eating Resident orcas have been around less in recent years. So much so, that last summer there were fewer sightings of all three of the Southern Resident pods (J, K and L) in the San Juan and BC Gulf Islands than has ever been witnessed in the 35+ years the research and annual survey has taken place.
So enjoy watching the whales, if on a boat, remember to keep your distance (200 or more yards from orcas, 100 or more from other whales and marine mammals) and send us your whale reports and photos. And remember each report you send adds to the data so valuable to researchers who are doing their best to help our whales be healthy and well fed for future generations to come.
In January, Orca Network held our annual Ways of Whales workshop, with a focus on Southern Resident orcas and their need for salmon, with presentations and a panel discussion by orca and salmon experts. The workshop was our best yet, with over 300 people in attendance, and receiving rave reviews. Due to the serious issue of declining salmon runs, an important food source for our endangered and declining population of Southern Resident orcas, we are now working on a 2nd Orca-Salmon workshop in partnership with the Salish Sea Association of Marine Naturalists, and the Puget Sound Partnership. This workshop will take place in Seattle at the Convention Center, the day before the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference. We are excited to be working with such great partners on this very important issue for the Southern Resident orcas.
And just as Orca Network's Whale Sighting Network gets ready for our N. Puget Sound Gray Whale season to begin, we have an exciting new project ready to launch ~
On Saturday March 1st, Orca Network will open the doors to our new Langley Whale Center, in Langley on beautiful Whidbey Island! Langley is a great place to see Gray whales in the spring, as they come in to feed on the ghost shrimp in the nearshore area. Our local group of about 10 - 12 gray whales visits Whidbey Island from March through May or June each year, so the opening of our Whale Center will be just in time to welcome the return of the whales. Orca Network also will be celebrating the return of the whales in Langley on April 19th, with our annual Welcome the Whales Parade and Festival.
Orca Network's new Whale Center is supported by Langley Main Street Association and the City of Langley, and we have been hard at work on preparing the exhibits and displays, which will include information about the local Gray whales, the Southern Resident orcas, Transient orcas, and other cetaceans and marine mammals of the Salish Sea.
A Blue whale jawbone has been loaned to us by Monte Hughes of Mystic Sea Charters, and will be used to make an archway over the entrance to the Whale Center. We will display bones, baleen, barnacles, and whale lice from Gray whales that have stranded on Whidbey Island, as well as skulls from seals and sea lions and other marine mammal specimens our Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network has collected over the years.
The Center includes a DVD player to play educational videos about the whales of our area, a Lending Library of whale books and videos for visitors to check out, and educational materials, as well as a small gift shop to sell whale books, DVDs, and other whale-related items.
Our Orca Network board and volunteers have been busy preparing to open our doors March 1st, and we will be planning a Grand Opening in the late spring or early summer, once we have everything in place.
The Langley Whale Center is an exciting opportunity, and the first time Orca Network will have a space open to the public to better share information about our whales, and we expect our outreach to be greatly multiplied by this endeavor. The Center is located at 117 Anthes, in Langley on Whidbey Island, and is only a block away from the waterfront and "Whale Bell Park" where the big Whale Bell is rung whenever whales are spotted in the area.
If you are on Whidbey Island, come visit our new Langley Whale Center, and stop in to say hello! And if you're lucky, maybe you'll get to watch some whales from the shores of Whidbey Island with us ~
This report brings some good news and some bad news. Our last report discussed the absence of our endangered Southern Resident orcas around the San Juan Islands and Salish Sea during the summer months, when they typically stay in the area feasting on Chinook salmon. The salmon were scarce, and so were the whales. The Fraser River Chinook salmon run was very low this year, but word is that Chinook salmon numbers off the Washington Coast were good, so it is likely the Southern Residents spent much of the summer off the coast of Washington and the west coast of Vancouver Island, where there were more salmon to sustain the pods over the summer.
We wondered what the fall/winter season would be like after such an abnormal summer. The Southern Residents seem to switch to a diet of chum salmon during the winter season, and make forays into Puget Sound following the chum runs. We are happy to report that the Southern Residents have been coming through Admiralty Inlet, and into Puget Sound in their usual pattern, which brings some relief and likely means there are good chum runs to help make up for the lower numbers of Chinook in the Salish Sea this year. They first came into Puget Sound on Sept. 21st, then again at the end of October for a four day stay, then three days in early November, and again today, December 1st.
The sad news is that we have lost another Southern Resident orca, 80 year old J8. Though she lived a long and healthy life, she was a well known whale, with a distinctive "wheeze" to her blow, so you could always easily identify her. This loss brings the total population of the Southern Resident orcas down to just 80 whales - nearly as low as the last time their population tanked, in the late 1990s, when they were down to just 78 whales. The last dip in their population followed several years of steep declines for Chinook salmon, and triggered listing the Southern Residents under the Endangered Species Act. Much research has been done on all the elements that affect their health and survival - lack of food (mainly Chinook salmon, which are also endangered), toxins in the ocean and fish that they eat, loss of habitat and ocean noise (boats of all types, cargo ships, military ships and sonar, seismic airguns, etc).
But it all seems to come down to the salmon - during years when the Chinook salmon runs are the lowest, we see more deaths and fewer births in the Southern Resident orca community. Though much research has been done since the Southern Residents were listed under the ESA in 2005, there needs to be more action taken to preserve our endangered salmon runs, in order to preserve the Southern Resident orca population.
We worry and wait to see what happens next with the Southern Resident orcas - will more die? will we have some births this winter? Will we take action to increase Chinook salmon runs in time to save the orcas? One piece of good news to leave you with is that the Elwha River is already seeing large Chinook salmon return to the river after the removal of a dam, restoring a historic food source for the Southern Resident orcas. There is still work being done to complete removal of the 2nd dam on the Elwha, but the salmon are already returning, showing us that if we just give nature a chance, species often come back sooner than expected and thrive in newly restored habitats.
Orca Network continues to work to track the travels of the Southern Resident orcas, to educate people and raise awareness of the need for clean waters and healthy salmon runs, and to do all we can to preserve this fragile community of orcas in the Salish Sea.
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