Feb 2, 2017

2016 Ends With Sadness for Southern Resident Orcas

J34 Doublestuf, Vashon Isl. 12-14 by Kelly Keenan
J34 Doublestuf, Vashon Isl. 12-14 by Kelly Keenan

As they do each year, members of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales spent fall and early winter traveling the waters between inland BC and further south into Puget Sound in search of whatever salmon is available to them (mostly chum). With the depletion of so many salmon runs, the pods are still spending much of their time traveling spread out in sub-pods, smaller groups, and in 1-2s. Another glaring shift this Fall/Winter is the absence of L pod in the inland waters of Puget Sound, we’ve no documented sightings of them entering Admiralty Inlet during that time. 

Sadly we’ve more deaths to report ~

December 21st brought the unexpected and heartbreaking news that 18-year old J34, known as Doublestuf, son of J22 Oreo and big brother to J38 Cookie (the beloved family known as "The Cookies") was found floating off Sechelt on the BC Sunshine Coast. Initial necropsy reports tell us he suffered from blunt force trauma. An idea by two of our dedicated volunteers to hold a memorial for J34 and all the SRKW lost in 2016 quickly grew into memorials held simultaneously on December 27th in 3 locations; Langley, Whidbey Island; Alki Point, West Seattle; and at Lime Kiln, San Juan Island. 

Less than two weeks later, on January 2, 2017, the Center for Whale Research (CWR) announced yet another great and most significant loss to J pod; J2 “Granny”, the oldest known orca and matriarch of the Southern Residents, was officially missing and presumed deceased as of December 31st, 2016. CWR’s last sighting of J2 was on October 12th “as she swam north in Haro Strait far ahead of the others.” The Samish Nation held a memorial for J2 on the shores of Rosario Strait at Deception Pass.

In total, the Southern Residents suffered a heartbreaking ten known deaths in 2016; J55, L95, J14, J28, J54, J34, J2, and 3 unnamed neonates. The population is now estimated to be back down to just 78 members, which is about where they were before the baby boom started in December of 2014.

In the months and years ahead we can only wait to see how they will adapt to the loss of their leader. We have watched them fragmenting over the loss of salmon and CWR speculates the loss of their leader might affect their cohesion even more. 

Celebrating their visits ~

While they and we absorb the losses we also celebrate their lives and the opportunities we’ve had to be in their presence. The sightings contributions by this network of whale enthusiasts and allies allowed hundreds of people the opportunity to get to the shores to watch members of J and K pods in the many areas of Puget Sound and beyond November through January. Here are videos by Alisa from November 13th of Js and Ks passing Mukilteo Lighthouse Beach; part one northbound while spread out and part 2 southbound while grouped up in resting mode. 

A beautiful and unusual thing happened ~

December 29th had just members of K pod visiting Puget Sound. When they reached the south end of Vashon Island they made an unusual decision to turn left and continued deep into Commencement Bay, downtown Tacoma. They entered in 1-2s, turned around to exit forming into 3 groups (probably matrilines), disappeared for many minutes and then surfaced in one large sublime gathering of all present members as seen here in this gorgeous video: Part 1 The Gathering, and Part 2, the before & after (the entering & exiting). 

Bigg’s/Transient Orcas: Puget Sound was teeming with Bigg's/Transients in November, especially so on November 27th when at least the T49As, T37As, T99s, and T137s were identified as being present in a meet up of several pods which took place off Seattle.  The T137s (who came from South Puget Sound) and the T37As and T99s (who came from North Puget Sound). After spending some time wending their way in and around Elliot Bay off downtown Seattle they all eventually rounded Alki Point continuing southbound together. December and January have been fairly quiet  until the past few days with a small pod in the north Sound.

Humpback Whales:  Along with all the other whale enthusiasts, Orca Network staff and Whale Sighting Network (WSN) volunteers have been ecstatic over the abundance of Humpback whales re-colonizing the inland waters of the Salish Sea over the past several years. We had several whales in since our last report and it is one little whale who has stolen our hearts.  As was the case in 2016, at least one whale has chosen an extended stay into 2017 and to date has over-wintered in the inland waters of Puget Sound. We have received ongoing reports of a small humpback who has taken up temporary residence primarily in Dalco Passage between the south end of Vashon Island and Point Defiance, Tacoma (Jill Hein, ON board member and PWWA naturalist, also photographed this same young whale in Saratoga Passage last spring, indicating she/he has some fidelity to certain local habitats in the greater Puget Sound area).  Enjoy this sunset video of the young humpback filmed by Alisa from the bluffs of Point Defiance on January 27th, 2016.  

We appreciate your passion, commitment, and are grateful for your support. Your help enables us to keep the network active and allows us to continue documenting what is happening and to educate the public to the plight of all cetaceans of the Salish Sea, especially the endangered Southern Residents. The recent losses highlight how vital it is we have eyes on the water to bear witness to the many changes happening among the pods behaviors, travel patterns, and familial relationships.  A most sincere thank you from the us and whales.  

J2 Granny, Saratoga Passage, 10-11, by Jill Hein
J2 Granny, Saratoga Passage, 10-11, by Jill Hein
Breaching Bigg's Orca, Whidbey Is. by M Armbruster
Breaching Bigg's Orca, Whidbey Is. by M Armbruster
J2, J22, & J34 by Sara Hysong-Shimazu 2015
J2, J22, & J34 by Sara Hysong-Shimazu 2015
Humpback, Dalco Pass, 12-21-16 by Desiree Sauve
Humpback, Dalco Pass, 12-21-16 by Desiree Sauve
Humpback fluking, Dalco Pass, 12-21, Desiree Sauve
Humpback fluking, Dalco Pass, 12-21, Desiree Sauve

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Nov 7, 2016

We made it through another Seal Pup season!

Seal pup hauled out to rest on a dock
Seal pup hauled out to rest on a dock

Whew! We made it through another Harbor seal pupping season - from June to early August for new-born sightings, through late August through October for "weaner" sightings. Moms will nurse their pups for four to six weeks before weaning them.  Pups that have been weaned are called “weaners”.

There were a total of 128 Harbor seal pup reports in 2014, 114 in 2015, and 134 in 2016 (see chart).

There were two happenings of interest this year. Of the 16 reports in June, six were of premature, or "lanugo", pups with an unspotted white coat. No lanugo seal pups were reported in the two previous years.

Also, there were more reports of weaner pups in September and October this year, including one healthy pup who climbed onto a dock at a busy marina. He remained there for two days, despite visits by dogs, curious children and an attempt by a man to shove it off the dock (which is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act). After two days the pup took off for parts unknown, likely finding a less busy place to haul out. A happy ending!

Another unusual behavior noted this year was that of a juvenile male California sea lion. He came ashore on south Whidbey Island, and followed a worker operating a back hoe on the beach to rebuild a sea wall for several days, then later reports had him being curious and friendly to some local residents. Apparent friendliness is unusual in a sea lion in this region, and could be a sign of illness, but nothing obvious was observed when the sea lion was assessed and observed by our volunteer (though it is difficult to safely do more than assess live sea lions from a distance). Nevertheless, people were warned to stay a safe distance away in case he suddenly became aggressive, and our volunteer talked to all the neighbors in the area to educate them about the sea lion. After all a sea lion is an unpredictable wild animal with large teeth, who can move very fast on land. He remained in the area for a couple of days and then went out to sea. Another happy ending.

Seal pup season is the busiest time of year for the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network, and we educate hundreds of local residents and visitors to our area about seals and pupping season, and how to safely observe marine mammals on the beach from a distance. 

Thanks to your support, we are able to continue education and stranding response efforts in Island, Skagit and North Snohomish counties in Washington state - we could not do it without your help!

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Nov 7, 2016

Sad losses for Southern Resident orcas, and Fall Puget Sound whale updates

J28 & 54's last visit to Whidbey Island; B. Gretz
J28 & 54's last visit to Whidbey Island; B. Gretz

This update is a bit longer than usual, but in addition to our usual updates on Orca and Humpback whales, we have additional important news to share about the endangered Southern Resident orcas.

Since our last update, Inland visits by J, K, and L pods to the San Juan Islands and British Columbia increased quite a bit in August and September, but most encounters still consisted of unusual combinations of the pods spread long distances. Families often foraged and traveled in ones and twos, some days the entire clan was spread for miles. What used to be time for the fish eating Southern Residents to join up for socializing and bonding has decreased dramatically over the years, far moreso this summer, as they expend much of their time and energy apart from one another in search of declining numbers of Chinook salmon.

October 1st marks the time we anticipate the Southern Residents will travel further inland following Fall Chum and other salmon into Puget Sound. This year Sunday October 2nd was the much-anticipated day. After spending the morning off San Juan Island, members of J & K Pods, and L87 (who travels with J pod) kept a southeasterly course, spent several hours traveling, foraging and socializing in eastern Juan de Fuca together. Once it was clear they set their sights on Admiralty Inlet we sent out the alert to our network of volunteers, some who happened to be out on the water and others who readied to line the shores.

The pods held a steady course and entered Admiralty Inlet that afternoon making Point No Point, Kitsap by nightfall. They stayed overnight and left the next day. Whale Sighting Network Coordinator Alisa Lemire Brooks took a video  of this first visit on Oct.3rd. As of October 24th, members of Js, Ks and L87 have returned each week since. So far, there appears to be only enough salmon to sustain overnight excursions into Puget Sound.

Update on Status of Southern Resident orcas from the Center for Whale Research

On August 23rd the Center for Whale Research announced the sad news that 42-year-old J14 Samish (matriarch, mother, and grandmother) was missing and presumed deceased. Later that day, they also released more upsetting news that 23-year-old J28 Polaris (mother to J46 Star and young calf J54 Dipper) was looking very thin and thought to be in her last days. J28 had been seen through mid October, mostly trailing behind, but still alive and traveling with her extended family. Having a committed crew of volunteers helps in the cooperative efforts in cases such as this to keep an eye out for J28 and her offspring and document her presence, travels, and behaviors. But sadly, on Oct. 28th, the Center for Whale Research made another announcement: as of Oct. 19th, J28 Polaris was missing, and her 10 month old calf, J54 Dipper, was seen traveling with his sister and cousin looking very thin. By Oct. 23rd, researchers took what likely were the last photos of Dipper, being held up by his sister and cousin, and then later being carried on his sister's back, taking his last breaths.

These three recent deaths bring the endangered Southern Resident Orca Community down to only 80 orcas, and unless something is done soon to increase availability of Chinook salmon, this number will continue to decline. Orca Network and our Whale Sighting Network are working with other organizations to educate and advocate for salmon and habitat restoration - if we don't increase the runs of endangered salmon, we will not increase the numbers of endangered Southern Resident orcas.

On to happier news ~

Bigg’s killer whales or Transients (mammal eaters) are still benefiting from an abundance of prey. September brought with it many gatherings or “superpods” of several different matrilines in many places throughout the Salish Sea. One such large gathering, consisting of about 20 individuals, spent time in Puget Sound early September exploring the many bays, inlets and wide expanses together in search of seals, sea lions, harbor porpoise and other plentiful marine mammals. Enjoy this beautiful video of Bigg's orcas in Admiralty Inlet, filmed Sept. 6th by Alisa Lemire Brooks.

Since our last update, Humpbacks began their comings and goings to inland Puget Sound, though not in the numbers we had during this period in 2015. However, as we get further into the Fall, their numbers are increasing; we’ve had near daily sightings of up to four or five at a time in Puget Sound throughout recent weeks. This wonderful video of a pec-slapping humpback was filmed by Alisa off Edmonds, WA on Sept. 25th. And this longer and incredibly beautiful video by Alisa is of BOTH Southern Resident orcas AND a Humpback whale in Puget Sound from Oct. 24th - showing the amazing juxtaposition of these beautiful cetaceans in an urban marine setting.

This Fall Alisa held two trainings for 45 new Whale Sighting Network volunteers. This group of dedicated whale/marine mammal enthusiasts (including three youth) learned how to Identify, observe behaviors, document and report on the many different species of cetaceans who call Puget Sound home for part or all of the year.  Volunteers new and old continue to share their knowledge and help educate the general public on the whales they are watching including information about whale culture, feeding habits, and habitat and prey needs. 

It is with the generous support such as yours we are able to continue the Whale Sightings Network. We are grateful for your care and interest in the whales and your support of the work we do. Having volunteers on shore to scout, spot, share ID's, photos, and record observations helps researchers and those compiling data to know who is present and assists in piecing together the bigger picture of the current state of the many populations of cetaceans in Puget Sound and the greater Salish Sea basin. This is especially important this winter as the Southern Resident orcas spend more time in Puget Sound, and researchers are eager to see what salmon they are feeding on, and observe any additional deaths or births among this fragile population. Anyone in the Pacific Northwest can take part in our Whale Sighting Network - here is how you can help.

The whales and we whole-heartedly thank you for your support!

100+ year old Granny off Whidbey Oct. 11; J. Hein
100+ year old Granny off Whidbey Oct. 11; J. Hein
Bigg's Orcas off Whidbey Isl. in Sept; R. Haight
Bigg's Orcas off Whidbey Isl. in Sept; R. Haight
So. Resident Orca, Whidbey Isl. Oct. 2, H.Garrett
So. Resident Orca, Whidbey Isl. Oct. 2, H.Garrett
Humpback, Juan de Fuca Strait, Aug. 3rd; B. Gretz
Humpback, Juan de Fuca Strait, Aug. 3rd; B. Gretz
Resident orca near Seattle, Oct.24; Hysong-Shimazu
Resident orca near Seattle, Oct.24; Hysong-Shimazu

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