Our February orca update included welcome news of two new calves, J50 and J51. We are pleased to share the happy news of an additional two calves. L121 was thought to be just a few days-old when first seen by NOAA near Westport off the Washington coast on February 25th swimming with his mom, L94. And, as if our euphoria over a third calf wasn’t enough, the Center for Whale Research confirmed the arrival of a fourth calf, J52, first seen with his mom J36 on March 30th by the keen eyes of a naturalist out tracking J pod. With the return of all members to inland waters this spring/summer season (including all four calves) the Southern Resident population stands at 81 members. This number is far more hopeful than last year, but still a fragile and unsustainable number for this clan.
As of August 9th, the gender has been determined and confirmed by the Center for Whale Research (CWR) for 3 of the 4 calves. J50 is the only female. J51 (unconfirmed), J52, and L121 are male. One naturalist did get a good photo of J51’s under side that determined his gender as male, but CWR has not yet obtained their own belly photos to call it official. We continue to receive consistent reports all calves are looking active and healthy while foraging, traveling and socializing the inland waters this spring and summer with their families. And of course they are endearing themselves to everyone with their unique traits and individual personalities.
On August 1st a contributor to our network forwarded her photographs of twelve-year-old male J39 (Mako) with a salmon lure stuck in his mouth. We forwarded the photos to NOAA, the Center For Whale Research, local stranding networks, and our sightings network. NOAA-Fisheries naturally had concerns and took immediate action, “NOAA Fisheries will provide additional interim funding to the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor to further monitor the whale, which will help assess the impacts of the lure and possible means of addressing the situation.”
CWR staff encountered J39 on August 6th and shared this update: "We went out yesterday with the mission of checking up on J39 who was seen earlier this week with a fishing lure hanging out of his mouth. As of yesterday we were able to determine that his new found accessory was no longer attached. Whether he swallowed it or it fell out on its own, we may never know. He appeared fine yesterday, and was behaving normally." Staff continues to closely monitor J39.
Our sightings network was unusually busy during late spring and early summer with more frequent and longer visits by Bigg’s/Transient orcas (mammal eaters) in the inland waters of Puget Sound. The T125s were among the many matrilines who spent time in Puget Sound during that time. They are unique in that they had not been seen in the inland waters west of the Pacific since the early 90’s and T127 has a serious injury to his dorsal that made him very recognizable and popular. The T125s traveled throughout Puget Sound but primarily spent their time (most of June) in the inlets and bays in the deep reaches of south Puget Sound. Their prolonged stay presented many viewing opportunities both by land and on the water. In the south Sound public viewpoints are limited and people with boats are numerous. We had several reports of humans on watercraft crowding the pods and interfering with the orcas natural movement. These reports prompted us to review our real-time postings and increase boater education and awareness through the Be Whale Wise campaign. We reached out daily, consistently sharing the current laws/ guidelines when around marine mammals via our Facebook page and our Sightings Reports published 1-3 times a week.
Orca Network's Whale Sighting Network is instrumental in keeping track of the orca's movements, educating the public, and sharing information that helps others make connections. Once they have made a connection they care more and are eager to expand their knowledge of the life and needs of these beings. We very much appreciate your support that enables us to educate and assist others in learning to be good stewards toward the whales and their habitats.
Though our name is Orca Network, our Whale Sighting Network tracks more than orcas - and each spring is when we welcome the North Puget Sound Gray whales to our Whidbey Island waters!
10 - 12 North Puget Sound Gray whales have been identified by Cascadia Research, and their comings and goings tracked since the early 1990s. Orca Network's Whale Sighting Network has greatly added to their whale sightings data for this small group of Gray whales, and with the advent of new technologies, more and more is being learned about them.
It was originally assumed these were all older male whales, who were not making the full migration south to the mating and birthing lagoons. But through DNA testing, we now know that at least several of this group are female, and looking back through the decades of sightings data, we can see years when they didn't come into Puget Sound, presumably the years they had a calf and lingered longer in the lagoons of Baja, Mexico (where Orca Network takes a group each year on a guided trip to a whale camp in San Ignacio Lagoon - more info. on our website).
This year Orca Network has worked with the City of Langley, Cascadia Research and the Dept. of Natural Resources to help determine whether the density of ghost shrimp, which is why these Gray whales come to our area, is enough to sustain both the whales and the commercial ghost shrimp harvesters, who harvest the shrimp for bait. The commercial harvest was temporarily halted by DNR this past year, and we have already seen a change in the whales' feeding patterns - they are returning to beaches that were once their favorites, but had been abandoned in the past five or six years. Thanks to Orca Network board member Fred Lundahl, we also have some great aerial photos of feeding pits, and are able to compare them from year to year, to see how much the whales have been feeding, and where. Cascadia Research also deployed suction cup tags onto several of the whales this year, to obtain dive data, track movements, and record video of the whales swimming and feeding, showing close underwater interaction between the whales, which is something we haven't seen from surface viewing.
Orca Network continues to partner with Cascadia Research to educate the public about this special group of Gray Whales that visits each spring, and are working on a new display for the Langley Whale Center about the whales and the decades of research done by Cascadia. And each April, Orca Network celebrates the return of these majestic Gray whales with our Welcome the Whales Day Parade and Festival, a fun family event which also includes a presentation on gray whales, this year's speaker being James Sumich, author of E. robustus: The Biology and Human History of Gray Whales.
The Gray whales typically show up in Puget Sound waters around the beginning of March, and leave by sometime in mid to late May. It is not known why this small group of Grays comes in to feed on ghost shrimp each spring, or why other Gray whales don't seem to be aware of this food source here, but the arrival of the Grays each season is a delight to everyone on our stranding network, hoping to catch a glimpse of a spout, a fluke, spyhop, or whales feeding close to shore. In turn, each report we get of Gray whales from the people enjoying them from our many miles of shorelines, is important data used by researchers to monitor the health of the Gray whales, their habitat and their food sources.
Your support helps keep the Whale Sighting Network going, and we truly appreciate your help!
These past few months have brought us two new orca calves for J pod, but J pod has also suffered the huge loss of a reproductive aged female, and her unborn calf (also female).
On December 4, we were saddened by this news:
"A deceased orca was found earlier today near Courtenay, BC in northwest Georgia Strait and was identified as 18-year old J32, known as Rhapsody. Photos sent by Canada's Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans were identified by Ken Balcomb at the Center for Whale Research. J pod last visited Puget Sound in late November, and J32 was last identified and photographed with her family November 26 east of Victoria BC by the Center for Whale Research. J32 was thought by many to be in the late stages of pregnancy last summer due to her wide girth when she breached, as she often did. J32's mother was J20, who died in 1998 when Rhapsody was only 2 years old. She was raised by her aunt, J22 Oreo. She is survived by J22 and her cousins J34 Doublestuf and J38 Cookie, leaving only three survivors of the former J10 matriline, and only 77 members of the Southern Resident Community. We cannot express how tragic this loss is for this struggling, precariously small, family of resident orcas of the Salish Sea. This loss brings the overall number of Southern Resident orcas below their number in 2005 when they were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The loss of J32 marks the fourth death of a Southern Resident orca in 2014. The last surviving Southern Resident baby was born in August of 2012." (from Orca Network news release)
Then we finally received some GOOD news at the end of December - on December 30th:
"This afternoon Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research confirmed seeing and photographing 42-year old J16 (Slick) with her newborn baby - now known as J50! This good news brought the Southern Resident orca population back up to 78 members, and J50 was soon determined to be female, also good news, as the more reproductive aged females in the community, the better their chances for increasing their population.
Then February 12, 2015, more good news from the Center for Whale Research - another new J pod calf had been sighted with mom J19. "This brings us to twenty-six whales in J pod, the most viable pod in the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population of the US and Canada Pacific Northwest. K pod has 19 individuals, and L pod has34 individuals for a totalpopulation of 79 SRKW’s as of today."
Orca Network continues to work on educating and advocating for the need for increased Chinook salmon runs throughout the Southern Resident orcas' habitat, which includes the Salish Sea in the Pacific NW, as well as the Pacific coast from Monterey, CA northward to SE Alaska.
And our Whale Sighting Network continues to grow, involving citizens who help track the whales and collect data for researchers and agencies working to help the Southern Resident orcas, while at the same time educating the public and creating advocates for orca and salmon restoration efforts.
To find out more about our Southern Resident orcas and other whales, visit our website, and follow our Facebook page to find out where the whales are, and to read the latest news and action items.Thank you for your support, which enables us to continue our work on behalf of the whales of the Salish Sea ~
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 ~
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