Orca Network - Whale Sighting Network

by Orca Network
Vetted
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
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

Links:

J28 & 54
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
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

Links:

J28 & offspring J46 &J54, Pt. Roberts, B. Gretz
J28 & offspring J46 &J54, Pt. Roberts, B. Gretz

This summer for the Southern Resident orcas has been anything but usual. Residents have yet to find enough food in their customary summer feeding areas of the inland waters of the Salish Sea, primarily around the San Juan Islands, Georgia Strait and places between, to dine on Fraser River Chinook. The most glaring absence is that of K pod who had not been seen inland since June 9th until we received word today (August 8th) from volunteers of the presence of at least some of K pod off of San Juan Island this morning. J and L pods in various subgroups have been coming and going, but not with the same frequency, regularity or cohesive large groupings as in most all summers past. Lack of their main prey, Chinook salmon, is of course the real concern. In happier news, to date all of the calves have survived the winter. L123 still remains the only new calf whose gender is unknown.

Bigg’s/Transient orcas (mammal eaters) are taking advantage of the abundant seals, sea lions, and porpoise in the inland waters, and have spent many Spring and Summer days in the urban areas of Puget Sound. Our Sightings Network volunteers go into full swing taking to the shores when the orcas come in, tracking and documenting their travels and behaviors.

June brought with it a pod of Common dolphins (long-beaked) who typically keep to warmer waters than Puget Sound offers, in general they are not found any further north than California. After a few days in the Strait of Juan de Fuca the dolphins found their way into Puget Sound and split into two groups; one who primarily keeps to south Puget Sound, the other to central/north Puget Sound.

We’ve also had the surprise of a Fin whale (2nd largest mammal on earth). S/he was first seen in Juan de Fuca Strait among the plethora of humpbacks who are congregating in large groups to feed. Volunteers and staff tracked the Fin whale as s/he traveled south down Admiralty Inlet on July 31st.  Fin eventually made her/his way into Puget Sound passing several towns and metropolitan Seattle on the way to Olympia the afternoon of August 1st.  Sightings of this gigantic beauty continue to reach us as s/he continues cruising up and down Puget Sound.

Many uncommon and unusual things are happening with cetaceans in the Salish Sea basin and especially in Puget Sound, some of which will become more common as whales such as the humpbacks continue to re-inhabit historical feeding areas that pre-date the whaling years that nearly wiped them out.

Our Whale Sightings Network (WSN) plays an important role in educating the public along the many shores and in tracking the travel, social and feeding habits and patterns of these beautiful cetaceans. Having the resources to keep the WSN thriving is key in our abilities to gather all of this valuable data which eventually ends up in the hands of researchers, educators, naturalists, students and the general public, and helps us all to better document and understand the changes we are seeing in our waters over time. 

For your support we thank you!

Biggs orca T124C, Juan de Fuca strait, C.Bickerton
Biggs orca T124C, Juan de Fuca strait, C.Bickerton
Bigg
Bigg's orca T65A2 in Puget Sound, S.Davidson
uncommon Common dolphins in Puget Sound, J. Harles
uncommon Common dolphins in Puget Sound, J. Harles
Fin whale in south Puget Sound, K.Merriman
Fin whale in south Puget Sound, K.Merriman

Links:

The Haights (volunteers) with Js, Holmes Harbor
The Haights (volunteers) with Js, Holmes Harbor

Since our last report we have learned that J54 is a boy and, thanks to photos taken by two of our most dedicated volunteers, the Center for Whale Research was able to also confirm that J53 is a girl! Of the eight living Southern Resident calves born since December 2014 two are female, four are male, and L123 is still unknown.

J53 and J54 are members of the J17s who along with the J 22s showed up in Puget Sound in early April. For the next nine days these two matrilines stayed in the Sound, primarily on the east side of Whidbey Island in Saratoga Passage with comings and goings into Holmes Harbor. Visits this time of year are not unheard of, but it is unusual for the salmon eating orcas to spend time in either of those places in the spring. Word at the time was locals were catching resident Blackmouth Chinook salmon; this left us all speculating perhaps the Js may have been as well.

Sadly we’ve three losses to the Southern Residents to share, two known individuals and one neonate. The newest calf J55, first seen January 18th with J14 and J37, was not seen again by the Center for Whale Research in follow up encounters and is presumed deceased. Mid April, DFO announced the death of 20 year-old L pod male L95 Nigel and confirmed the deceased neonate female calf found near Sooke, BC on March 23rd, 2016 was a southern resident. This is a double blow to this struggling endangered community.

Over this Winter/early Spring we welcomed seven of the population of 10-12 North Puget Sound Gray whales (recently named the “Sounders") who have been identified, and their comings and goings tracked since the early 1990’s by Cascadia Research Collective (CRC). Wednesday February 17th, while out searching for a reported entangled humpback off Edmonds, I and one of our volunteers encountered and documented the first Gray of 2016, #723, who was found foraging off Possession Point, south Whidbey Island. Over the next month six other “Sounders” followed;  #44, #49, #56, #383, #531. We are still getting reports of two who have been here this February-May season to feast on the ghost shrimp they find in the intertidal zones of north Puget Sound.

Working in collaboration with CRC more closely this year, Whale Sighting Network volunteers have been instrumental in reporting sightings to researchers doing field studies and keeping track of them, as well as assisting CRC and the local Marine Mammal Stranding Networks by locating and keeping track of two straggler emaciated young grays who did not have enough reserves to make the long migration north and came in to the more quiet waters of Puget Sound to die.

We are grateful for your support that enables us to keep the network moving forward, collaborating with various groups and researchers, and ultimately helping the whales by way of educating the public about their cultures, prey, habitat, boating regulations and everything else they need to survive.

J17 &22s Saratoga Passage/Mt Baker, Rachel Haight
J17 &22s Saratoga Passage/Mt Baker, Rachel Haight
J17 & J22s Saratoga Passage, Sara HysongShimazu
J17 & J22s Saratoga Passage, Sara HysongShimazu
J35 in Holmes Harbor, Apr. 10 by Rachel Haight
J35 in Holmes Harbor, Apr. 10 by Rachel Haight
Gray #49 Patch fluke So of Hat Island by Jill Hein
Gray #49 Patch fluke So of Hat Island by Jill Hein
Gray whale spy hop, Possession Sound, Bonnie Gretz
Gray whale spy hop, Possession Sound, Bonnie Gretz

Links:

J54 & J28 Haro Strait, 12-16-15, Dave Ellifrit/CWR
J54 & J28 Haro Strait, 12-16-15, Dave Ellifrit/CWR

More baby news to share! Three new calves were born to the Southern Residents since our last update.

This brings the total to 9 calves since December 2015. Of the 5 whose genders are known J50 is the only female - the 4 newest J53, L123, J54 & J55’s genders have yet to be determined.

Thanks to our Whale Sighting Network, we were alerted to the presence of a large pod off Vashon the morning of November 10, 2015. It was while watching Ks and Ls a short time later off West Seattle, Orca Network staff and a long time volunteer noticed and documented a new calf. We followed the protocol we have in place with the Center for Whale Research and NOAA Fisheries to not announce the new calf until confirmed by researchers, and December 6, 2015 the new calf was seen and confirmed by CWR and announced. L123 is the first offspring of L103 Lapis.

Ten days later, December 16, CWR staff announced the birth of another calf, this one designated J54 born to J28 Polaris. J54 was first seen on December 1st by one of the whale watch captains off San Juan Island and was officially confirmed by CWR staff when Js showed up in Haro Strait on December 16th.

Then along comes sweet little J55 first seen in Puget Sound on January 18th. Our Whale Sighting Network alerted NOAA-NWFSC researchers to the presence of orcas traveling northbound from the Seattle area. Fisheries staff caught up to the pod just north of Seattle off Edmonds where sadly they first discovered and were able to document J31 Tsuchi pushing around a deceased neonate. A short time later in Admiralty Inlet they caught up with a lead group where they discovered a 2nd healthy newborn traveling alongside J14 Samish and her daughter J37 Talequah. CWR confirmed and designated the new calf as J55 and will need at least one or more encounters before they can determine maternity. 

On December 31st, thanks to our Whale Sighting Network, Southern Resident orcas were sighted, reported, and tracked by our staff and volunteer network, enabling NOAA Fisheries' Brad Hanson and crew to get out with the whales to confirm we had K pod in Puget Sound. This sighting allowed NOAA Fisheries to deploy a satellite tag on K33, providing tracks of K pods' travels from then through January 27th, giving us information useful in NOAA's designation of critical habitat and prey needing protection to help the Southern Residents. You can view these maps and continued updates at the NOAA-NWFS 2016 Southern Resident killer whale satellite tagging website. 

HUMPBACKS

The abundance of Humpback whales in the inland waters of the Salish Sea continued well into January. Reports of at least 2-3 humpbacks feeding off the newest hot spot, Eglon, north Kitsap Peninsula, by Sighting Network staff and volunteers and the many residents and beach goers became a near daily ritual the first few weeks of January.  One photo in particular by Toby Black (see below) caught the attention of our volunteer Sara Hysong-Shimazu who noticed an anatomical feature known as a hemispherical lobe indicating a female, which we were able to confirm with Dr. Fred Sharp, research biologist at the Alaska Whale Foundation. This female has been widely photographed in this area on a regular basis since September 2015. Our data has been used by Cascadia Research in Olympia, and the Alaska Whale Foundation, as well as the Center for Whale Research and other agencies, to document the recolonizing of Puget Sound by humpbacks.

 Your donations are greatly appreciated and allow us to continue our outreach, education, and public awareness of these majestic beings of the sea and the importance of caring for and sharing the waters in a manner respecting of all species. 

L123 & family, 11-10-14, Sara Hysong-Shimazu
L123 & family, 11-10-14, Sara Hysong-Shimazu
J55 & family in Puget Sound 1-18-16, NOAA/NWFSC
J55 & family in Puget Sound 1-18-16, NOAA/NWFSC
NOAA sat tag Jan. 31st map, Brad Hanson, NOAA-NWFS
NOAA sat tag Jan. 31st map, Brad Hanson, NOAA-NWFS
Female humpback off Eglon 1-8-16, by Toby Black
Female humpback off Eglon 1-8-16, by Toby Black
Two humpbacks off Eglon, 1-2-16, by Steve Smith
Two humpbacks off Eglon, 1-2-16, by Steve Smith
Breaching Humpback, Eglon, 12-29-15, Stu Davidson
Breaching Humpback, Eglon, 12-29-15, Stu Davidson

Links:

 

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Organization Information

Orca Network

Location: Freeland, WA - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.orcanetwork.org
Project Leader:
Susan Berta
Freeland, WA United States
$10,207 raised of $45,000 goal
 
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