September 5, 2020

Southern Resident Killer Whales near San Juan Island

Breaching Southern Resident killer whale

Sarah | 09/05/2020 | M/V Kestrel | 10:00am & 02:00pm

 

We had quite the day on the Salish Sea! With early-morning shore-reports of orcas heading into some fog around San Juan Island, Captain Gabe and I left the harbor for our first tour hoping that we could find those elusive animals.

We decided to head south towards Cattle Pass, enjoying some surfacing harbor porpoises in Griffin Bay along the way. We stopped at Whale Rocks to check out some Steller’s sea lions hauled out on the rocks and then made our way further south towards Iceberg Point on Lopez Island. As we go to McArthur Bank, we got a call from another whale watch boat: they had found some orcas!

We headed out towards Hein Bank and the reported whales. As we made our way into the area where the whales had been reported and quickly realized that we had members of J Pod, some of our Southern Resident killer whales. These unique whales are critically endangered, salmon-eaters. These orcas rely on Chinook, or king, salmon, the largest and fattiest of the salmonids in the Pacific Northwest. Chinook salmon makes up over 80% of the whales’ diet. With declining populations of salmon, we have also been seeing a decline in our Southern Resident killer whale population. We got great looks at J22 – Oreo – and her son J38 – Cookie – and had so much surface-active behavior as we watched the whales socialize. After a great encounter we headed over towards Smith Island to look for tufted puffins before heading back towards Friday Harbor.

 

On our afternoon tour we still had orcas in range of our boat as we suited up and left Friday Harbor. We headed directly out to Hein Bank on the southern end of San Juan Island. Between our first and second trips we had even more whales arrive to meet up with J Pod. After swimming in towards the San Juans all morning in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, we had members of L Pod, later confirmed to be all of L Pod, socializing in tight groups with the Js. Apart from the hugely social whales breaching, spyhopping, and snuggling, the highlight of the day was the first recording of a new calf to this critically endangered population. As J35 – Talequah – and her son J47 – Notch – swam past us, we noticed a small fin tucked in between them. Captain Gabe called the Center for Whale Research over to investigate, and they confirmed the birth of J57! The little calf was estimated to be less than 24 hours old, still wrinkly with a floppy dorsal fin. Baby orcas, called calves, are about 6 to 8 feet long when they are born, weighing 300-400 pounds. This baby represents such hope for this population, J35 – Talequah – was the mother who a few years ago lost her calf and proceeded to mourn its death for 17 days, carrying its body as she travelled over 1000 miles around the Salish Sea. With this birth our population of Southern Resident s stands at just 73 individuals, we are keeping our fingers crossed that these whales find the fish that they need to survive.

The J35s: J47 Notch, J35 Talequah & new calf J57
The J35s: J47 Notch, J35 Talequah & new calf J57 Sarah McCullagh