J8 "Speiden" surfs in Puget Sound November 27, 2012. (Photo courtesy Candice Emmons, NWFSC)

Whale watchers mourn apparent death of 80-year-old Puget Sound orca

It's been a busy week for local orca watchers, who report plenty of sighting and activity. But sadly, they're also mourning the loss of one of their Puget Sound favorites.

The orca J8, also known as "Speiden," was last seen on Sept. 19 near Victoria, says Howard Garrett, co-founder of the Whidbey Island-based Orca Network.

"She was a fixture. She was kind of a landmark orca because she was so easy to recognize by sound and sight," he says.

"Speiden" is presumed dead because she never left her family's side.

Garrett says researchers don't know if she ever had any offspring, but they can't be sure because their research begin after the the decade between 1966-1976, when dozens of whales were captured and taken to marine parks.

"She was special. You could even recognize her breath even in the dark, which was just great," he says.

While "Speiden" lived to be about 80, the average life span of orcas is in the 50's, Garrett says.

Despite her disappearance, Garrett and other whale watchers have had plenty keeping them busy this week.

A large pod of orcas swam around a Washington state ferry that was carrying tribal artifacts to a new museum at the ancestral home of Chief Seattle, and some people think it was more than a coincidence.

"The orcas seemed to be paying close attention and behaving unusually. They were breaching and tail lobbing as if they were escorting the artifacts back to their ancestral home," Garrett says.

Nearly three-dozen orcas surrounded the ferry from Seattle as it approached the terminal on Bainbridge Island. On board were officials from The Burke Museum in Seattle who were moving ancient artifacts to the Suquamish Museum.

The artifacts were dug up nearly 60 years ago from the site of the Old Man House, the winter village for the Suquamish tribe and home of Chief Sealth, also known as Chief Seattle.

Also on board the state ferry was Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman who happened to be returning from an unrelated event. As the ferry slowed near the terminal, it was surrounded by the orcas, Forsman said Wednesday.

"They were pretty happily splashing around, flipping their tails in the water," he said. "We believe they were welcoming the artifacts home as they made their way back from Seattle, back to the reservation."

There've been a number of orca sightings throughout the Puget Sound this week. Garrett says they're feeding on plentiful chum salmon running throughout local waters.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Josh Kerns, MyNorthwest.com Reporter
Josh Kerns is an award winning reporter/anchor and host of KIRO Radio's Seattle Sounds (Sunday afternoons 5-6p) and a digital content producer for MyNorthwest.com.
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