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New orca calf, orcas, Southern Residents
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Biologist: Typical for Southern Residents to spend early summer elsewhere

Orca calf L125 swimming with its mother, Surprise. (Center for Whale Research)

The last few months have been marked by a noticeable disappearance of Southern Residents in the Puget Sound and San Juan Islands.

For more than 100 days — up until a brief sighting this week in the San Juans — the J-pod of orcas was not seen in the area.

But Dr. Michael Weiss, a biologist at the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, says this is not as drastic as it sounds — it actually follows the whales’ more recent movements.

“This is pretty typical for their pattern for the last few years, really,” he said. “You don’t really start seeing Southern Residents in the Salish Sea until late July or maybe even into August.”

New orca calf inspires hope that Puget Sound orcas could be recovering

Over the past few years, the orcas haven’t spent much time in the sound during this time of year because of the lack of salmon coming out of the Fraser River in Lower British Columbia. The whales, whose numbers have been dwindling in recent decades due to starvation, have had to go elsewhere to find the salmon they need to survive.

“The salmon supply within the Salish Sea, at least in early summer and late spring, has kind of crashed. Those stocks in the Fraser River have really declined,” Weiss said. “They’re spending a lot more time during that part of the year on the outer coast of Vancouver Island.”

On the outer coast of Vancouver Island, the supply of Chinook — the orcas’ favorite dish — is more bountiful.

Scientists didn’t get too close of a look when all three pods of orcas were spotted this week, so Weiss said they need more time to assess the whales’ health before giving a very accurate report of how they are doing.

“The general sense was that most of them looked fine,” Weiss said. “We did see one of the newest calves, L-125, we have photos of her. And she looks alright. She’s around, she’s with her mom, and she looks normal.”

One of the ways scientists measure how well a pod is doing is by how the newest babies are faring. The first year of an orca’s life generally has a high mortality rate; in 2018, J35, or Talequah, lost her baby just after its birth, and carried its body with her for weeks. A healthy new calf, however, may indicate that the Southern Residents are finding enough to eat in their new choice of Canadian waters.

The hope is that as the summer goes on, they will start showing up more frequently, as has happened in recent years.

“I suspect that by mid-August and through September, we’ll have fairly regular appearances,” Weiss said.

Helping the orcas out are the feds. The National Marine Fisheries Service has added nearly 16,000 square miles of orca habitat along the West Coast to fall under its umbrella of critical habitat protection.

This protected coastline stretches from the Canadian border all the way down to Point Sur in California, covering areas where the orcas are known to find salmon — such as the mouths of rivers where salmon migrate.

In total, more than 18,000 square miles of habitat will be legally protected.

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