Orcas return to Puget Sound, signal ‘remaining health to these waters’

Sep 10, 2021, 3:27 PM | Updated: Sep 11, 2021, 7:16 am
J pod returns to the Puget Sound region in early September, 2021. (Photo: David Haeckel) J pod returns to the Puget Sound region in early September, 2021. (Photo: David Haeckel) J pod returns to the Puget Sound region in early September, 2021. (Photo: David Haeckel) J pod returns to the Puget Sound region in early September, 2021. (Photo: David Haeckel)

Last seen in the Puget Sound in April, Southern Resident orca whales returned to the area earlier this week.

“J pod is now in the Salish Sea doing a little bit of its historic pattern of checking out the Fraser River and Puget Sound rivers,” Ken Balcomb, Director of the Center for Whale Research, said in a press release. “It seems they represent the ‘scouts’ for the Southern Resident and L pods are coming in past Sooke as I write. They are coming here for the Chinook salmon that are returning to the Salish Sea ecosystem. Cherish their arrival as representing that there is some remaining health to these amazing waters.”

Usually, the J-pod spends the summer months feeding on salmon out of the Fraser River in and around the San Juan and Canadian Gulf Islands. Yet, Fraser River salmon stocks are at an all-time low. The Southern Residents were seen off Bush Point on Whidbey Island foraging for salmon.

Biologist: Typical for Southern Residents to spend summer elsewhere

The orca whales have since returned to the San Juan Islands. Their presence is a positive sign that they will be seen closer to the Puget Sound going into the fall and winter months.

Orca Network Board President Howard Garrett said the orcas appeared to be having fun.

“It was great to see a lot of breaches and spyhops and tail lobs and cartwheels — it looked like they were having a good time,” he said.

Scientists had believed J-56, or Tofino, a 2-year-old calf, to be very ill because of recent drone footage showing her looking thin. However, she looked much better this week.

“She’s been seen lately and looked very good, right with her mom and in good shape, keeping up, looking fairly active. We’re hopeful that she’ll recover from whatever it was.”

In fact, all of the new calves have been looking healthy, which is a good indication that the orcas as a whole are doing better. When a pod is starving, new babies often don’t survive the first year — as seen when Talequah lost her calf three summers ago and carried its body for weeks.

“The new babies were seen and they all looked good,” Garrett said. “There have been five new babies in the last two years, … and they all have been seen recently and looking OK.”

In the “new normal” of the past few years, the orcas have started to return more frequently starting around October, so the whales are expected to be seen more often in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, to help ensure that the orcas have a better future, make sure to take care if you are going out on a boat. It is required by law that you stay at least 300 yards from either side of orcas, 400 yards in front of or behind them, and go no faster than 7 knots around them. For more information, check out the Be Whale Wise guidelines.

Popular public viewpoints for orca whale watching can be found here.

Orca whale sightings and tracking information are useful for conservation efforts. That information can be reported to 866-ORCANET, info@orcanetwork.org, or the Orca Network Facebook page. Assisting recovery and research efforts, the Orca Network has collected whale sighting information for over 20 years.

KIRO Radio’s Nicole Jennings contributed to this report.

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Orcas return to Puget Sound, signal ‘remaining health to these waters’