KIRO NEWSRADIO

‘Quite exciting’: All 3 family groups of endangered whales visit Puget Sound

Oct 17, 2023, 5:53 AM | Updated: 7:01 am

Image: L94 and her new calf L127 (Photo courtesy of Center for Whale Research)...

L94 and her new calf L127 in 2023 (Photo courtesy of Center for Whale Research)

(Photo courtesy of Center for Whale Research)

In what’s becoming a less frequent — though still stunning — event, all three family groups of the region’s endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales recently visited the Puget Sound.

Members of the J, K and L pods were spotted last Thursday and Friday near Edmonds, Seattle’s Discovery Park and off Whidbey Island, where excited whale watchers took video of the Orca breaching the water.

“Probably 65 or 70 whales,” said Howard Garrett, co-founder and board president of the Whidbey-based Orca Network. “Almost all of the South Resident community was down there. It was quite exciting.”

He added the Southern Resident Killer Whales used to be a more common presence here during the late spring, summer and fall months.

But that was when Chinook Salmon, the whale’s main food source, was more plentiful.

“Since about 2012, 2013 they have not come in (to the Puget Sound) the way they did since studies began in the mid-1970’s,” Garrett said. “They just are not finding the salmon inland except in the fall. Right now.”

More orca news: Trawl vessels caught 10 killer whales in ’23 off Alaska, federal agency says

In recent years, Garrett said, “They’ve been out on the Pacific Coast shelf, west of Vancouver Island and Strait of Juan De Fuca and they’ve been catching the fish that are heading down to the Columbia.”

Still, there’s evidence that even farther out to sea, the Southern Residents aren’t finding enough to eat.

He says, among the group, “There are so many females that are in their 20s, mid-20s or 30s (that) they should be baring a calf roughly every five years or so. And they’re just not.”

Among the encouraging signs, two calves — a boy and a girl — were born this year and both appear to be healthy.

The Center for Whale Research (CWR) confirmed this summer L-Pod members L-119 and L-94 each gave birth to a calf. Both were considered very active and social and neither showed any immediate signs of illness or abnormality, the CWR reported.

L119’s calf is named L126 and L94’s is 127. L126 is L119’s first calf, while L127 is L94’s third.

“I mean, every single addition we can get to this population is huge,” Michael Weiss, the CWR’s research director recently said to KIRO Newsradio. At the time, they thought there might be just one new member of the L-pod.

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And there have been no deaths among the wild Southern Residents. Though one in captivity, Tokitae, died at the Miami Seaquarium where she had lived for 50 years earlier this year.

Tokitae, the last surviving Southern Resident killer whale in captivity, died of a renal condition and was in her 50s, according to the Seaquarium.

The effort to bring Tokitae back to the Pacific Northwest had been in the works for years. But it gained steam when the head of the Dolphin Company, which took over management of the Seaquarium, expressed an interest in the idea.

The whales the Puget Sound region has claimed as its own remain in jeopardy as 75 are left and that is down in recent years.

“They were declared endangered in 2005 and there were 82 of them then.” He says the number of whales appears to have stubbornly plateaued in the mid-70s, for the past several years.

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‘Quite exciting’: All 3 family groups of endangered whales visit Puget Sound