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Researchers celebrate return of orcas after ‘unprecedented absence’ from southern Vancouver Island waters

J Pod, other southern resident killer whales spotted off San Juan Island

Situated by the Lime Kiln Lighthouse on San Juan Island, Monika Wieland Shields and her colleagues looked out at a dense fog over the Salish Sea on Tuesday (July 27). The Washington-based Orca Behavior Institute’s members got word that morning about a group of southern resident killer whales along the Juan de Fuca straight that were inbound for the island.

The news had the institute members eager as southern resident orcas haven’t been spotted in the Salish Sea for more than three weeks and there had been almost no sign of one group, J Pod, since April 10.

The researchers started to hear the whales’ vocalizations come through their hydrophone – a device that detects ocean sounds from all directions – some of which echoed the distinct calls of J Pod.

Then, in what Shields called a “magical moment,” the fog quickly lifted and they saw the whales heading toward them. The institute is experienced in identifying each individual whale and quickly picked out members of J Pod swimming off San Juan Island’s coast.

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“It’s like reuniting with old friends, to be honest. Lots of smiles, lots of laughter on the shoreline and it was just really great to see familiar fins and check in on how everybody is doing,” she said.

Members of K and L pods were also observed in the waters, but seeing J Pod whales was reassuring after their “unprecedented absence,” the institute’s director and co-founder said.

“It was especially good to see them because they’re usually the most resident of the three pods.”

Southern resident killer whales are typically seen on an almost daily basis between Vancouver Island and Washington State throughout the summer months – as they feed on chinook salmon in the Salish Sea before the fish return to the Fraser River. But Shields said the orcas’ spring presence has dropped off in recent years, which correlates with the declines of salmon off Vancouver Island’s south coast.

“We’re concerned that this is the new normal and they’re telling us there’s not enough fish here to support them and they’re needing to go elsewhere to feed,” the researcher said.

There was little knowledge of the whales’ whereabouts until late June, when reports started to surface about sightings near Swiftsure Bank – on the outer coast of southwest Vancouver Island.

“We’re hopeful that’s because they’re finding a good source of food there,” Shields said.

Another good sign on Tuesday was the spotting of L125, the youngest member of the southern resident population, who was born earlier this year, as calves have a high mortality rate in their first year of life.

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Jake Romphf

About the Author: Jake Romphf

In early 2021, I made the move from the Great Lakes to Greater Victoria with the aim of experiencing more of the country I report on.
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