Whale researchers spotted the southern resident killer whales in the Salish sea over the weekend, more than six weeks later than expected.
Traditionally the J-pod, consisting of approximately 75 members, visits the waters of the Salish Sea and the Juan de Fuca straight starting in mid-May, but researchers grew concerned when they hadn’t been spotted by the end of June.
“The east coast of Vancouver Island is a place they’ve frequented as long as we’ve studied them,” said Michael Weiss, a biologist with the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island in Washington state. “This year was unusual.”
However, on Saturday J-Pod was finally spotted in local waters, captivating Victoria residents and tourists alike.
The pod didn’t stay long, however, heading back out after a couple of days and has been consistently spotted on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, frequenting spots outside of Tofino and Ucluelet.
“The West Coast has had a good run of chinook this year, especially in the spring,” Weiss said. “This has led them to shifting the usage of different areas.”
At the end of May, the Tofino Whale Centre spotted a new addition to the pod, a tiny baby girl who was still soft and slightly orange, as is usual for newborn orcas. She’s is J31’s first baby, and is estimated to be about one month old.
While most of the time one or two calves a year isn’t a big surprise, in recent years the J-pod has had trouble producing viable calves. The last successful birth of a baby was in 2016 with the birth of J53.
In 2018, orca J35 gave birth to a baby who died shortly after birth and mourned by carrying the baby around for at least 16 days, capturing attention from around the world.
Another young orca from the J-pod, J50, died in 2018 at three years old after scientists tried several interventions to help treat the ailing and starving youth.
So far, however, J31’s baby is looking good.
“In the first year of life there’s a 50 per cent mortality rate,” Weiss said. “However, she looks about right … she was kind of floppy and saggy as is normal, and since then she’s started to stiffen, and still has some of her orange colouration.”
Weiss said a couple of sick members of the J-Pod are still unaccounted for, but that this doesn’t mean that they have died.
As of June 1, this is the first year whale watching companies will not be permitted to watch the southern resident killer whales close up, with a mandated distance of 400 metres.
Ben Duthie, general manager at the Prince of Whales company said this won’t affect their business much, since they only saw the southern residents 15 per cent of the time in previous years.
“We’ve seen them less and less every year,” Duthie said. “Ten years ago they were reliably seen off of the San Juan Islands, and that just doesn’t happen any more.”
Whale watching companies have been banned from advertising about the southern residents, and are trying to teach visitors that there are actually two separate species, focusing instead on the transient killer whales which eat seals and sea lions.
Weiss said, however, that this likely won’t make a difference and may even harm the whales since private boaters might not see them or know how to act around them.
“When there’s whale watching boats around it either acts as a signal to slow down, or the whale watchers can alert the private boats to slow down,” Weiss said. “Openly, I don’t think the new distance will make much of an effect, the whales will still hear a lot of noise.”
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