Orcas

The population of endangered southern resident killer whales has dwindled.

Breaking an unprecedented run of days this summer without frequenting their home waters, J, K and even possibly L pod southern resident orcas were all seen Friday morning on the west side of San Juan Island.

This was the first summer since observations have been kept that the whales were not seen at all in June, and showed up only briefly one day in May.

“J and K and maybe some L off my house in Haro Strait now,” Ken Balcomb wrote in an email to The Seattle Times just after 8 a.m. from his home. “The whales were off Neah Bay yesterday. Tide is ebbing. If (the tides) are bringing many fish they may push further north when the tide floods. Whales very spread out.”

Balcomb, founding director of the Center for Whale Research, and other researchers had not been able to do their usual work with the orcas so far this summer as the whales continued to stay away, presumably searching for Chinook salmon in a year in which Chinook are scarce in the orcas’ home waters.

It remains to be seen if the whales stick around, or only briefly visit as they did in May.

Lack of available, quality food is the biggest threat to the southern residents’ survival, in addition to toxins in their environment, and noise and disturbance by boats. Underwater racket and disturbance by recreational boaters and commercial shipping make it harder for the whales to find what food is available.

Sorrel North, a Lopez island resident, is running an initiative to further restrict whale-watch tours directed at the southern residents in the waters around the San Juans.

North said she would deliver initiative petitions next week to the San Juan County auditor.

“I have 2,250 signatures in my house, and there are quite a few more out there on other islands still,” she said in an email. “We had enough to put the initiative on the ballot six weeks in ... so the campaign has been a huge success.”

The initiative would create a 650-yard vessel-free protected area around endangered southern-resident orcas while the whales are in San Juan County waters, with exemptions for law enforcement, research and treaty fishing boats.

Several Washington-based whale-watch companies have filed a lawsuit to block the measure from going to the voters, arguing that it unlawfully would preempt state authority.

The whales’ scarcity in what has long been their core summer habitat in the inland waters of the Salish Sea between the U.S. and Canada has scientists scrambling, with research scheduled but their star subjects nowhere in sight.

Yet whale watch tour operators are having one of their best years ever. Sightings of transient orcas — or Bigg’s killer whales — have reached unprecedented numbers, humpbacks are enjoying a spectacular comeback and gray whales, seals and sea lions also are keeping the tourists coming.

The Bigg’s are being seen plenty.

Monika W. Shields with her co-authors in a December 2018 paper reported record sightings of Bigg’s killer whales in the inland waters of the Salish Sea. The transients also are taking a big bite out of the local seal population, Shields and her co-authors reported, with the transients in the Salish Sea eating more than 1,000 seals in 2017 alone.

Their avid predation must be considered as salmon managers mull killing seals to protect declining salmon runs, the authors wrote. Seal populations have actually begun to level off, and even decline — while the population of Bigg’s killer whales has doubled since 1990, according to the paper.

Jeff Friedman, owner of Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching and U.S. president for the Pacific Whale Watch Association, could have told you that.

His customers this week saw dozens of Bigg’s killer whales, including families with multiple babies, and often witness epic open sea orca takedowns of seals and sea lions, Friedman said. In one recent encounter, the sea-mammal eating orcas were tossing the pelt of a Stellar sea lion in the air — all that was left of it — seemingly just for fun.

“It’s incredible to see,” Friedman said. “You really get a sense of their power and coordination, you really, really get that you are looking at an apex predator.

“We have gotten so used to the sad story of the southern residents, we forget there are animals that are doing really well.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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