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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

18 Days and Counting

18 days. As of today, May 31st, that's how long it's been since Southern Residents were seen in inland waters. Ten years ago, we expected at least some of the Southern Residents to be here nearly every day of the month of May. Over the last few summers, their old typical patterns have shifted radically, so that from year to year, month to month, and even day to day, we no longer have any idea what to expect.

Things really seemed to start to change in 2009, when for the first time on record no Southern Residents visited the Salish Sea in the month of April. In April 2016, number of days with Southern Residents present was more like historically, but in many cases it was just one or two matrilines of J-Pod present, instead of all of J-Pod, which used to be the norm for April. This year, all of J-Pod was here for just 4 days in the month of April.

Southern Resident Killer Whale Days in inland waters in the month of April from 1990-2016. For the purpose of this graph inland waters is defined as east of Sooke, north of Admiralty Inlet, and south of Nanaimo. (As a result there are 7 days the J17s and J22s spent in Puget Sound in 2016 that are not included here.) 1990-2013 data mined from The Whale Museum's Orca Master data set and Orca Network archived reports. 2014-2016 data tracked by Monika.

In early May, things seemed off to a good start. With the Orca Behavior Institute, I logged the first three research encounters of the season, though they were all with just the J16s. On May 13, all of J-Pod and part of K-Pod came in for the better part of a day. Since then, nada.

Southern Resident Killer Whale days in inland waters in the month of May from 1990-2016 (blue line). Inland waters defined the same as above. The orange line indicates the monthly average Chinook salmon catch per unit effort (CPUE) for the Albion test catch fishery on the Fraser River, the Southern Residents' primary source of food in the summer months.
With the spring Chinook numbers crashing on the Fraser River over the last 10 years, Southern Resident visits to inland waters this time of year have become much more sporadic. This year, Southern Residents were here for 7 days in the month of May, but only one of those days involved a complete pod being here (J-Pod with some Ks on May 13th). The J16s were the only whales here on five of the other days this month.

So what does it all mean? It doesn't necessarily mean the whales aren't eating, as fecal sample studies have shown that when the whales are returning in the spring they are in fairly robust nutritional condition, meaning that they're finding food somewhere. What it does mean is that the food isn't here like it used to be. On May 24th, Js and Ks were seen off Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island, supporting the theory that all three pods are foraging along the outer coast.

Interestingly, whale watching companies haven't suffered in the absence of the Southern Residents. As has been the case in recent years, transient killer whales have been showing up in increasing numbers in the Salish Sea, particularly in the spring. The large groups that have been frequenting inland waters in recent weeks have even been dubbed T-parties. Transients were seen in our same inland water study area on 24 days in May 2016.

When will the whales return? All we can do is wait and see when they will show up; every day many of us in the local whale watch community are waiting for that much-anticipated report of "many whales inbound". Meanwhile, the days continue to slip off the calendar, and still no Southern Residents. We're all hopeful we aren't in for a repeat of 2013, where the whole season was dismal in terms of having the whales around. In 2014 and 2015, after quiet springs, Southern Resident sightings picked up more like normal in June.

Longing for the day when all those familiar dorsal fins show up on the west side of San Juan Island again. This shot of J-Pod was taken on June 5, 2015.

While my co-researchers are going to arrive back on San Juan Island this week, we're ready to continue studying the changing social associations of the Southern Residents in OBI's second field season. Now that we've stalled out at 3 research encounters through the month of May, we're just hopeful there will be whales here for us to study.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Whale Season

Since getting back from our epic west coast road trip that took us from Baja, Mexico all the way up the California and Oregon coasts, I've had some great whale sightings back home in the Salish Sea. In fact, our first full day back on the island (April 17th) included a boat trip out to see both transient and resident orcas. First, we met up with the T11s over near Kelp Reef.


Just a few miles behind the Ts were a very spread out J-Pod. Some of the Js were even on the same side of the strait as the Ts, but we headed back across and met up with the J16s and J19s near Mitchell Bay.

J16 Slick and J50 Scarlett

J19 Shachi

Tail wave from J41 Eclipse

On several occasions over the last few weeks, just the J16 matriline has been around in inland waters without the rest of J-Pod.  I met up with them for the first time on the evening of May 3rd, where they were also in an uncommon location for resident orcas: in San Juan Channel.

The J16s

The J16s

J26 Mike

I saw them again on May 8, when they were blasting down Haro Strait.

J36 Alki and J52 Sonic

On the afternoon of May 11th, we had a special double header encounter. It started with a pair of humpback whales - a whale seen often locally known as Big Mama, and her newest calf.

Big Mama fluking in Open Bay
These two humpbacks have been around a lot lately, and the calf especially is known for being very active at the surface with all his breaches, tail slaps, and cartwheels. He was relatively subdued on the night we saw him, just rolling at the surface a couple of times, but after one long dive we got a particularly good look at mom and baby.

Humpback calf (left) surfaces next to a diving Big Mama
As the humpbacks cruised north, I heard report of some transient orcas further to the south. It sounded like they were quite far away, but with flat calm waters we decided to go for it. Surprisingly, we met up with them pretty quickly, as they were also swimming north at a good clip. It was the T123s, a group of three whales I've only seen a handful of times before. We followed them as they quickly traveled around Henry Island and through Spieden Channel.

The T123s: from left to right young adult male T123A, mom T123, and four year-old T123C.

Mama and son - throughout the encounter T123A, would swing wide and then come back to his mom's side

The T123s are one of the few transient killer whale family groups that have also been given common names. T123 is known as Sidney, and her two living offspring are 16 year-old T123A Stanley and T123C Lucky.

Stanley and Sidney in Spieden Channel

As the sun sunk towards the horizon, the lighting got especially beautiful while the whales swam through Spieden Channel.

T123A Stanley

Mostly the trio seemed to be in quick travel mode, with just one short stop to either check something out or perhaps make a kill. Little T123C Lucky got excited during these few minutes, and created this splash by doing a tail slap right by his mom and big brother.

As they entered San Juan Channel, T123A again split off from his mom and younger sibling and went wide, giving us one nice last look before we headed back to home port.

T123A Stanley
The whales sightings just keep increasing, and while I haven't seen them there's been some large congregations of transients, and part of K-Pod also made their first appearance of the summer season a couple days ago. Who knows what I'll see next?!