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.
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.
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.