K16 spy hop beside K35

K16 spy hop beside K35

Photo by Melisa Pinnow

Photo by Ken Balcomb

K22

K22

Photo by Ken Balcomb

K25 breach

K25 breach

Photo by Ken Balcomb

Photo by Dave Ellifrit

K22

K22

Photo by Ken Balcomb

J27

J27

Photo by Ken Balcomb

L85 and L119

L85 and L119

Photo by Ken Balcomb

J19

J19

Photo by Ken Balcomb

L55

L55

J19, K27, and K44

J19, K27, and K44

Photo by Melisa Pinnow

L87

L87

Photo by Ken Balcomb

L86

L86

Photo by Ken Balcomb

J40 cartwheel

J40 cartwheel

Photo by Melisa Pinnow

J47

J47

Photo by Melisa Pinnow

K36 and K16 tactile

K36 and K16 tactile

Photo by Melisa Pinnow

K35 spy hop

K35 spy hop

Photo by Melisa Pinnow

K35, J38, K36, K14, and K26

K35, J38, K36, K14, and K26

Photo by Melisa Pinnow

L41

L41

Photo by Melisa Pinnow

L113 breach

L113 breach

Photo by Melisa Pinnow

K25

K25

Photo by Melisa Pinnow

L113 face

L113 face

Photo by Melisa Pinnow

Sunset

Sunset

Photo by Gail Richard

Sunsetting

Sunsetting

Photo by Dave Ellifrit

Encounter #73 - Sept 4, 2017

Date: 04-Sept-17

Sequence: 1

Encounter Number: 73

Enc Start Time: 13:10

Enc End Time: 19:37

Vessel: Shachi, Orcinus

Observers: Ken Balcomb, Gail Richard (Shachi), Dave Ellifrit, Melisa Pinnow (Orcinus)

Pods or ecotype: Southern Resident killer whales

Location: Presidents Channel

Begin Lat/Long: Secretary Island, off Sooke, BC

End Lat/Long: Haro Strait off Center for Whale Research

Encounter Summary:

They’re back! For the first time in more than two months, a large assemblage of Southern Resident Killer Whale pods has returned to the interior waters of the Salish Sea. This population has dramatically decreased in number in recent years, and this summer was unprecedented by their almost complete absence in the core area of their summer habitat around the San Juan Islands where they occurred almost daily in previous years. Their frequent occurrence in this habitat for the past half century earned them the name “resident”, given to them by Dr Mike Bigg early in his pioneering study of ‘killer whales’ in the 1970s. These are extremely vivacious and charismatic animals, as indigenous to the Pacific Northwest as its original human inhabitants, and they migrated to the region at the end of the last Ice Age for the same reason as the people – to feast upon the salmon that were available year-round in unbelievable abundance during the myriad of their anadromous ‘runs’ to the rivers that drained the rain and snow and ice melt from the majestic mountains of Cascadia. The story of this very complex ‘web of life’ is fascinating, and was reputedly told to Governor Stevens in 1854 upon ceding much of the territory upon which the indigenous people had lived for millennia to the white ‘settlers’. Whether or not the Chief Seattle speech is authentic, the ‘web of life’ story is a tenet of ecology and it is eloquently presented in many of the 1854 speech renditions; and, whether or not we believe the tenet is true, the whales have always been its most reliable indicator: “No blackfish, No fish”, as the saying went in historic times. No fish, no blackfish (SRKW) is the current interpretation.

                  Enough prologue. For several weeks there have been reports of whales coming in off Jordan River in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and whale watch boats have been dutifully going west from Victoria to hopefully encounter incoming residents. But, each time it has turned out that the whales that are found are Bigg’s Transient killer whales, and we now have a record number of sightings and encounters of this ecotype in Salish Sea waters. Today, however, Mark Malleson was able to confirm that incoming whales he encountered west of Sheringham lighthouse at 1030 AM were RESIDENTS!! We decided to launch in two waves, with “Shachi” leaving Snug Harbor at 1128 as the whales were reported to be nearing Otter Point, and “Orcinus” departing a couple of hours later if the whales came in as far as Victoria. “Shachi” encountered the lead group of whales at 1310 just east of Secretary Island, and the first whale identified was J19, who seems to have taken over as leader after the passing of J2 in the winter of 2015/16. The Js were in several matriline groups closest to the shoreline of Vancouver Island; the Ks were in loose matriline groups a little farther offshore and a little behind the Js. The Ls that were present were very spread out in matriline groups much farther behind and farther offshore. There was some foraging activity going on with all groups conducting occasional sprints into churning tidal waters (the tidal currents in the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca had gone from big ebb to big flood with a very brief slack at 1205). The salmon tend to move into the Salish Sea with the flood tides, and hang back in nearshore eddies and bays in ebb tides, so the whale foraging and travelling east suggested that there were at last sufficient numbers of salmon to bring them all of the way in. It was interesting to see that J and K pod whales came easterly through Race Passage, while L pod whales came easterly to the south of Race Rocks as far as mid-strait.

                  “Orcinus” departed Snug Harbor as the lead whales approached Trial Island off Victoria to encounter them just west of Discovery Island, while “Shachi” went in to Oak Bay to “Hoover” Mark Malleson’s photos from the morning. We have seen SRKWs so seldom lately that we wanted to be sure to get as many photos as possible to verify which whales were there. After the “Hoover”, we headed back out into Haro Strait where the crews of “Orcinus” and “Shachi” continued to take photos of whales until sunset, by which time they were directly in front of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. Between our five photographers we took over 3,500 photographs and documented all of J pod present (24 whales), all of K pod present except K13 that is undoubtedly deceased  (18 whales), and 22 L pod whales (13 whales from L pod were not seen or photographed today, but that is not alarming because they are from matrilines that were not represented in this assemblage). It is not unprecedented for L pod matrilines to be very widely separated at times – e.g., part of the pod in Puget Sound while others are off California! All of the whales today appeared to be frisky and in good condition, though we clearly have a few runts in the youngest cohort of whales – probably having been in perinatal nutritional distress due to recent poor salmon years in the Salish Sea.

 

Postscript: The SRKWs spent all of 5 September spread out in small groups in the Georgia Strait region of the Salish Sea, just out of range for reasonable CWR encounter; and, most of them returned south to Haro Strait on 6 September for Encounter 74.

Photos taken under Federal Permits
NMFS PERMIT: 15569-01/ DFO SARA 388

2017 Encounters

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