Resident killer whales make return to Salish Sea for first time in months

VANCOUVER ISLAND (NEWS 1130) — For the first time in more than 100 days, the southern resident killer whales returned to the waters off the coast of British Columbia.

On Tuesday, all three orca pods briefly made an appearance in the Salish Sea. It’s the first time K-Pod, L-Pod, and J-Pod have been back this summer, which is typically considered their peak season to return.

Monika Shields, the Director of Orca Behaviour Institute out of Washington state says they were spotted from San Juan Island.

Watch: Rare southern resident orcas spotted in Salish Sea

They travelled from the southern end of Vancouver Island, near the U.S. border, and came in east past Victoria.

They didn’t stay long. On Wednesday, researchers witnessed them leaving west back towards the open ocean.

But even with the quick visit, researchers are feeling a bit of relief. Shields says they couldn’t get a complete assessment on each whale, but overall they appeared healthy.

One of the highlights was being able to catch a glimpse of brand new calf L125, the youngest member of the southern resident population within the L-pod.

Researchers were able to determine the calf is female, and she is healthy.

The southern resident killer whale returned to the Salish Sea Tuesday. Credit: Orca Behavior Institute

They also believe all of J-Pod was together, an encouraging sign for the pod which is known as the most ‘resident’ of the resident killer whales in our waters.

The pod made headlines around the world after a female whale was photographed carrying her dead calf for two weeks in 2018.

There has long been concern for the overall health of J-Pod, with only a small number of births within the pod in recent years.

Orca Behavior Institute

Shields says they weren’t exactly surprised it took this long to spot them, as scientists have long determined the southern resident killer whale is dependent on the dwindling salmon stocks.

“In general we think they’re not here because there’s not enough food to support them.” She said.

It’s believed the whales are forced to look for food elsewhere.

“We think it’s positive that they are adapting and spending more time on the outer coast and hopefully putting them in a place where they can encounter salmon from a wider geographic range. But it’s also alarming that they aren’t here where they’ve spent decades,” she says.

Concerns have been building regarding the long-term impacts of climate change on the endangered whales, especially as B.C. marks two heatwaves in as many months.

The heat does not directly impact a whale’s health, she says, but it does have a long-term effects on their survival.

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“Young salmon [and returning salmon] are definitely affected by high water temperatures in the rivers. That can sometimes be fatal. That is a huge impact on the food source.”

Researchers are hoping this visit marks just the first of many more visits throughout the rest of the summer.

“We are hopeful that the summer and fall chinook salmon runs are a little bit better. The spring runs have been especially bad in recent years. We are hoping in August and September that they come back and we can all get a look at them.”

The Salish Sea plays an important role for the species, “it’s a culturally important place for them as well. They are used to all gathering together in the summer and that may still be important to them to do periodically even if the fish aren’t here.”

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