MOUNT VERNON — It’s more than halfway through the May-to-September period known as the peak season for Southern Resident orca sightings in the Salish Sea, and the endangered whales have been seen only one day in the region.
Instead of spending time chasing salmon in the state’s interior marine waters, the 73 remaining whales have been primarily in coastal waters, about 100 miles away from where they are usually seen along the west side of San Juan Island.
Orca researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology and area nonprofits say the whales have been most often documented this year near what’s called Swiftsure Bank off Vancouver Island.
The whales have also been seen near Vancouver Island’s Port Renfrew, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Washington’s Neah Bay.
“Typically they would be feasting on Fraser River chinook in the Salish Sea from May through September, but those salmon runs have crashed, which has forced them to go elsewhere,” Monika Wieland Shields of the Orca Behavior Institute said.
Deborah Giles, a research scientist at the Center for Conservation Biology and research director at the nonprofit Wild Orca, said given the “absolutely abysmal” return of Fraser River fish, the Swiftsure Bank area is a good spot for the orcas to try to intercept salmon on their way from Alaska to other rivers in Canada, Washington and Oregon.
“Those fish often will stage at Swiftsure Bank about 20 miles off the coast of Washington state … before making the next move, whether that’s salmon bound for the Columbia or farther south, or other inland rivers of Washington state, like the Skagit,” Giles said. “That area is like a buffet and the whales know that they can go there and find food.”
While the whales had visited this buffet before as a break from their usual summer dining in the Salish Sea, this year they’ve come to rely on it heavily.
“In the past there would have been more food for them to find here, and this is an area that was like their summer home … and yes they would leave sometimes for a day or a week, but they would always come back,” Giles said.
Wieland Shields said the absence of all three family pods of the orcas in the Salish Sea for all of May, June, and now most of July is a first. Some members of K pod visited the Salish Sea briefly July 1. J pod hasn’t been seen locally since April, and L pod since February.
It has been particularly surprising not to see J pod — the most resident of the three Southern Resident pods — in the Salish Sea since April 10. As of Tuesday, that’s an absence of 108 consecutive days.
“J pod is pretty Salish Sea-centric. We would expect to be seeing them pretty consistently from that last sighting in April,” Wieland Shields said of a normal season. “We would see them through May, June, July pretty regularly, and they wouldn’t leave this area much this time of year.”
Determining where the whales have been has required reports from scientists, whale watchers and other boaters, and photos to verify that the orcas seen are in fact members of the Southern Resident population.
“We’re trying to piece it together based off of a few photographs we’ve received here and there,” Wieland Shields said.
Whether the whales are getting their fill at the buffet remains unverified.
“People who have seen them say they look like they are actively foraging, but whether they are actually finding fish and whether there are enough fish for them, we just don’t know,” Wieland Shields said.
Giles, who would usually be searching the Salish Sea this time of year for floating Southern Resident feces to study, is among those hoping the change of scenery is serving the whales well.
Since beginning her work with the Southern Resident orcas in the 1980s, she said she’s seen the fish available to the whales — and in turn the amount of energy they have to devote to hunting — shift dramatically.
Decades ago, “there was so much fish they would just play with it; they would drape if over their head,” Giles said. “There is no playing with food now. There is not enough of it to go around.”
She believes K pod’s brief foray into the Salish Sea July 1 was an effort to return home, but the whales found the pantry bare.
“They do their test fishery through echolocation, and that’s what K pod was doing here … scanning the area and seeing that it was essentially absent of fish, so they exited the space that night,” Giles said. “They didn’t even stay another day.”
As the number of Fraser River spring chinook returning to the river has declined in recent years, researchers have noted a corresponding decrease in the number of days Southern Resident orcas spend in the Salish Sea.
“We found an overall trend between the number of days that Southern Residents spend in the Salish Sea during April-June and Fraser River spring chinook salmon … with both salmon run size and the whales’ usage of their core habitat declining over the past two decades,” states a study Weiland Shields published in the journal Pacific Conservation Biology in 2018.
“Based on what we’ve seen in recent years this very much looks like the new normal for them, and it’s sort of extending later and later into the year,” Wieland Shields said. “We sort of lost them first in April and then into May and June, and now it looks like into July this year.”
There’s still hope for the fall salmon run — and that it might bring the whales back into the Salish Sea for August and September.
“We certainly expect the Southern Residents to come back at some point, and we hope those fall chinook runs will be a little stronger and enough to sustain them here in the Salish Sea,” Wieland Shields said.
Like Giles, NOAA Fisheries’ lead Southern Resident orca researcher Brad Hanson is prepared to study the whales should they make that return.
“Hopefully they will come in,” he said.
Given the chance, Hanson plans to suction-cup monitoring devices to a few of the whales in an effort to spy on their overnight eating habits.
“We’d like to try to get some information on their nighttime foraging behavior,” he said.
To do that, first there must be fish.