Fraser River Chinook/King numbers are at a historic record low and that has caused to the southern resident orca attendance to hit a historic record low as well. These orcas used to be here literally almost every day not that long ago. Since April 23rd, 2017 and as of today (August 24th), there have been only 219 Chinook salmon counted up at the Fraser River. That is not enough to support the NOW 77 southern residents, who, as a community, need over 1000 Chinook salmon a day to survive. You can find the daily Fraser River Chinook/King test fishery numbers here.
As days turn into weeks without the residents in, I constantly worry if they are ok and miss them dearly. There is an apparent void with them gone, and all though the transient orcas have helped fill that void a bit, the empty feeling still remains.
Without an abundance of Chinook salmon, the southern residents will struggle to grow as a population, as shown in their abnormally high rates of miscarries and stillborns during times when the Chinook salmon runs are low. Juvenile and adult orcas die off during these times of hardship as well. Though their story is heartbreaking, it must be told or nothing will change. They feel like a second family to many of us on the water and it is necessary to spread awareness so that their population can recover.
Anything that helps improve Chinook runs in the inland waters as well as off the outer coast (salmon habitat restoration, sustainable fishing, polluting less, removing dams, banning Atlantic farmed salmon pens) will in turn help save the southern resident orcas. There is still hope but we must act now. We must not give up. Here are some websites with more information and how to help:
While the southern residents have been away, the marine mammal-eating transient orcas have been in the area nearly every day. I am happy to say that with a large supply of marine mammals, the transient population is growing fast and new calves are being observed each year.
Aboard the Odyssey on August 9th, we were able to see the T18s as they headed up Haro Strait. They were in travel mode and did not make a kill while we were with them. One of the T18 members, T19B, is one of my favorite transient males due to his funky dorsal fin and massive size so it is always great to see him.
On August 12th, we encountered a humpback whale heading down San Juan Channel but soon after, we got a report of transients coming up San Juan Channel. These transients were the T46s and we all held our breath to see what would happen when the humpback and orcas crossed paths. We wondered if the humpback would get spooked or harassed. Nothing happened, at least above water, but it was cool to see them so close to each other. The T46s continued up the San Juan Channel and kindly led us back to our dock in Friday Harbor.
On August 16th, we got to see the T137s as they swam into East Sound at Orcas Island. Once in the sound, the family of four decided it was lunch time and killed multiple harbor seals. After their first kill right after we arrived on scene, they went into travel mode for a bit and T137A (the teenage male) split off and paralleled his family by a few hundred yards. When mom and his two siblings found another seal, they must have called him because he rocketed back over to them and joined in the hunt. It was amazing to see them all work together as they chased the seal down.
On the morning of August 17th, I was out on the water with some friends at Smith Island. We were just finishing up birding (found 9 Tufted Puffins!) when I spotted dorsal fins! It was the T30s and they milled about for quite a while in the same place. It appeared that they had made a kill on some sort of marine mammal. They celebrated with tail slaps, pec slaps, half breaches, and a belly flop. Out on the Odyssey later that day, we caught back up with them off of Lopez Island. They were mainly in travel mode but likely made a harbor seal kill near the Lopez Island ferry dock. It was great to see this family again, as I had not seen them since 2012!
On August 18th, the Odyssey headed for Haro Strait to see the T46Bs. I was especially excited because I had never seen this family before! They made two harbor seal kills while were with them. The first kill took place right as we arrived on scene and T46B2 celebrated with the longest headstand I have ever seen an orca do. It seemed to last forever! The family then moved on but once out in the middle of strait they found another seal. This time, there was even more celebration! T46B1A tail slapped multiple times, T46B laid on her side her pectoral fin in the air, and T46B, T46B2, and T46B1A all happily carried chunks of seal around in their mouths as they hung out by the Odyssey! One of the young ones then spy hopped with a long chunk of seal hanging from its mouth! Needless to say, everyone were pretty excited and I was probably screaming the entire time.
On August 19th, we encountered a nice sized social group made up of the T34s, T36As, T37Bs, and T46s as they headed past Stuart Island and aimed towards Swanson Channel/Boundary Pass. It was another encounter full of everyone screaming excitedly as they suddenly surfaced nearby and decided to swim underneath the boat! We could clearly see both T34’s and T37B’s new calves as they swam by underwater. It will fun to see those two cuties grow up. What will happen next?!
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