Southern resident killer whales make first major appearance in Salish Sea after 109 days

Southern resident killer whales made a splash off the coast of B.C. in the Haro Strait on Tuesday evening. It was the first major sighting of the endangered orcas in quite some time.

"A pretty amazing moment actually, because the fog had really moved in, in the late afternoon, and we started hearing vocalizations of the killer whales over the Lime Kiln Hydrophone," said Monika Shields, director of the Orca Behavior Institute.

"And shortly after that the fog cleared right as the whales were coming across the strait, so it was a beautiful evening to see them from San Juan Island," she said.

According to Shields, orcas from all three of the southern resident killer whale pods were in attendance.

"We saw a big portion of K-Pod, about half of L-Pod and at least one family group from J-Pod," said Shields.

Since the 1970’s researchers have considered the inland waters off Vancouver Island as the southern resident’s core summer habitat, from April to September. However, this year the orcas have been mostly absent from the Salish Sea.

Before Tuesday, it had been more than 100 days since anyone saw J-Pod in the Salish Sea, and L-Pod had not been spotted since February.

According to the Orca Behaviour Institute, their absence is connected to a dwindling food supply.

"It’s definitely sounding the alarm bells as to what’s happening with those Fraser River salmon runs that they depend on," said Shields.

"This area is of big cultural importance to the whales as well. This is where they would all come together as an entire community, and it’s probably when a lot of the breeding would happen," she said.

While there is concern over food supply, researchers are feeling optimistic about one of the whales in particular.

"We did see the youngest member of the southern resident population, the newest calf, L-125, who was just born earlier this year," said Shields.

"It was really exciting to see that little one, and it looked to be doing quite well."

But, as quickly as they appeared, the southern resident killer whales seemingly vanished once again.

As of mid-day Wednesday, there have been no further sightings reported.

"The thought is that maybe they turned around and just went right back west again," said Shields. "We’ll see if there are any reports that come in today, but it may have been a very short visit."

Now, the Orca Behavior Institute will begin to increase its monitoring of the orcas to try and determine where they are going and what they are eating. Shields says they will also monitor the killer whales’ physical form to find out if they are getting enough to eat.