Return of the Southern Resident Whales

Good news! The whales have been found! We recently wrote about how the endangered southern resident killer whales were nowhere to be seen in local waters.

The southern resident killer whales as spotted off the coast of Vancouver Island last week. Photo: DFO Pacific’s Twitter.

The southern resident killer whales as spotted off the coast of Vancouver Island last week. Photo: DFO Pacific’s Twitter.

The 75 critically endangered whales were a month late returning to the Pacific Northwest. This worried some research scientists as the whales are struggling to survive. There have been many reports about how they are slowly starving to death because there is not enough Chinook salmon for them to eat.

Our southern resident killer whales, known as Jpod, Kpod, and Lpod usually spend almost a third of the year in our waters which is why we call them residents. They follow the seasonal patterns of the salmon runs, feasting on the fish from May until October.

Researchers with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans are cheering after spotting all three pods that make up the gang of southern resident orcas last week.

The department said researchers saw the whales off the west coast of Vancouver Island. They also said they saw a new calf swimming with its mother, J31.

The Canadian government has taken steps to help save these whales which include limiting how close vessels can travel near them and cutting chinook salmon fisheries in an effort to increase the supply of their food. Let’s hope it’s not too late.

The known range of the orcas extends from southeastern Alaska to central California, but the whales typically concentrate in the area around southern B.C. and northern Washington State during the summer months. They rely heavily on the salmon near the Fraser River and the spring salmon runs have just crashed since 2005.

Chinook salmon populations have been in decline for years as a result of factors including habitat destruction, harvest and the effects of climate change, according to the DFO. Of 13 wild Fraser River Chinook salmon populations assessed by the department, only one is not at risk.

Compounding this threat are toxic contaminants in the water which the whales acquire through food and then store in their blubber. They metabolize these toxins which then affects their immune systems and fertility. That, on top of underwater ocean noise, especially coming from shipping and tanker traffic, can hinder whales’ echolocation which makes it difficult to locate food sources.

The transient whales, also called Bigg’s killer whales, by contrast, eat mostly harbour seals therefore are less affected by the same toxins and noise. Transients hunt mammals who have keen senses to detect their predators so they can’t travel around in huge groups because their prey would easily detect them. Instead, they travel in matrilines- a female and her offspring.

If you’re out on the water and you see infractions of the new rules, the DFO encourages you to contact them here.