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Top Ten of 2013: Honorable Mention; Where are the whales?

One of four orcas missing and presumed dead, J-8, an 80-year-old female, also known as Spieden, makes a big splash in the waters off of San Juan Island in 2011.   - Contributed photo/Jeanne Hyde
One of four orcas missing and presumed dead, J-8, an 80-year-old female, also known as Spieden, makes a big splash in the waters off of San Juan Island in 2011.
— image credit: Contributed photo/Jeanne Hyde

Curiosity had turned into a growing sense of unease by mid-July.

As a record-low number of sightings of Southern Resident killer whales off the west side of San Juan Island, in the waters of Haro Strait, stretched into its fourth month, even those who watch them most couldn’t help but ask: “Where are the whales?”

The spring and early summer of 2013 now stand as the lowest of low-water marks in more than 20 years of tracking the Southern residents’ in Haro Strait — and dramatically so. Between April and late July, a member of J, K or L pods had been sighted on any one of only 17 days, less than half the average for that period and 12 days fewer than the previous low.

Some blamed a dismal return of Chinook salmon to the Fraser River. And while sightings became more frequent in late summer and even more so in the fall, the slow start foreshadowed dispiriting news to come. Four members of the endangered population remain missing, including an 80-year-old female, J-8, and are believed dead.

With the loss of eight orcas over the past three years, the population now totals 80 animals, prompting some to call for greater protections in the federally managed recovery plan that’s supposed to help bring the population back from the edge of extinction.

— Scott Rasmussen

 

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