Southern resident orcas spotted in Puget Sound

Submitted by Susan Berta and Howard Garrett

of the Orca Network and Langley Whale Center

Early afternoon Sunday, October 2nd, members of J and K pods (and L87 who travels with J pod) crossed into Admiralty Inlet, continued south, making Point No Point, Hansville on the Kitsap Peninsula by nightfall. That day and the following, October 3rd, Orca Network Whale Sighting Network volunteers followed the movements of the pods from shore-based perches on Whidbey Island to Vashon Island and many points in between, collecting sightings information used by researchers, agencies and organizations working to help endangered Southern Resident orcas.

Deborah Giles of the Center for Whale Research reports: “As the fall progresses and the winter season approaches, the SRKW have historically shifted their attention from Fraser River Chinook salmon to chum salmon headed for rivers in Puget Sound. This shift in prey is celebrated by orca enthusiasts as the whales make more frequent trips to waters viewable from South Puget Sound shorelines. Given the decline of Chinook salmon throughout the whales’ historical range, Puget Sound bound salmonid species have become that much more important to the whales from October through early Spring.”

Since the 2005 Federal listing of the Southern Resident Orcas under the Endangered Species Act, Orca Network has been assisting NOAA Fisheries and the Center for Whale Research to help track the orcas’ winter travels in Puget Sound and along the outer coast. According to Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research, this orca community often can’t find enough salmon to survive. Less than half of the females within their reproductive years have brought healthy calves into the population in recent years. The first step is to help salmon spawn and survive to adulthood. “We have to consider the ecological solution here.”

This time of year offers wonderful opportunities to observe orcas from the many miles of shoreline on Whidbey Island, the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas, and the inland waters of Puget Sound. For sixteen years, Orca Network’s Whale Sighting Network has encouraged whale watching from shore, or from Washington State Ferries in the inland waters.

Orca Network again this year trained another 45 new volunteer whale observer/naturalists from Island, Snohomish, King, Kitsap, Pierce, Thurston, and Whatcom counties. “Our volunteers are provided with up to date ID guides and information to share with others while viewing whales from the shoreline, to educate about the orcas, their habitat, and prey,” said Whale Sighting Network Coordinator Alisa Lemire Brooks. Staff and volunteers are also on the lookout for new calves or missing whales – on November 10, 2015 Orca Network’s Alisa Lemire Brooks and Orca Network/Langley Whale Center volunteer Sara Hysong-Shimazu observed and photographed a new calf from Alki Point in Puget sound, later confirmed by the Center for Whale Research to be a newborn L123, born to L103.

The Orca Network website shows recent whale sightings as well as archives back to 2001, and now includes the new Sighting Viewpoints map for volunteers and citizens to use to see whales from land-based viewpoints around the Sound, with descriptions of over 100 public viewing locations and directions to help find them.

The map, based on a Google map that can be zoomed in to each location, can be accessed from: www.orcanetwork.org/Viewpoints.html. The map and current sightings are also displayed at Orca Network’s Langley Whale Center at our new location, 115 Anthes, Langley, Whidbey Island.

Observers can help by calling in any whale sighting immediately and when possible photographing the whales to help provide IDs. Whale reports may be called in to our toll-free number: 1-866-ORCANET, emailed to info@orcanetwork.org, or posted on our Orca Network Facebook page: www.facebook.com/OrcaNetwork.

Whale sightings from the public provide critical information about the travels of the whales, and timely reports enable Orca Network to alert researchers who can then obtain photo identification and prey and fecal samples from the whales during their visits into Puget Sound. Please include the species, location, time, direction of travel, and approximate number of whales. Also include any behaviors you may observe (breaching, spy-hops, feeding, etc).

All sightings are in turn shared with researchers, agencies, and the public through our Whale Sightings Email list, Orca Network website and Facebook and Twitter pages, and at our Langley Whale Center on Whidbey Island.

The Whale Sighting Network, Langley Whale Center and Orca Network website and Facebook Page also provide up to date information on the latest research and issues related to orcas, salmon, other cetaceans and their habitats, along with federal whale watching regulations and Be Whale Wise guidelines for viewing marine mammals (www.BeWhaleWise.org).

To improve your chances of observing whales off our shorelines, follow the Orca Network Facebook page and sign up for the Whale Sighting Network Email List, at www.orcanetwork.org.

Orca Network’s Howard Garrett says, “We are very fortunate to live in a place where we can look out from nearby shorelines and see those majestic black fins parting the waters. We are thankful for the hundreds of citizens who report sightings each year, providing valuable data to help in recovery efforts for the endangered Southern Resident orcas.”