September 1, 2019
By David Neiwert
Everyone in the San Juan Islands who watches the whales remembers the summer of 2016. No one wants to relive it.
That was the summer the Southern Residents lost seven members, including one of the J Pod’s elderly matriarchs, who scientists say are the acknowledged leaders of the pods and repositories of the stored knowledge essential to the whales’ survival. But it was the death of J28 and her calf that stirred people to action.
It was late summer when observers began noticing J28, a 23-year-old female known as Polaris. She had given birth to a male calf that spring, but as the summer wore on, it became clear something was wrong. One day in August was especially telling.
The scene unfolded in the waters directly off Lime Kiln Lighthouse, in Washington state’s San Juan Islands: Polaris’s 6-year-old daughter, J46, nicknamed Star, was swimming about actively in the roiling currents with her mother and her baby brother, who had been designated J54, but had not yet been named.
They were not, as is often the case at this lighthouse, merely frolicking in the nearby seas. They were pursuing the salmon that comprise most of these endangered killer whales’ diets, and there was a deadly serious intent to it.
A week or so before, researchers at the nearby Center for Whale Research had sounded an alarm of sorts about Polaris, who was in her reproductive prime, and by extension the dire lack of salmon for the Southern Resident killer whale population. Ken Balcomb, the center’s founder, had reported that another J Pod matriarch, J14 (Samish), was missing and presumed dead, and that several whales appeared to be struggling.
“Things are shaping up to be pretty bad,” said Balcomb. “J28 is looking super-gaunt, and I would say she is within days of her death.”
The “peanut head” condition that Balcomb had reported—a severe sunkenness in the flesh directly behind the orca’s skull, an indication of extreme malnutrition and often a harbinger of imminent death—was clearly visible in Polaris the day we observed her, about a week after the warning. However, the listlessness CWR had reported also was ameliorated somewhat: The orca mother appeared at times to be frolicking physically with her calf, and seemed to be fairly active, though at times she also was simply “logging,” laying still on the surface and drifting with the current.
The most striking aspect of the scene was Star’s activity. She swam constantly around her two companions, diving deep at length and doing percussive behaviors like tail-lobbing and pectoral-slapping, often pointing in her mother’s direction. At times, the three of them would go down into the deep currents and disappear for minutes at a time, evidently foraging. It appeared to my amateur eye that she was herding the salmon she could find toward her mother, helping her get the food she so desperately needed.
The scene also had a deep emotional resonance for me: Six summers before, when Star had just been a still-callow baby of eight months, I had encountered her with Polaris a little south of the lighthouse, along a cliff wall in my kayak. I had tucked into a cove, well out of their way, and began taking photos.
That too had been a deeply touching scene: The mother and little amber-toned calf had played in the still morning waters, nuzzling and wrestling about, reveling in the kind of contact that human parents and their bonded offspring know well, the joy of touching. Polaris also seemed to be feeding the calf, getting its first nascent tastes of fish as the mother dove and brought at least one healthy Chinook to the surface to show and share, as these orcas have been observed doing for years.
Six years later, the now-grown calf was doing her part, returning that love and care to her mother by helping her find and catch the salmon she clearly has not been getting. The familial bonds of killer whales are now a scientifically established fact, but they are profound things to observe, spine-chilling reminders of the deep connection that exists between humans and orcas, whom the Northwest Native Americans referred to as “the people under the sea.”
The afternoon feeding at the lighthouse was a bit of good news, at least—it appeared that Polaris was more active and feeding well. Orcas have occasionally recovered from “peanut head,” though rarely (in captivity, it has been a virtual death sentence). Still the worry remained, and was compounded by the reality that if Polaris died, it meant nearly certain death for her still-unweaned calf, too.
In some regards, the loss of J14 Samish—a 44-year-old female whose still-mysterious death can’t be attributed to malnutrition or a lack of salmon, since the last sightings of her just days before her disappearance showed her in robust apparent health—may prove even more devastating for the Puget Sound’s endangered orcas. Recent research has revealed that post-menopausal females play an essential role in orcas’ long-term survival, because they actively lead the pods in their foraging and represent long-term memory of prey-seeking routes. Without their immense brains leading the way, orcas have a harder finding the large of amounts of fish they need to eat daily to survive and thrive.
That year also saw the loss of a big, striking male once so large he was nicknamed “Doublestuff,” who died after being struck by some unknown vessel. There was also a mother who died after her developed fetus died and became necrotic. Another big male died after government scientists darted him, and the wound became infected.
The bad news regarding the two well-known orca females cast a pall over a multimillion-dollar whale-watching industry in the San Juans that had just endured the worst season (for seeing resident orcas, at least) in its history, and seemed to cast a cloud on the island’s whole community. As September drew to a close, it seemed everyone wanted to know how J28 was doing, as though the fate of the Southern Resident killer whale population seemed to hinge on the news. And in some respects it may have.
The orcas’ human advocates were not giving up, but the picture was becoming grim. “Right now, we don’t even have a sustaining population of Southern Residents,” said Deborah Giles.
“We’ve gone backwards. There were 88 animals when they were listed in 2005. Now we are down to 82, and maybe fewer very soon.” As she said this, she looked out over the waters where we had all observed Polaris and her offspring a few days before, and a cloud crossed her face.
A month later, on Oct. 28, CWR scientists made it official at a press conference in Seattle: J-28 had disappeared and was now presumed dead. Her baby, J-54, they said, looked even more malnourished and was being supported in the water by his sister, J-46. They gave him only a few more days, if not hours, to live, and at the time of the announcement was also presumed dead.
"It's a sad day," said Ken Balcomb. "I've been to several funerals and that's what this feels like."
Something snapped. The agony of watching a mother orca slowly starve to death, followed by the spectacle of her unweaned baby’s path towards the same death, was like a final straw that kicked the region’s whale advocates into action.
Coordinating among several advocacy groups and the CWR, they organized a press conference at the Seattle waterfront focusing on the deaths of J28 and J54 as a tragic warning sign for the state of the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population. Even the normally reclusive Balcomb was persuaded to participate, and he delivered the message in stark terms.
“We know what we need to do—feed them!” Balcomb told the assembled reporters, and urged government officials to take immediate steps to begin removing the four Lower Snake River dams.
“Restore Chinook habitat, anywhere, anyhow,” he said. “If we don’t, we will lose our whales.”
The surge of publicity created immediate political pressure on the state’s politicians, though it eased off over the following year or so, but local lobbying efforts in Olympia, led by the Pacific Whale Watch Association and other advocacy groups, stepped up their intensity during 2017, culminating in Gov. Jay Inslee’s March 2018 announcement that he was forming an Orca Recovery Task Force to tackle the problem.
In the meantime, the bad news for the Southern Residents reached a kind of apex when, shortly after New Year’s Day 2017, Balcomb and the CWR announced a momentous death in the population: J2, aka Granny, the J Pod’s grand matriarch who was estimated to be more than 100 years old.
There was only one further death in the population in 2017: J52 Sonic, a 2-year-old male who disappeared in September. But 2017 also saw a significant change in the Residents’ behavior: Their presence in the Salish Sea waters became extremely scarce.
It may have been one of the effects of Granny’s death; matriarchs are known to be the leaders of the pods, calling the shots on where they go and when, and the change in J Pod leadership clearly affected its foraging patterns. However, the far more likely culprit in the change was the disappearance of Fraser River salmon.
The Chinook produced by the Fraser—which flows out of British Columbia just south of Vancouver—have long been the primary reason the Southern Residents have come to the Salish Sea in the summertime: Scientists estimate that 80 percent of their summer diet comprises fish from the Canadian river. And in the summer of 2017, the numbers of Chinook returning to the system, measured at the Albion Point salmon station, simply flatlined.
Canadian officials remain puzzled at how the returns simply fell off the table that year, but the trend has remained similar through 2018 and much of 2019, as well. The return of the J Pod to the San Juans this past week coincided with a marginal rise in salmon return numbers on the Fraser.
So for most of the summers of 2018 and 2019, the Southern Residents have simply been absent from the Salish Sea.
“It still feels very surreal that we've just had our first June on record with no Southern Resident killer whales in inland waters,” wrote Monika Wieland, executive director of the Orca Behavior Institute and the author of Endangered Orcas: The Story of the Southern Residents, at her blog.
“June used to be a highlight of the year because of the abundance of sightings of all three pods on the west side of San Juan Island. Yet here we are, 58 days without any of them in the Salish Sea. The silence created by their absence is deafening.”
The absence of the Residents, however, has not been the complete disaster one would expect both for land-based whale watchers and for the whale-watching operations based in the San Juans and Vancouver/Victoria area. That’s because the second population of orcas to use these waters—the mammal-eating population known as transients, or Bigg’s killer whales—have suddenly begun showing up in unusually large numbers.
The two populations—which geneticists have determined haven’t exchanged DNA in more than 300,000 years—are not friendly; when they have been observed in proximity to each other, the Residents have generally chased away the smaller pods of Bigg’s whales. So scientists have hypothesized that the Bigg’s whales may be taking advantage of the absence of the Residents to access the abundant numbers in the Salish Sea of their main prey: namely, seals and sea lions.
Additionally, humpback whales—which were absent from the Salish Sea after being hunted out near the turn of the 20thcentury—have begun returning as well, feeding on the large schools of herring and the semi-abundant krill that can be found here.
Certainly, passengers on the region’s whale-watching tours have had plenty to witness. On one tour I took this spring, we followed a pod of Bigg’s whales as they hunted a Dall’s porpoise at high speed, and then turned the waters around them blood-red when they finally caught and killed it. Even more common have been sightings of Bigg’s whales launching hapless harbor seals 50 feet into the air with their powerful flukes at the climax of a hunt.
“The transients are fascinating animals, and it’s been great to have them here,” says Jeff Friedman, owner of Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching and president of the PWWA. “They are amazing to watch, especially when they’re hunting.”
However, the tour operators aren’t content with the new reality. “The fact is that our number one priority is the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whale population,” Friedman says. “They are the reason we are here. Even with the transients around, the picture isn’t right without the Residents.”
Friedman, like the scientists and advocates, has been heavily engaged in the Orca Recovery Task Force process. Even though his focus has necessarily been directed to warding off the would-be moratorium on whale watching, he says his primary mission remains getting enough fish in the water to return the Resident population to health.
However, many of the solutions under consideration by the task force—habitat restoration, vessel effects, toxins in the water, and dam removal among them—are all long-term solutions that do relatively little to help the orcas now. Even if the Lower Snake dams were all to be taken down within the year (not at all likely), it would be as long as another decade (though perhaps sooner, depending on which salmon scientists you talk to) before the Snake/Salmon river systems would produce numbers of fish appreciable enough to help the killer whales.
The pressing issue facing scientists is how to get enough fish in the water to feed the orcas right now.
J35 Tahlequah, the mother whose mourning for her dead calfgripped the world last summer, thus sparking the wave of anger over the loss of the whales that finally drove the state’s politicians into action, was among the J Pod whales who returned to the San Juans last week. She looked plump and healthy, frequently playing with little J56, and tail-slapping and socializing.
“We have seen her foraging successfully a couple of times. She looked really healthy to me,” says Deborah Giles. “It made everyone happy.”
Both the condition and the behavior of J Pod made clear that they have, for now at least, figured out how to sustain themselves without enduring the paucity of salmon that has been their reality in the Salish Sea recently. “It’s so heartening to see these whales, and to see them together, see them playing, lifting each other up out of the water, breaches and tail slaps—it’s really amazing,” says Giles. “And it’s really, really good to see them looking as well as they do.
“But in the back of my head, I am thinking—where is K pod? Where is L pod? Are there more babies? Obviously K27 lost the baby she was pregnant with last September. She didn’t come back with a baby. K pod hasn’t had a new baby since 2011.”
While J Pod appears to have regained its health, there were nonetheless three deaths among the Southern Residents this year, including J17, a 42-year-old matriarch known as Princess Angeline. She was Tahleuqah’s mother, making J35 the matriarch of her clan at age 21.
So while Giles spends her time this month on the water collecting scat samples, she has been directing her political focus on getting more fish in the water sooner. For her, that means fisheries management.
The Northwest’s salmon harvest is carefully regulated by a treaty overseen by the Pacific Salmon Commission, an international body that includes both American and Canadian stakeholders such as commercial and sport fishermen, as well as Native American tribes. That body produces a treaty every 10 years—vigorously negotiated—in which the salmon harvest produced in Pacific waters is divvied up among those various interests.
The Southern Resident killer whales, however, do not have a place at that table. So their needs are left to whatever might be left over from the divided harvest.
“What we’ve all been screaming about is giving the whales a place as a major stakeholder in fisheries management,” says Giles. “We’re asking for an allocation of fish for the whales.”
The solution, as she sees it, is for much tighter regulation, if not an outright moratorium, on fishing for Chinook in the orcas’ home waters, which run the entire length of the Pacific Coast. “If not full on fisheries closures, we at least need to have targeted regulations for where and how we fish,” Giles says. “It’s past time we’re doing that. And a lot of that has to do with tribal rights, which is where it becomes very political.”
Recently undertaken studies aimed at identifying key orca-foraging “hotspots” in the San Juans could help provide the data needed to make such a plan a reality, Giles says. However, “the thing I am scared that if we don’t get a handle on these fisheries, there won’t be any salmon even in those hotspots.
The PSC itself has been resistant to these overtures, though its most recent news releases have indicated at least a sensitivity to the political pressure that has arisen around orca recovery.
“At the Pacific Salmon Commission, at that highest level, in the rhetoric around the most recent treaty, the dialogue was that ‘the needs of the Southern Residents would be taken into consideration,’ but if you look at the treaty itself, the words ‘whale,’ ‘killer whale,’ ‘orca whale’—none of that show up in the treaty itself,” Giles observes.
“So basically it’s just lip service. Those words ‘allocation’ and ‘Southern Resident’—they don’t want those to pass into reality. No way.”
However, an adjunct body of the Pacific Salmon Treaty, the Pacific Management Fishery Council, has proven more amenable to whale advocates’ overtures. It is holding public hearings of an ad hoc group in key cities around the Pacific Northwest, examining the impacts of mixed open fishing on Southern Resident killer whales.
“It is a start, and the more people that get involved in those hearings, and make comments leading up to the meetings” the better, Giles says, noting that the deadline for such commentsis Tuesday.
Overall, Giles is mostly heartened by how the public has responded to the killer whales’ plight, and how the effort has drawn help from a variety of quarters. “There are a lot of people working in a lot of different arenas to help these whales in different capacities—like the Toxic-Free Future people, who are doing a lot of important work to remove toxins from our system, and to try to push legislation that reduces the use of chemicals as much as possible. I think that’s good, I think we need to keep pushing each other in our own areas of expertise. “
“And we need to be engaging with our political appointees, the people that we elect, and pushing them into continuing to address the issues and continuing to cut to solutions,” she adds.
At times, particularly back in 2016, Giles would confess that she feared she was doomed simply to document the demise of a once-great population of killer whales. These days, she is more hopeful—not to mention determined.
“We may well be witnesses to the complete loss of the Southern Residents,” she says. “But we know what can be done. It may get depressing at times, but none of us will ever stop fighting for them.”