Throughout November and December, our imperiled Kéet relatives gave us something to be thankful for: their continued, blessed existence. In a flurry of November visits, Southern Residents (SRKW) foraged intensively on Chum and Blackmouth salmon. Two-leggeds stood spellbound on the shore, astounded by the surface active, socializing rituals of 41 SRKW in East Passage. Gregarious orcas stopped Vashon ferries twice – once on the North End, as I described last time, and the second time in Dalco Pass.
On November 8, widely scattered J Pod and Onyx (L87) milled for two-plus hours around the morning low tide in Dalco Pass. We observed this pattern commonly 10 -15 years ago, less so in recent years. 15-year-old Cookie (J38) and several podmates cavorted in the ferry lane, thereby slowing the 11:20 sailing to Point Defiance. A few lucky photographers captured images of Cookie breaching near the Chetzy.
A picture-snapping paddleboarder moved within 100 yards of a cluster of females and juveniles. Several orcas did partial or full spyhops, indicating that they definitely noticed the incursion. To avoid disturbing critically endangered SRKW, ALL vessels and watercraft are required to maintain 200 yards distance from orcas. Our fragile SRKW incur energetic costs when any encroaching vessel elicits behavioral responses such as tail slaps or spyhops.
J Pod returned with K Pod several days later. J Pod has dropped to 22 members plus L87; K Pod is down to 18 members. The entire SRKW community is in a precarious state, but some whales are more stressed than others. They are my “Kéet of concern.” At Point Robinson, I was relieved to see these Kéet: thin Scoter (K25), and the J16 and J17 families, both traumatized this summer by the deaths of young family members. The sight of the four remaining J16s — Slick (J16), Mike (J26), Alki (J36) and Echo (J42) — traveling close together is bittersweet.
J and K Pods, meet Vivaldi. In November, Vivaldi the Humpback was foraging between Point Defiance and Gig Harbor while the SRKW were in Dalco Pass. Such a meeting was unheard of 20 years ago. Nowadays, humpbacks and orcas regularly share the same space in the Salish Sea. Vivaldi departed in mid-November, but another Humpback arrived on December 18. This young whale has yet to be identified.
On December 5, J Pod curiously spent the entire day milling, feeding and socializing in Dalco Pass. This fall, for undetermined reasons, the SRKW are spending much more time in the waters between Vashon, Tacoma and Gig Harbor. Presumably, great foraging opportunities are one attraction. Last year, SRKW were barely present in Dalco Pass.
This week’s lovely photo by Karen Fuller of mother Spock (K20), b. 1986, and son Comet (K38) holds particular resonance for Vashon and the holiday season. In December 2004, Mark Sears discovered Comet as a newborn in Colvos Pass. Comet is a Vashon baby. Every year, we search intently for a sibling to Comet, but he remains an “only child.” Spock has undoubtedly been pregnant again. Spock’s sister Deadhead (K27) is currently expecting; Deadhead was observed carrying a stillborn on her rostrum in 2016. The pregnancy failure rate for SRKW females is nearly 70% — abysmal. Skinny Scoter (K25) is brother to Spock and Deadhead. This exquisite family, the K13s, lost their matriarch Skagit (K13) in 2017.
Many SRKW families besides the K13s are coping with upheaval and tragedy. In recent years, J Pod has eerily suffered losses in December. Based on what I observed at Point Robinson, and what other researchers are also documenting, I have a dreadful, sinking feeling that we will hear more sad news about J Pod by year’s end. Brace yourselves.
OK, don’t end on a downer. With the darkness comes the light: four SRKW females are pregnant. We can always hope and pray for a Christmas miracle.
Please support the work of the Vashon Hydrophone Project (VHP): REPORT LOCAL WHALE SIGHTINGS & STRANDINGS ASAP TO 206-463-9041. Prompt reports to the VHP expedite vital data collection efforts and sustain an accurate record of sightings for Vashon-Maury initiated four decades ago by Mark Sears. When reporting a sighting or stranding, be specific: date, time, location, travel direction, species description, number of whales/seals/etc., and behavior observed. We prefer phone reports, but if email is the only way to coax you to report to us, send sightings and photos to Vashonorcas@aol.com. Your photos of marine mammals are valuable for ID purposes. Do not assume we will randomly find stuff posted online. We are grateful to everyone who reports directly to us.