Southern Residents Return

The Dorsal Spin


The thwack-thwack-thwack vibrating through the floor and the open window at 2:45 AM on September 20 sounded similar to fireworks. Nashoba, Dog Genius, barked. I knew distinguished guests – our Kéet relatives – had arrived. We heard loud blows and even louder percussive activity: tail slapping, pectoral flipper slapping, and breaching as 28 endangered Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW) socialized and chased salmon in the dark.

We saw dorsal fins, some splashing, and one spyhop in reflected light from Gig Harbor as the gregarious orcas spilled out of Colvos Pass, sashaying over to Commencement Bay. A coyote pack erupted in resplendent howling above Point Defiance. Did Nashoba’s wild cousins hear the boisterous whales, too? We marveled at the relative pre-dawn warmth and the wind and wave conditions conducive to this auditory ceremonial.

All of J Pod – 22 members plus enigmatic Onyx (L87) — and five remaining members of the K13 matriline graced us with their presence in September. The youngest Southern Resident was here: adorable baby Tofino (J56), born in May to 24-year-old Tsuchi (J31).

Our first encounter with these SRKW occurred in Dalco Pass around 1:00 AM on September 19. Flat calm water and still air allowed us to hear blows outside Quartermaster Harbor and toward the entrance to Commencement Bay, a foraging hot spot. Salmon were finning in Island waters in early September. This bounty likely attracted the Southern Residents.

On September 24, we beheld our 28 Kéet relatives as they cavorted along the southern shore of Vashon – a rare treat since they often travel near Tacoma and Point Defiance. Their close proximity facilitated our identification work. Since we did not see them this summer – for the first time ever – on our trips to San Juan Island, this visit was deeply gratifying.

J, K, and L Pods typically visit this area between October and early January. They travel here in search of Chinook and Chum salmon. The Residents arrived uncharacteristically early this year. Decades ago, seeing SRKW in lower Puget Sound in September and late August was not unusual.

Finding abundant prey is a constant struggle for these imperiled orcas. Starvation was a contributing factor in three deaths announced in August. J Pod lost Princess Angeline (J17), the essential matriarch of the J17s. The K13 family lost their only adult male, Scoter (K25). Nyssa (L84) was the sole survivor of an 11 member-matriline, the L9s. The SRKW population is just 73 – the lowest since 1976.

What some whale watchers interpret as “putting on a show” might in reality be whales reacting to vessel disturbance, which we witnessed in Dalco Pass on the 24th. The orcas demonstrated a significant result from NOAA Fisheries-supported research: “Southern Residents modify their behavior by increasing surface activity (breaches, tail slaps, and pectoral fin slaps) and swimming in more erratic paths when vessels are close.” We observed a noticeable surge in these behaviors when a commercial whale watch boat blasted out of Colvos Pass just as the orcas were rounding Point Dalco.

Another finding: “Killer whales spend a greater proportion of time traveling and less time foraging in the presence of vessels, including kayaks.” In violation of boating laws recently implemented to better protect the Southern Residents, a jet skier and a photographer in a skiff were within 300 yards of the orcas as they traveled from the Tahlequah dock to Point Dalco. These intrusions generated online criticism and a few pledges to report the harassment to NOAA Enforcement at 1-800-853-1964.

Commercial whale watching on critically endangered SRKW in noisy, urban Puget Sound contravenes the precautionary principle. Several months ago, Canadian operators voluntarily suspended trips focused on Southern Residents. US companies should follow Canada’s example. The industry profits substantially from watching Humpbacks, Transient orcas, occasional sea otters and other engaging critters.

The SRKW circumnavigated Vashon on the 24th and departed Puget Sound on September 25. This week’s gorgeous photo shows Slick (J16) breaching beside her son Mike (J26) in Colvos Pass. Slick, age 47, is now J Pod’s eldest female. Darling Scarlet (J50) was Slick’s daughter. In summer of 2018, researchers attempted to intervene with J50 to monitor and improve her failing health. Check “Dorsal Spin” archives for Scarlet’s tragic story.

Please support the work of the Vashon Hydrophone Project (VHP): REPORT LOCAL WHALE SIGHTINGS & STRANDINGS ASAP TO 206-463-9041. 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 Your marine mammal photos are valuable for ID purposes. We are grateful to everyone who reports directly to us.