Our elation over the birth of Baby J56 to lovely Tsuchi (J31) is partially eclipsed by despair over the news that two adult Southern Residents (SRKW) are no longer with us. Odin and I have witnessed the vital struggles of the SRKW for nearly three decades. Every successful orca birth is a blessed event, yet our hearts ache from watching some of our Kéet relatives starve to death.
Canadian researchers discovered Baby J56 on May 30 near Tofino, BC. The newborn was peachy and had fetal folds, probably born around May 24. Photos indicated that Tsuchi (J31), age 24, was likely the mother, but the baby was also traveling close to 10-year-old Star (J46) and 15-year-old Suttles (J40). On July 5, the Center for Whale Research (CWR) confirmed that Baby J56 is female and J31 is her mom – the best news. The SRKW urgently need reproductive females, now and in the future.
I was rooting for Tsuchi (J31) to be the mother. In January 2016, Mark Sears and other NOAA researchers observed Tsuchi carrying a deceased neonate on her rostrum. She persisted in carrying the lifeless form of her first known calf for the duration of the research encounter. If grieving Tahlequah (J35) was any indication last summer with her baby-holding vigil of 17 days, Tsuchi might have carried her dead baby for a while. J Pod departed Puget Sound, and researchers did not get a thorough look at the Js again until late February 2016.
In June, Odin and I were on San Juan Island for Orca Sing. Zero Whale Days for us this time. Bob Otis, the principal researcher in a long-term summer assessment of the SRKW at the Lime Kiln Lighthouse, marks a large white calendar board in the whale research lab with a zero when no SRKW enter the Haro Strait study area. Transients, Humpbacks, and other species are noted, but a day without SRKW is a zero Whale Day.
Historically, we have seen Southern Residents at least once during our Orca Sing trips. This year, SRKW were absent in the Salish Sea from early May until July 5. Chinook returns to the Fraser River are abysmal. Evidently, the orcas found better foraging in the ocean, at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In late June, J Pod, K Pod, and some L Pod members were observed near Caramanah Point and Pachena Lighthouse off the southwest coast of Vancouver Island.
At long last, J Pod plus Onyx (L87) and K Pod returned to Haro Strait on the morning of July 5. Two days of extensive documentation by CWR exposed joy and sorrow amid the SRKW. J Pod gained a new relative in Baby J56, but cherished matriarch Princess Angeline (J17), born 1977, is missing. J17’s youngest daughter Kiki (J53), born 2015, endures with love and care from her family. K Pod has no new babies. Ripple (K44), born 2011, is still the youngest K Pod member. Worse, Ripple’s 28-year-old uncle Scoter (K25) is missing.
Recent drone photos showed that Princess Angeline and Scoter were emaciated. At Orca Sing, I uttered these blunt words: “Tepid incrementalism will not feed Princess Angeline, Kiki, and Scoter.” Yet tepid incrementalism – tinkering at the edge of an extinction crisis – is the futile prescription for the SRKW thus far from the Orca Task Force, the Washington State legislature, and myriad NGOs. Despite the births of L124 in January and J56 in May, a mere 74 critically endangered SRKW draw breath. Proper eulogies are forthcoming for my beloveds: Princess Angeline (J17) and Scoter (K25).
Please support the work of the Vashon Hydrophone Project (VHP): REPORT LOCAL WHALE SIGHTINGS & STRANDINGS ASAP TO 206-463-9041. Newborn Harbor seal pups are here. 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