J-Pod returns to Salish Sea after 'unprecedented' 108-day absence

J-Pod returns to Salish Sea

J-Pod is back in town.

The group of endangered southern resident killer whales was spotted Tuesday near Sooke travelling eastbound on inland waters toward Victoria, according to Dustin De Gagne, supervisor of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Whale Protection Unit.

No official count was available, but it’s believed all 24 members of the pod are together,

J-Pod hasn’t been seen in the Salish Sea since April 10, an “unprecedented” stretch of 108 days.

The pod is being monitored by crews of Straitwatch, which reported through DFO that the orcas were moving quickly into open water on the Strait of Juan de Fuca late Wednesday afternoon.

De Gagne said DFO scientists are studying the absence and return, but the theory is that J-Pod likely left the area around the San Juan Islands, Victoria and the southern Gulf Islands in search of more plentiful Chinook salmon, their main food source and what sets the southern residents apart from transient Biggs orcas, which also eat seals.

“Their patterns have been atypical,” said De Gagne.

Although it’s difficult to say without confirmed sightings, De Gagne said it seems the southern resident pods may be doing a “clockwise trip around Vancouver Island, now looking elsewhere for food.”

Another theory is that the death in 2016 of J-Pod’s venerable matriarch, J2 or Granny, at an estimated age of 106, caused the group’s travel patterns to change, said De Gagne. The southern resident orcas are a highly structured social group, with members relying on matriarchal knowledge of food sources and help to raise their young.

Monika Wieland Shields, director of Orca Behavior Institute in Friday Harbor, Washington, said several decades ago, J-Pod was seen nearly daily in the Salish Sea, which is considered the orcas’ core summer habitat and where they would feed on Chinook salmon that returned to the Fraser River.

“The fact that they’re not here is an indicator that that food is not here for them,” Wieland Shields said last week. “We’re concerned about the change in the ecosystem and food availability for these endangered whales and making sure that they’re healthy and able to get enough to eat.”

Between 1976 and 2013, the pod was documented in the Salish Sea every month of every year, she said. Since April 2013, there have been sporadic stints without any documented sightings, “but never a stretch this long,” she said.

The other two pods, L and K, have not been documented in inland waters since late ­February, except a brief visit by K-pod to the Salish Sea on July 1. Those pods have typically spent more time on the outer coast, so their absence is not as unusual.

The Centre for Whale Research said there are 74 southern residents remaining as of Dec. 31, 2020, with L-Pod being the largest at 33 animals and containing the oldest surviving orca, L25, estimated to have been born in 1928.

Boaters, kayakers, drone pilots and paddleboarders have been warned to keep their distance from southern resident killer whales this summer.

Boaters who don’t follow mandatory sanctuary and approach distances could be fined up to $1 million and face up to 18 months in jail.

No vessel can come within 400 metres of a killer whale in southern B.C. waters until May 31, 2022.

That includes a swath of ocean wrapping around the southern end of Vancouver Island, from Campbell River in the Strait of Georgia through the Gulf Islands, into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and up the west coast of Vancouver Island to just past Ucluelet.

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