ANOTHER RESIDENT ORCA DEATH: J52, two and a half years old

(Photo courtesy Ken Balcomb)

The Center for Whale Research confirms today that Puget Sound’s resident orca population has dropped again, with the death of J52, nicknamed Sonic. Here’s the news release they sent this afternoon:

As of 19 September, another Southern Resident Killer Whale, J52 – a two and a half year old male born during the so-called Baby Boom of 2015/2016 – is deceased, presumably from malnutrition.

His obligatory nursing ended more than a year ago, and his life was dependent upon salmon that have become in short supply this summer.

He was last seen alive near the west entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca on 15 September 2017, and photographs taken at the time reveal severe “peanut-head” syndrome associated with impending death. Young J52 was accompanied by his mother (seventeen and a half year old, J36) and an adult male (twenty-six year old L85, potentially his father) at least five miles away from the other members of J and L pods that were foraging within a mile or two of the coastline from Camper Creek to Bonilla Point west of Port Renfrew, British Columbia.

The observation of this sad event was at sunset, and the young whale appeared very lethargic while barely surfacing as the two adults were swimming around in circles and not feeding while attentive to the young whale. We estimated J52 was within hours, if not minutes, of death at the time, and he was not present during the J pod foray into Puget Sound on 19 September, though his mother and L85 were. The mother did not appear overly emaciated on either occasion, but she is lean and seems distressed. Yes, these animals do exhibit emotion, and death of an offspring brings it on. It is worthy of note that all of the SRKW observed this summer appear skinny and small compared to Bigg’s Transient killer whales in the Salish Sea that have abundant prey resources (seals and other marine mammals). Timing of food availability is everything, especially in critical phases of growth or gestation.

With the passing of J52, three of the six whales born in J pod during the so-called Baby Boom, which began in December 2014 with the birth of J50, have now died; and, two mothers (J14, J28) and a great-grandmother (J2) in the pod have also died. No southern resident killer whales from any of the pods have been born alive and survived thus far in 2017 – the baby boom is over. This population cannot survive without food year-round – individuals metabolize their toxic blubber and body fats when they do not get enough to eat to sustain their bodies and their babies. Your diet doctor can advise you about that.

All indications (population number, foraging spread, days of occurrence in the Salish Sea, body condition, and live birth rate/neonate survival) are pointing toward a predator population that is prey limited and non-viable. We know that the SRKW population-sustaining prey species is Chinook salmon, but resource managers hope that they find something else to eat for survival, at least beyond their bureaucratic tenure. Our government systems steeped in short-term competing financial motives are processing these whales and the salmon on which they depend to extinction. If something isn’t done to enhance the SRKW prey availability almost immediately (it takes a few years for a Chinook salmon to mature and reproduce, and it takes about twelve years for a female SRKW to mature and reproduce), extinction of this charismatic resident population of killer whales is inevitable in the calculable future. Most PVA’s (population viability analyses) show functional extinction as a result of no viable reproduction within decades to a century with current predator/prey trajectories, but it can happen more quickly than that.

J52’s birth was announced in March 2015. The death leaves the resident orca population at 76 – 77 counting Tokitae (who remains in a Florida theme park, called Lolita).

26 Replies to "ANOTHER RESIDENT ORCA DEATH: J52, two and a half years old"

  • Also John September 25, 2017 (2:50 pm)

    I know you’re not supposed to interfere with their survival, but when they reach an obvious stage of starvation…couldn’t the Government jump in and feed them?  At least get it’s health back up.  We’re already interfering with them through overfishing and following them to closely by boat.

    I fear they’ll be all dead within my lifetime.   Way to go humans…..

    • herongrrrl September 25, 2017 (4:24 pm)

      The government could jump in and feed ALL of them, by removing obsolete Snake River dams that are preventing Chinook runs from reaching their upper watersheds.  (The resident whales feed on Chinook salmon from the Columbia-Snake river systems as well as those in the Salish Sea, and really all the salmon bearing rivers up and down the coast between southern BC and northern California.  All of those areas are experiencing declining salmon runs.)

      In the US, Chinook salmon were listed as an endangered species in 1994.  In 23 years, there have been some great restoration projects, and some of those have helped some stocks recover, but on the whole the Chinook, and thus the southern resident orcas, are dying a death of a thousand cuts.  Overfishing and boats are easy to point at, but they are only part of the issue.  If you look at the mammal-eating variety of orcas, they share exactly the same habitat as the resident orcas, but since they eat things like seals and porpoises that are abundantly available, they are doing just fine. 

      The government needs to give some real teeth to the Chinook ESA listing, which it hasn’t done in 23 years. Why are we still allowing ANY fishing for these animals?  Why are we still selling pesticides known to kill salmon and the insects they need for food in our hardware stores? Why haven’t we replaced culverts and repaired roads that block salmon passage?  The political will isn’t there.  If we want to save these incredible creatures, we need to put a lot of pressure on our elected officials (state and local, I don’t have any hope for federal right now), in addition to taking every personal action we can (see list below, avoid farmed salmon!) to ensure the salmon, and therefore the orcas, have what they need.

  • Steve September 25, 2017 (3:05 pm)


  • SWinWS September 25, 2017 (3:17 pm)

    I am deeply troubled, too.  Our top-down predators are signals that the ecosystem is being exploited/polluted more than is being generated.  I think we need to re-evaluate (as a society) and consider dam removal and enhancements to salmon habitat , which includes reducing toxic waste/garbage into the system and lowering fishing quotas.

  • anonyme September 25, 2017 (3:23 pm)

    Humans can eat almost anything.  We don’t need to be consuming huge quantities of salmon to survive, literally taking the food out of the mouths of other species that depend on it.  Unfortunately, when it comes to humans, greed always wins.

    I’ve long had a fantasy that a species more intelligent than ours, such as orcas, would rule the planet once we’ve driven our own species to extinction.   But a species so unconcerned with it’s own demise is unlikely to care about any other.


  • KM September 25, 2017 (3:24 pm)

    What is the best that we can do in our daily lives to help improve their chances of survival, without interfering? 

    • Donna V September 25, 2017 (4:00 pm)

      Great question!  Apart from communicating with your state and national representatives encouraging them to support policies that protect the Salish Sea Bioregion, you can individually:

      • KM September 25, 2017 (6:25 pm)

        This is really cool. Thanks! 

  • Kersti Muul September 25, 2017 (4:01 pm)

    There are many things we can do; mostly, don’t become paralytic with grief. These losses are overwhelming and crippling, but just imagine how it is in the Orca’s culture. 

    We are witnessing an extinction, right here in the PNW; not on TV or magazines….it’s happening RIGHT HERE, and RIGHT NOW.

    1) Give the whales space and quiet. Watch from shore along THE WHALE TRAIL sites. We cannot quickly provide unpolluted water, or food, but we CAN PROVIDE SPACE and QUIET

    2) Participate in habitat restoration with WHALE SCOUT or other local groups

    3) Educate others who do not know the plight of the SRKWs

    4) Support the removal of the Lower Snake River Dams and fix Culverts in WA state

    5) Oppose open-water Atlantic Salmon fish farms

    6) Do not use pesticides/herbicides etc on your lawns and gardens

    7) Create rain gardens

    8) Choose sustainable seafood options

    9) Conserve water and electricity

    10) Get involved on a deeper level

    11) Report Be Whale Wise boater violations

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    • Lee September 25, 2017 (4:51 pm)

      Great tips, Kersti!

    • KM September 25, 2017 (6:44 pm)

      Does removing the Lower Snake dams require federal or just state approval? (i.e. which elected officials should we be reaching out?)

      • SWinWS September 26, 2017 (9:06 am)

        KM most of the dams that impede salmon spawning access are along the Columbia River System, predominantly under US Army Corps of engineers/Bonneville Power (federal) jurisdiction/ownership.  The Nelson Dam removal project along the Naches river is the next proposed site for removal, which will restore some of the Yakima watershed but, still there are something like 3-4 major dams along the Columbia (federal) that are barriers to salmon.  I think it was mentioned that this is a major political issue, and there are winners/losers here: agricultural (cheap shipping for the eastern/inland northwest), irrigation, and power supply (which is becoming more erratic with drought and thus turns against hydropower production-making it less profitable and more costly to the taxpayer).   

        • KM September 26, 2017 (9:59 am)

          Thanks–I am very familiar with non-BPA/federal dams along the Columbia, but the BPA isn’t something I know a lot about. Breaching the Lower Snake dams is something I have heard about for a couple decades now, but nothing beyond discussion.

  • Joan September 25, 2017 (4:45 pm)

    This is really tragic and makes me so angry. We know they’re starving to death. We know we can provide more salmon by breaching those dams.  This is on our shoulders.

  • Mark September 25, 2017 (4:47 pm)

    This is sad.

    Orcas are intelligent animals, if they could learn to hunt Sea Lions.  Some Orca pods do hunt Sea Lions, and they have developed incredibly complex techniques to do so.

    And us people need to provide them space.

    • Kersti Muul September 25, 2017 (6:01 pm)

      It’s not an issue of ‘learning to hunt sea lions’ the SRKW are a distinct eco-type and they have evolved to be fish eaters, not mammal eaters. The orcas that hunt mammals are another ecotype and quite possibly a distinct species at this point; Transient Orcas. The orca types do not interact, interbreed or share food sources. In fact, the transients go out of their way to avoid the Residents. 

  • Jeannie September 25, 2017 (5:04 pm)

    I am 100% in favor of removing those dams, but under the tRump regime, is it likely to happen?

    • Egigik September 26, 2017 (8:46 am)

      It’s all pollution in Puget Sound which was ignored by the Obama administration. 

  • TJ September 25, 2017 (6:17 pm)

    Certainly a sad situation, but some of the ideas mentioned in here aren’t realistic. There isn’t the political support to breach dams on the Snake River. Even if they decided to look at that now, and there is no will for it (I am involved with utilities), we would be a minimum 20 years from getting it done. And while nobody on here has mentioned it, any talk of Columbia River dams coming off line is dead on arrival. And asking people to not consume salmon is not realistic. Commercial fishing HAS been cut back thru the years. Flat out banning it is not going to happen. And lastly, I support any efforts to improve water quality, but people need to understand the water quality of central and southern Puget Sound is better than 50 years ago. 

    • SWinWS September 25, 2017 (7:21 pm)

      This is really a “global warming” issue, as ocean temperatures rise: so does CO2 and acidification, and the chain reaction that follows.   We are really seeing the impacts of resource depletion and thresholds/amplitude of species in the face of climate change; which is the uber top-down force that determines the shifting of the ecology towards more flexible species and those that are incredibly specialized.  Dam removal, lowering fishing quotas, reducing toxins into the environment will merely lower the blow to the ecological system (in the face of climate change), and frankly, its the very least we can do…and a necessary act to preserve our own way of life and for future generations.

      • Morgan September 25, 2017 (10:18 pm)

        Gee feeling demoralized after reading all this.

  • Hoku September 25, 2017 (8:47 pm)

    Please educate yourselves. There’s an incredible book by David Neiwert “Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us” that we all can learn from. Our resident orcas are amazing. I never understood how a sea creature could be a mammal until I saw the assembled skeleton of an orca at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. In two seconds I got it. Read the book. See the skeleton. Do something!

  • Mark September 26, 2017 (2:28 pm)


    Thank you for the education.

    I would have thought transient males would be like male lions for example and try to move in on territory.  Otherwise interbreeding (that may already be, I do not know) could be an issue?


  • Jess September 26, 2017 (2:54 pm)

    I’m so sad hearing about this. The sea animals need the fish more than the humans do. I love orcas. I love all sea animals. This makes me angry. No animal deserves this. Not any. Sea or land. Pet or not.

  • annika September 26, 2017 (7:46 pm)

    From Dam Sense:  

    From Howard Garrett of Orca Network:  A few facts seem pretty clear.

    Southern Resident orcas are starving chronically and sporadically, leading to stillbirths and early deaths, compounded by toxic pollutants in their bodies.

    Southern Residents depend mainly on Chinook salmon and those salmon are at historic lows and still dropping.

    While every restoration effort, dam removal, and harvest restriction helps, by far the largest possible increase in salmon would result from breaching the 4 lower Snake River dams.

    The Army Corps of Engineers has the authority and the funding at this time to begin breaching the 4 lower Snake River dams under their 2002 EIS, as Option #4. Career officials in DC understand the cost savings from removing the dams and would support that.

    The Army Corps in DC won’t order the Walla Walla District to begin breaching without hearing the instructions from the Washington delegation, namely Gov. Inslee and senior Senator Murray.

    Gov. Inslee and Sen. Murray won’t provide that support without widespread support and support public awareness that breaching is needed to avoid the extinction of multiple salmon populations and Southern Resident orcas, and it is within their power to instruct the Army Corps to commence breaching in the coming year.

    So to provide the greatest increase in Chinook and other salmon for the starving Southern Resident orcas, it would be most effective to direct our sense of urgency and our educational efforts toward informing the public that dam breaching could begin in 2018 with the support of Gov. Inslee and Sen. Murray.

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