‘We can rescue the Southern Residents’: Optimism and updates at The Whale Trail’s winter gathering

(L pod in Puget Sound in November – photo by M, Sears, Permit 21348)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

At The Whale Trail‘s first major gathering since before the pandemic, there were words of warning and words of hope.

The Southern Resident Killer Whales aren’t recovering yet. In 2018, TWT’s executive director Donna Sandstrom reminded the gathering at C & P Coffee Company (WSB sponsor), they numbered 74 – a dangerously low number – and they’re down to 73 now. Two calves were born this past year, but three whales were lost.

One cause for hope, though, is the ever-increasing number of people taking an interest in their plight – all the tickets for last night’s gathering sold out in advance. “This is about what it looks like when J Pod and K Pod get together,” Sandstrom laughed toward the start, referring to two of the three “pods” – family groups – that comprise the Southern Residents, who have been officially listed as an endangered species since 2005.

With “a lot of new faces” in that crowd, she opened with a Whale Trail primer – it’s going on 15 years now, exhorting shore-based (and ferry-based) whale watching, with interpretive signage from California to Canada – more than 130 signs. The inspiration, the rescued orphan orca Springer, about whom Sandstrom wrote the young-readers-geared book “Orca Rescue!” to reel in a new generation of champions for the whales.

“It showed me what’s possible when people work together for the whales … (it makes me) confident we can rescue the southern residents.” In addition to signage, TWT also presents events (which like so many other things went on hold for the pandemic) and engages in advocacy, such as campaigns to keep boats further away from the Southern Residents, with the recent state report as an encouraging development, and a legislative champion needed to carry it through to becoming law.

Proximity of vessels – and the resulting noise – is only one of the threats that all “work together” as a vicious cycle – when the residents are stressed and/or hungry, stored toxins (another threat) are released; noise makes them hungrier because they can’t echolocate food. They need up to 25 fish a day per whale. Preferably chinook salmon, but they’ll eat other fish. They eat salmon from a variety of places – “we need to bring back salmon from throughout their range,’ Sandstrom said, not just the Snake River, which gets a major share of attention in the dam-removal arena..

She mentioned two new online endeavors, the new state website orca.wa.gov, which has launched to continue work of the governor-appointed task force on which she served, and a new kids’ section on The Whale Trail’s website, which is a step toward one of Sandstrom’s goals, to “invite the next generation in (to the organization) and build resilience.”

Before getting to her main guests, Sandstrom offered words of tribute to Ken Balcomb, the groundbreaking Southern Resident Killer Whales researcher who died earlier in the day. Then she pointed out an attendee of note – Lynne Barre, NOAA Fisheries‘ recovery coordinator for the SRKWs. Barre spoke briefly about Quiet Sound, the voluntary trial campaign to get big ships to slow down – as in, quiet down – when whales are in the area. She said the trial’s been extended through January 12th. They also now have a hydrophone in the water so they can see how the undersea sound is affected.

MARK AND MAYA SEARS: Possibly the only father-daughter researcher team, Sandstrom observed. “90 percent of what we know abut whales in this part of the Sound is because of Mark,” who studies them under a federal research permit. It’s been a busy fall for them, with the Southern Residents making so many journeys into the Central Sound. Mark’s history with the whales dates back to growing up at Colman Pool, where his father was its first live-in caretaker in 1941 (Mark followed in his footsteps). Maya, too, learned about the orcas while growing up there. “When the kids were little and their mom was working, I’d bundle them up and put them in the boat, they were more or less forced into this line of work,” Mark laughed. On a more-serious note, he recounted that his involvement began when orcas were still being captured in Puget Sound. A highly visible capture operation near Olympia led to people seeing “how this was happening – there was a huge public uproar,” and political pressure to make it stop.

Now, we have “urban orcas – pretty exciting to have magnificent wild animals right at our feet here.”

Maya explained the work they have a permit to do – mostly photo identification, “predation event sampling” (retrieving scraps left behind after the orcas eat fish), and collecting fecal and mucus samples. For identification, she said, the saddle patches and dorsal fins are key.

For researching what they’re eating, Mark said, they look for the smooth water left behind by whales’ fluke prints, hints that they’ve suddenly accelerated and are chasing something. “We move into the area after they’re finished, collect pieces of flesh and scales – most importantly can figure out where the fish came from – trying to figure out what they’re eating where and when.”

The Southern Residents prefer chinook salmon – “probably a cultural thing that goes back generations” – but will eat other fish too, salmon and non-salmon. (For example, a record chum run is what’s brought them down here so often this fall.) They’ve had nine encounters since October 7th, involving members of all three pods – the theory is that they were especially drawn in during the weeks without rain, with the fish congregating and waiting for the rain to draw them into rivers, resulting in the fish being “sitting ducks” for the hungry orcas.

Maya talked about the fecal research, which tells them “what they have been eating the past day.” They’re working now to get samples to gauge health metrics – bacterial samples sent to a lab to be tested, also parasitology swapbs and a fungal culture.

She then dove into a slideshow of various SRKWs, answering a few questions along the way – lifespan, for example (males up to 50 years, females up to 90 – two L-Pod females she showed could be that old). The photos included the newest calves, K45 and J59.

Maya also discussed a project she’s been working on up in the San Juans, as well as involvement to ensure the Aleutian Isle sinking didn’t harm whales – boaters spread out with long pipes they could bang on to create “acoustic walls” if whales were in the area. Ultimately, they didn’t need to take that action but they were “just waiting to pounce,” Maya said. She concluded by recommending two resources to read up – the NOAA action plan for the Southern Residents, and the Species in the Spotlight information about them.

Then, some Q&A. Do the pods interact? Yes, Southern Resident pods do, but transient (mammal-eating) orcas (whose population is not endangered) and residents don’t. How do they select mates? No one’s sure. How do transients and residents compare in size? The transients are bigger – across the word, mammal-eating whales are larger than fish-eating whales. Who’s ultimately responsible for the whales’ recovery? “The buck stops with me,” said NOAA’s Barre, adding that she doesn’t have authority over everything that affects them. Not to mention, they also range into the waters of Canada, which has a recovery program too.

Sandstrom reminded attendees at that point, “Government is people.”

What about freedom for the last surviving captive Southern Resident (Lolita, aka Tokitae, still at the Miami Seaquarium)? Her owners are now finally interested in having her moved out, said Sandstrom, but they want to put her in a net pen, which she said would raise a variety of issues. (It was also noted that one captured Northern Resident orca is still alive too, Corky at SeaWorld. She and Tokitae were among 63 orcas captured and removed from the Northern and Southern Resident populations.)

Are orcas scared by drones? Maya said they don’t appear to be. Where can you hear them? Orcasound.net was recommended.

Soon after that, the event concluded, with a promise that there’ll be more gatherings – and the hope that there’ll be more whales.

9 Replies to "'We can rescue the Southern Residents': Optimism and updates at The Whale Trail's winter gathering"

  • K December 17, 2022 (12:51 pm)

    What issues do net pens raise? Why wont they let lolita come back to the puget sound?Blackfish is a movie about orcas on hulu right now. I couldnt watch it. Its so sad.

    • WSB December 17, 2022 (1:52 pm)

      That her family might come by and she wouldn’t be able to join them so it might be traumatic for her and/or them, that parasites she has might be introduced to the waters here … perhaps if Donna sees this, she can elaborate.

    • Kersti Elisabeth Muul December 17, 2022 (2:29 pm)

      Could also disrupt pod dynamics, they may hang around in the area, etc. Which could lead to another host of issues. This is why it was not really an option for J50 (among many other reasons) 

  • Donna, The Whale Trail December 17, 2022 (2:15 pm)

    Thanks so much for this great recap, WSB! Mark and Maya are unsung orca heroes, who contribute so much to our knowledge of whales in this area. It was sheer joy to see their photos and hear their stories.

    Thanks to everyone who attended, to speakers Mark, Maya and Lynne, and to C&P for hosting us. Special thanks to the volunteers who make everything we do possible: Felicia Egelman, Jackie Egelman, Bill Rogers, Peggy Cummings, and pinch-hitter Deb Barker!

    Wishing you all a warm and wonderful holiday season. Hope to see you on The Whale Trail!

  • Donna, The Whale Trail December 17, 2022 (3:40 pm)

    Following up on the question about Lolita: there’s nothing I’d like more than to see Lolita reunited with her family. In 1996 we organized a symposium towards that end, called “Lolita Come Home: Closing the Circle.”

    Three things have changed since then: the southern residents have become endangered, climate change is accelerating, and because of Springer we have a first-hand understanding of what returning an orca to her pod actually takes.

    If she is transferred to an as-yet-unpermitted facility, NOAA Fisheries will have ultimate authority and responsibility for her well-being, in consultation with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and other federal and state agencies.

    Following the model that was used for Springer, I’d imagine they would convene a panel of scientists who would advise on issues like: How healthy is Lolita – is she healthy enough to withstand being moved? In an open-sided net pen, what are the risks of disease transmission, between Lolita and the southern residents, or vice versa? What is the long-term viability of a net pen, in an area where seas will continue to rise, and where net pens have recently collapsed? None of these may be insurmountable, but they would likely factor in the risk analysis and decision-making.

    From a humanitarian perspective, we must also consider: what impact would it have for Lolita to hear her family but not be able to join them? What impact would it have on her family? The southern residents hang by a thread. Any change in their behaviors – such as avoiding the area where she is, or not leaving it – could put them further at risk.

    A big hurdle has apparently been cleared – the Seaquarium is willing to participate in a relocation project. The next most important step is for project proponents to meet with NOAA and DFO, and develop a clear-eyed understanding what this would actually take. To my knowledge that hasn’t happened.

  • K December 17, 2022 (7:26 pm)

    What can we do to help in the relocation of her? She needs help immediately.

  • Donna, The Whale Trail December 18, 2022 (2:17 pm)

    K- talk to the groups that are leading this effort, and encourage them to meet with government agencies who would be permitting it, so that there is a clear and shared understanding of what the next steps would be.

  • K December 19, 2022 (7:08 am)

    Thank you. Do you know the names of the groups?

  • Dan December 19, 2022 (8:22 pm)

    ““Government is people.”” That is either a child-like idea, or maybe just fascist rhetoric.

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