On Monday morning 4 September, we got word that the Southern Resident killer whales were inbound from the Pacific Ocean. It had been over a month since members of this endangered killer whale population had been seen in the Salish Sea.
Their absence from the inland waters of Washington State and Southern British Columbia is uncharacteristic for this time of year. This absence has not gone unnoticed. These whales traditionally frequent the Salish Sea during the summer months, feasting on their favored food, Chinook salmon. However, this year Chinook have been scarce. With few fish to find, the Southern Residents have presumably had better luck hunting elsewhere. But it is increasingly clear that if their food are not here then there is no reason for them to be either.
The local whale watch industry has been kept busy with a multitude of Transient (mammal hunting) killer whale sightings, as well as humpbacks, the occasional minke whale, and other regular inhabitants of the Salish Sea such as harbor porpoise, harbor seals and Steller sea lions. But it is the Southern Residents that most people hope to see here, so their return on Monday was met with excitement and relief by local researchers, whale enthusiasts, naturalists and the whale watch industry.
It was late afternoon when faint calls began to drift in through the speakers on my laptop. I had been live streaming our hydrophone for much of the day as I worked on a manuscript. The calls got louder as the whales approached Lime Kiln. Most of all three pods were present. The Southern Resident population is comprised of J, K and L pods and collectively number ~77 whales. I listened for as long as I could before I had to turn off my laptop for the day, but the calls and echolocation clicks continued for over 2 hours as the whales traveled north through Haro Strait.
A little later L-Pod returned. Calls over the hydrophone began again around 8 pm. The first minutes with the distant, characteristic rhythmic sound of a passing ship. But the ship soon passed and the whale’s calls grew louder. Have a listen to the 15 minute clip recorded on our SeaSound hydrophone at Lime Kiln Point State Park. This recording is of L-Pod whales, it runs from 8:26 pm to 8:40 pm, beginning and ending with some nice echolocation clicks.
The Residents have once again headed west out to the Pacific Ocean presumably in search for Chinook. They could return in less than a week or it could be three, but our hydrophone system on the West Side of San Juan Island will continue to collect data and record the ambient noise levels in Haro Strait as the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority’s shipping slow down trial continues. The SeaSound system not only let’s you listen in for whales from anywhere in the world, it is also playing an integral part in the science behind the slow down trial.
To learn more about the slow down trial see our previous blog posts and the info page provided by the ECHO Program at the Port of Vancouver.
- Haro Strait Slow Down Trial Update
- Moving slowly in all the right places – killer whales and reduction of noise effects
- Vancouver Fraser Port Authority Vessel Slow Down Trial in Haro Strait
The SeaSound hydrophone system is run in collaboration with The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor. We’d also like to thank Jeanne Hyde for her ongoing efforts to record killer whale presence at Lime Kiln during the slow down trial.