We’ve been enjoying numerous whale watching encounters on our kayak tours in the San Juan Islands since the orca whales of L-pod returned this month. Local whale biologists have gotten a full set of identification photographs for the entire clan and have determined that two orcas did not survive the winter after they left the Salish Sea of Washington state to hunt in the open waters of the Pacific Ocean.
The Center for Whale Research reports that two adult female orcas from L-pod are now dead. The cause of death is unknown, but age and scarcity of their most important prey, Chinook salmon, likely had a role. Both whales were senior members of the community and too old to bear calves. However, their roles in the orca culture were nonetheless very important as matriarchs serve as pod leaders and have an integral role in raising calves. Most disturbing is that one of the deceased female orcas leaves behind just one son with no other offspring to continue the family line.
Long term research by the Center for Whale research has shown both that post-reproductive females have a significant role in the care of calves – just as human grandparents do – and that the sons often die once their mothers are gone. One of the deceased killer whales, L2, lost three of her offspring through the years, and only her youngest son, L88 is still alive. In the “Southern Resident” orca culture, the iconic whales of the San Juan Islands that we see most often on our kayak tours, a male orca without a mother behaves much like an orphan. Despite being over 20 years old, L88 is unlikely to survive unless adopted by another matriarchal female. And if he is unable to reproduce, the family’s genetic lineage will end.
There are now 37 members in L pod, the largest of the three salmon-eating “resident” pods that we see on our San Juan Islands kayak tours. The Southern Resident Community of orca whales now totals 82, the lowest number since 2001. This is a reflection on our society’s poor management of the salmon population and our inability to control our toxic wastes. Most residents of the San Juan Islands and Washington state still don’t realize that our local killer whales are listed as endangered along with all five species of salmon. Too little has been done to foster a recovery of either whales or salmon. Although spawning streams are receiving new protections, they are still horribly tainted by pollutants that run off of our roads, lawns, and farms. Our San Juan Island orcas are known to carry a higher load of deadly toxins that any other whales in the entire world.
Meanwhile, the government agency in charge of the recovery of both salmon and killer whales has been asleep on the job. The National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) watched and did nothing as these keystone species ran into serious trouble. Our federal court system had to force them into action but so far no positive results can be seen. Quite the opposite in fact, as just last year NMFS gave their approval to the US Navy to continue bombing and using skull-crushing sonar in the orca whales’ habitat, even inside the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.
The grisly death of this juvenile female orca identified as L112 now looms larger as our endangered orca population needs all the young females it can produce. This young whale was killed by an explosion last year, likely a result of US Navy bombing, although no one in our government wants to admit this. Despite the evidence, NMFS still contends that dropping bombs in endangered orca whale habitat is perfectly okay. Simultaneously, this same dim-witted agency is threatening to outlaw kayaking in the killer whale habitat off San Juan Island under the false premise that silent, non-polluting kayaks pose a greater threat to the whales’ survival than bombs! Meanwhile, the bureaucrats fiddle, the bombs continue to drop, and our orca population in the San Juan Islands remains at extreme risk.