A parade of orcas delighted island onlookers who braved the rain late last month to witness members of J, K and L Pods — joined by a number of transients — as they made their way past Vashon numerous times.
But just days later, the Center for Whale Research announced that L41, named Mega, is now the latest Southern Resident to have disappeared and is presumed dead.
If L41 does not resurface elsewhere, that would leave the current population of the critically endangered orcas at a historic low of 72.
Ann “Orca Annie” Stateler, Vashon’s resident whale and marine mammal expert, made note that the first sightings of the orcas were made on the morning of Jan. 23 from the north end when roughly 10 were spotted in Colvos Pass before they headed north toward Bainbridge Island.
At the same time, another loose group was seen traveling down the East Passage, arriving at Commencement Bay before returning north before noon.
The real excitement got underway the following afternoon, with the weather improved, when Stateler said at least 20 transient orcas appeared in Dalco Pass, traveling west toward Point Defiance and the Tacoma Narrows. By the afternoon, Southern Residents were southbound again in East Passage, crossing the ferry lanes before visiting Point Robinson.
Stateler said that based on the photos and video she has reviewed, there could have been as many as 57 orcas present in total, with all of J and K pods along with several members of L pod.
Mega, however, was not among them.
In a press release, executive director Ken Balcomb noted that the 42-year-old orca was one of the champion male breeders in the Southern Resident population, fathering 14 known offspring that survive to this day in all three pods. That’s an important distinction, he noted, as few other males have contributed nearly as many offspring to the population.
Balcomb added that the center only encountered the L12s — Mega’s family — twice last year in their study area: On Jan. 11 in the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca, and again in August off Carmanah Point Lighthouse on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island. Such infrequent sightings in the Salish Sea hampers further research of the orcas, Balcomb said, and will make efforts to assess their well being more difficult.
“We are hopeful that L41 is alive somewhere and returns to the subgroup, but he did live to a ripe old age and fathered more baby whales than any other whale in the community,” wrote Balcomb. “He had a good life.”
The successful birth last January of an orca calf to 31-year-old Matia (L77), a member of L pod, and J56, named Tofino after the west coast of Vancouver Island where she was first seen, belies the challenges the Southern Residents have faced in recent years. J17, better known as Princess Angeline and the mother of Tahlequah — whose seeming procession of grief after the death of her calf in 2018 touched many worldwide — was presumed dead after she vanished last summer. So were J25 and L84, Scoter and Nyssa respectively, two young males who were seen in decline in the months before they went missing.
Stateler said that Mega’s importance in the Southern Resident community cannot be overstated. She added her feeling that photos of the missing orca swimming next to his L12 relatives have a tender quality, as Mega was so large in comparison.
“He will endure through his offspring, but he [was] such a beautiful, iconic whale. It’s going to be like a huge hole looking at them without him there,” she said.
The L12 subgroup fascinates Stateler. The matriarch L25, named Ocean Sun, is the oldest of all Southern Residents, male or female. She is believed to have been born in 1928. With a generation between them, newborn L124, born to Matia, or L77, was happily spotted by researchers and counted in the Center For Whale Research’s latest encounter with them on Jan. 25. The calf appeared healthy by all accounts — abrasions on L124’s dorsal will make it one of the easier whales to identify in the future, according to the center.
The orcas that are gone, said Stateler, all share an important legacy that will not be forgotten.
“If I feel that way, I just can’t imagine what the Southern Residents are feeling about the loss of their family members. It’s a huge deal to me but it’s even a bigger deal to them, I’m sure,” she said.
With the population nearly as low as when the Center for Whale Research conducted their first orca survey in 1976, Stateler said questions as to why the animals continue to die are more urgent than ever before. Beyond lack of prey, she said — Southern Residents primarily eat Chinook salmon, which face their own adversities — researchers are concerned that the orcas are immunocompromised as a result of contamination in the water and stress from noise that affects their ability to use echolocation and find their food.
Moreover, the pregnancy rate for Southern Residents has plummeted and is not showing signs of a recovery. The odds of survival for a calf beyond the first few years are only about 50%, according to the center.
“There’s a lot of things lurking in that population that we have to figure out,” said Stateler. She added her belief that breaching four contentious dams in the Snake River — a common refrain among some hoping to create momentum that spurs the rebound of salmon populations, helping the orcas in turn— may benefit depleted Columbia-Snake River salmon runs. But Stateler doesn’t believe that will occur fast enough to provide emergency relief to the Southern Residents.
“We’re staring down the void of extinction and we’re running out of time to figure it out and turn it around,” she said.
Greg Rabourn, who is responsible for safeguarding habitat on Vashon and Maury Islands as the watershed steward for King County, is hard at work on a number of property acquisitions targeted for conservation, including on the island. Restoring tideland areas in the county, said Rabourn, has tremendous potential for doing the most good for all wildlife, from terrestrial insects all the way up to the Southern Residents.
Large projects to remove shoreline armoring throughout the county, such as plans to remove a 210-foot long portion of the bulkhead near Dockton Marina this summer, are meant to help restore the functions of the ecosystem they are built to impede, such as holding back naturally eroding feeder bluffs that replenish the sediment below. But whether through smaller efforts such as reducing invasive plant life or taking a piecemeal approach to conservation where possible, said Rabourn, the merits are great.
“Our shoreline is just this thin, incredibly important ribbon that forms around Puget Sound and it’s very limited in the amount we have, and there’s so much of it that has been altered, and that connection has been lost,” he said. “No one project is going to save the salmon or save the orcas, but we have people not just on Vashon but all around Puget Sound that are working on these sorts of projects trying to get these things moving forward.”