On Sunday, all 25 members of the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) J Pod made their first appearance in the waters off Vashon this fall, flabbergasting onlookers and researchers by foraying deep into inner Quartermaster Harbor and staying there for approximately 19 hours.
J Pod’s youngest four members, all under the age of five, were there, including the group’s latest arrival, a female calf Sxwyeqólh, born in 2022.
In 2015, 18 members of J Pod ventured into the outer harbor, spending about 20 minutes there. But this time was different, and unprecedented in recent memory, according to experts.
Many islanders, on social media platforms, described Sunday’s encounter with the whales in ecstatic terms.
However, researchers and whale advocates on the scene observed what they described as highly unusual behavior by the group, which did not include a single meal for the orcas during their entire time in Vashon’s waters.
“What we weren’t seeing in Quartermaster was any foraging behavior, even on the way in,” said Mark Sears, a researcher who works with his daughter, Maya Sears, under a permit from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Rather, the orcas swam back and forth in tight formations through the harbor and also engaged in repeated displays of acoustic activity that sometimes included slapping their tails and pectoral and dorsal fins, as well as emerging from the water in a dramatic move known as spy-hopping.
These behaviors continued after daylight had faded, said Cathy Sarkowsky, a resident of Kingsbury Road, who reported hearing the whales’ continued activity in the harbor throughout the night.
“This was an extraordinary first fall encounter with J Pod in Vashon-Maury waters,” said Orca Annie Stateler, an Indigenous marine naturalist and researcher and founder of the Vashon Hydrophone Project. “All encounters are memorable, but this one challenged the boundaries of our knowledge about our critically endangered Southern Residents.”
A remarkable day
Vashon residents first learned that J Pod was in the area on the morning of Oct. 5, and as if on cue, J Pod arrived in the waters of Point Robinson Beach — a popular spot for whale watching — at around 11 a.m.
The crowd gathered on the beach witnessed what many called an especially spirited display of socializing, breaching, and other acrobatics by the whales at Point Robinson.
Then, the pod left as quickly as they had arrived, hugging the shores of Vashon as they traveled Vashon’s shoreline to Manzanita, up towards Dockton, and then over to Burton.
By 12:15 p.m. Mark and Maya Sears had followed J Pod into outer Quartermaster, where they saw the orcas travel from Manzanita toward Dockton and then toward Burton.
Around 1 p.m. Brad Hanson, of NOAA/Northwest Fisheries Science Center, reported that all members of J Pod in Quartermaster Harbor, with some whales making directional changes and some milling.
Amy Carey, executive director of Sound Action, a whale advocacy organization, observed the whales throughout their time on Vashon and also kept in touch with researchers on the scene.
She described the pod’s “pacing” behavior in tight formation in the harbor as highly unusual.
“It was back and forth and they’d swirl and it was almost like a murmuration, with constant tail and pec slapping,” she said.
Stateler, who also observed the pod at Jensen Point, called the activity “the killer whale version of pacing,” noting it was something done by whales in captivity but also speculating that it could have been ritualistic or ceremonial behavior by the highly-evolved cetaceans.
“In their slow “pacing” travel, the orcas intermittently did tail slaps,” Stateler said. “They were almost in resting mode, but they were not in a classic resting formation, where they line up side by side and breathe in unison.”
Stateler said she had not slept well during the night of Nov. 5, due to her concern about the pod.
“It was alarming — I wondered if someone was sick or in distress, or if someone was about to have a baby,” she said, adding that she was also deeply worried that if the group stayed longer in the harbor, increased boat traffic from onlookers would cause great stress to the pod and impede its way back out to out to sea.
Carey said she, too, had anxiously awaited the whale’s departure from the harbor.
But when J Pod’s exit from the harbor and subsequent travel north came at last — at around 7:30 a.m. on Nov. 6 — that was highly unusual as well.
Sears, in a phone call Monday afternoon, said he and his daughter had observed the pod at Alki, headed north and moving very fast at a speed he estimated at 15 miles per hour at times, porpoising and speed-swimming through the water. All members of the pod were accounted for at the time, he said, with no new births in the group.
Carey said that another researcher, Scott Veirs, had estimated that the pod was traveling at four times their typical speed — a rate it sustained throughout the day. By 4 p.m., she said, the pod was at Port Townsend and leaving Puget Sound.
On Monday afternoon, Stateler reflected on the episode.
“In the research community, we are perplexed and wonder what this odd behavior indicates – the ‘pacing’ back and forth in a small area and staying overnight in Quartermaster, no documented foraging for more than 24 hours, and departing Puget Sound at a potentially record rate of speed,” she said, noting the tremendous energy that had been expended by the cetaceans.
After observing the large crowds who had gathered to watch the whales on Vashon on Sunday — with some observers taking to the water and not maintaining the legally mandated distance of 300-400 yards from the whales in kayaks, inflatables, and on paddleboards — Stateler also had a message for the humans on shore.
“While we celebrate the annual return of imperiled Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW) to Vashon, we urge whale lovers to embrace personal behavior that promotes the recovery of this culturally and spiritually significant orca population,” she said. “Reducing our carbon footprint benefits orcas and their food source, salmon. We tread lightly by refraining from chasing endangered SRKW in fossil fuel-emitting cars, power boats, and ferries all over the Salish Sea, and by watching orcas from the shoreline closest to where we reside.”
Correction: The print edition of this story erroneously said that Amy Carey had stayed in touch with Mark Sears and other researchers on the scene throughout their time on Vashon. Carey did not communicate with Sears but was in touch with other researchers on the scene. The article also misspelled the name of the youngest member of J Pod, Sxwyeqólh, and once mistakenly referenced Oct. 5, instead of the correct date of Nov. 5, as the day that orcas had arrived on Vashon.
We strive for accuracy and regret the errors.