Watch/Listen: J and L pods come together for a sunny July visit to San Juan Island’s west side

Watch/Listen: J and L pods come together for a sunny July visit to San Juan Island’s west side

FRIDAY HARBOR, Washington—So far, the summer of 2022 has been the most encouraging season in at least six years in terms of restoring the health of the Southern Resident killer whales’ native summer habitat in the Salish Sea. The last time the SRKWs visited as frequently as they have this year was 2016, a season that was shadowed by death and decline.  

In 2022, they’ve been frequent though not entirely regular visitors to the Salish Sea and the San Juan Islands. July was a particularly good month, especially as J pod remained in these waters for much of the last two weeks of the month—culminating with a spectacularly long visit to Haro Strait near Lime Kiln Lighthouse on July 29 that went on longer than an hour and featured all kinds of social behavior, including lots of play.

For much of that hour or so, the whales appeared to be engaging in a variety of social behaviors—including lining up abreast, swimming tightly together, and then breaching and spyhopping—while mostly facing south into a powerful northbound flood tide. At times they appeared to be simply swimming in place. At others, they broke away and came in close to shore to rub themselves in the bull kelp.

J26 Mike playing in the kelp.

The first reports that day had been of L pod orcas near the southern end of San Juan Island, but those whales at first didn’t show. Then, coming from the north and Turn Point at the Canadian border, the entire J pod—some 24 orcas in all—swam down to Lime Kiln Point and more or less parked themselves there. After a little while, the L pod orcas (mostly the L12 subpod) who had been slow arriving from the south joined the party.

There were 38 whales in all hanging off the shore that day, and scores of visitors to the lighthouse were thrilled to watch.

One of many spyhops on July 29.

The first researchers out that day were from the Center for Whale Research, who went out early to see L pod at the island’s southern end. Their initial report set off alarms in the orca-watching community: “Despite scanning around with binoculars, we could not find more than eight members of the L12s. We did not see L25 at all during our over two and a half hour encounter.”

However, it noted at the end: “Later, after we were already home, we found out that L88 and the L54s had been seen that day too. They must have been way offshore of the L12s and spread out because we never saw any hints of other whales except the eight we saw. Hopefully L25 was out there with them.”

The reason for the alarm is that L25—nicknamed Ocean Sun—is the oldest living whale in the Southern Resident population, estimated to be over 85 years old. As the matriarch of the clan, she (like all these resident orcas’ postmenopausal females) is extremely valuable to their survival as a repository of knowledge about where to find their prey and when.

L25 is also believed to be the mother of Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, aka Tokitae, aka “Lolita”—the last surviving captive Southern Resident orca, still held at Miami Seaquarium.

However, it turned out that the CWR’s note at the end was right: L25 turned up just fine that late afternoon when the L pod congregated near the lighthouse, and Sarah Hysong-Shimazu was able to capture a clear photo identifying her as both alive and apparently quite well. Monika Wieland Shields of the Orca Behavior Institute, who posted the photo to Facebook, settled everyone’s concerns:

Several of you reached out with concern this morning after reading the Center for Whale Research’s encounter summary where Dave didn’t see L25. Fear not! She was there. Like Dave, we also didn’t see the L54s and L88 until that afternoon, so there were definitely whales spread offshore that didn’t come in closer to San Juan Island until later in the day, and she may very well have been with them.

Wieland Shields later posted her own (spectacular) video of the visit, and commented:

20 years ago, moments like these with members of multiple pods together close to shore on the west side of San Juan Island could be a weekly, if not sometimes daily, occurrence during mid-summer. To put it in perspective, nowadays, we can sometimes go an entire year without an encounter like this.

I was able to capture the hydrophone recording (courtesy of the Whale Museum, FOLKS, and SMRU Research) of the entire visit, and managed to edit it down to a mere 48-minute file filled with orcas conversing and playing. There’s nothing like it. Enjoy.

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