The Orcas of Salish Sea
I was the lucky recipient of two tickets for a whale watching tour out of my hometown of Port Townsend. This was an all day trip with the Puget Sound Express leaving at 9:00am, stopping in Friday Harbor for lunch, and returning around 5:00pm. I wasn’t sure about the weather that morning as it was quite grey, but it turned out to be a great overcast day with a few sun breaks. No wind to speak of and the waters were calm. I couldn’t have asked for more except to see some orcas, or most people know them as Killer Whales.
We were in luck. As the first boat on the water, we were able to locate the orcas and have about an hour with them until other whale watching tours gathers around us. The orcas in this area are known as the J Clan, (about 80 orcas), and is the only clan that consists of three pods. The J, K, and L pods. This just happened to be the first day of the year that all three pods came together.
These pods are the smallest of four resident communities in the eastern North Pacific Ocean. They are also the only killer whale population listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. They are commonly referred to as the “orcas of the Salish Sea” or the southern resident killer whales (SRKW).
According to the crew we first came upon the J pod. This pod of orcas is most famous because it has the oldest known orca called Granny or J2. The average lifespan of a female orca in the wild is 60 to 80 years. It is believed that Granny was born in 1911, making her 103. (Think about that for a moment. She was born before World War I and before the Titanic sank.)
The SRKW is the most studied population of orcas in the world. Many of them were captured in the 1960s and 1970 for sea parks and others were killed by hunters. Granny was captured with most of her pod in 1967 but was released because she was too old for a marine mammal park. She was also the focal point of environmental efforts that resulted in the Endangered Species Act protecting orcas. Because of pollutants and toxins in the waters and in the fish she eats, it is estimated that Granny may have a PCB level of up to 100 parts per million. Her descendant’s reproductive systems may have also been damaged by exposure to pollution.
The oldest orca in captivity is at the Miami Seaquarium and her name is Lolita. The average lifespan for a captured orca is 20 to 30 years. At age 50, Lolita is an orca originally from the SRKW, specifically the L pod. On January 24, 2014, NOAA Fisheries proposed a rule to grant Lolita equal status with her family as a member of an endangered population. Final ruling is scheduled for January 2015. If approved, this would bring Lolita home. You can follow “Lolita’s retirement plan” if you are interested.
As you can see I had a great time. I came back with some great shots and a wealth of information.