We are saddened to learn that two members of the Southern Resident orca population in the Pacific Northwest are unaccounted for this year and are presumed dead. Two members of L pod, Lulu and Indigo, have not been seen with their families this summer. The annual census of this population, which started in the mid-70’s, has been able to get a complete head count of Southern Residents every year due to their small population size and proximity to a heavily populated coastal area in the summer.
Southern Residents are highly social and form very close family groups, with both males and females staying with their mother their entire lives. This population ranges as far south as central California during the winter months but returns to the inland waters of Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands every summer. Large salmon runs this year have kept the orcas close to San Juan Island in Haro Strait, one of their favorite feeding grounds.
Orcas are threatened by declining numbers of their favorite food, Chinook salmon; by toxins like DDT in the water, which accumulate up the food chain until they stops at orcas, a top level predator; and by increasing amounts of vessel traffic and noise in the ocean. The Southern Resident population suffered a sharp decline in the late 1990’s when Chinook salmon levels crashed. L pod, the largest of the three Southern Resident pods, has continued to decline since then, while J & K pods have seen slight increases. Last year, two more members of L pod, Grace and Baba, were missing and have not been seen since.
The loss of 4 members of L pod over the past 2 years brings the population total to only 78 members, the lowest it has been in almost 20 years. Unfortunately, because whales die at sea and their bodies are rarely found, we will likely never know what happened to them. But we can increase conservation efforts to protect their habitat and their prey, and try to get that population number going back up.