SOUNDOFF: Enjoy Whidbey's whales

The Orcas are here!

We are upon the time of year when residents of the inland waters and Puget Sound are blessed with visits from the Southern Resident community of orcas, known as J, K and L pods .The same whales that spend the summer in the San Juan Islands often travel southward into Admiralty Inlet, Saratoga Passage, and Puget Sound as fall and early winter approach, following the salmon heading toward spawning streams.

J pod has historically been known to travel into these waters this time of year, but only in the last several years have there been more frequent sightings of K and L pods as well, and all three pods seem to be spending more time in the inland waters, as late as February. Researchers are still trying to find out where the whales go when they take off for the winter months, or why they seem to be spending increasing amounts of time in Puget Sound waters during the winter.

But one thing is certain — the residents of the greater Puget Sound and Salish Sea are crazy about orcas, and delight in catching a glimpse of those towering dorsal fins cruising by the many miles of shoreline that offer wonderful whale viewing opportunities. In the past two months, residents of Whidbey and Camano Island, as well as those in the Edmonds and Bainbridge Island areas, have been treated to Superpods of orcas swimming along the shoreline.

The fall and winter season also seems to be a time when many of the new calves are born, and last month the Center for Whale Research confirmed the birth of a new L pod calf - L-101, born to L-67. L-67 also happens to be the Mom of L-98, or “Luna,” the three year old calf who somehow became separated from his Mom and pod and has been living alone in Nootka Sound since July, 2001. Every new calf born to this community is important, and while we celebrate the birth of L101, we also hope for the return of L98 to his pod soon.

This population of orcas has seen a disturbing decline in population, most likely due to toxins, salmon decline, and the pressures on their habitat from an ever-increasing human population. While this is one of the most well-known and researched community of orcas, there are still many unknowns. Researchers are intent on tracking the movement of the Southern Residents, to gain information on their foraging and travel patterns during these winter months, and to observe any new births or deaths .

Orca Network, a Whidbey Island-based non-profit organization, offers a Whale Sighting Network to assist researchers in gathering increased data about the orcas’ travels, and to provide a service to citizens who would like to increase their chances of observing their orca neighbors from the shoreline. The email network currently has over 600 participants in the US and Canada, including researchers, government agencies, elected officials, environmental organizations, and citizens who are all interested in learning more about the whales and participating in providing data to help ensure their survival.

If you see whales (reports of any species are appreciated), call 1-866-ORCANET (672-2638) or email info@orcanetwork.org. If you would like to be on Orca Network’s Whale Sighting Network Email list, send us an email. Citizen reports have provided valuable information to researchers, and have enabled others to have the unforgettable experience of observing orcas in the wild.

To learn more about orcas and the whales of this region, visit the Orca Network website at: www.orcanetwork.org . For a full day learning-experience about whales, join us on Saturday, Nov. 23 for “The Ways of Whales” Workshop, to be held at the Coupeville Middle School Performing Arts Center, Whidbey Island, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Presenters will include Dr. Rich Osborne and Kari Koski of The Whale Museum, Cindy Hansen of Mosquito Fleet, and Howard Garrett of Orca Network. Admission is $15. For more information or to register for the workshop, contact Orca Network at info@orcanetwork.org or (360) 678-3451.

Susan Berta and Howard Garrett are founders of the Orca Network, Greenbank.

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