British Columbia

Orcas of J-Pod haven't been spotted in the Salish Sea for more than 100 days

J-Pod, a resident killer whale group, was last spotted in the Salish Sea in April.

J-Pod used to frequent waters off southern B.C. and Washington state, says concerned researcher

J35 is the matriarch of of J pod, one of three groups of killer whales living off the coast of British Columbia and Washington state. Here she is seen swimming with her new calf, J57. (Dave Ellifrit/Center for Whale Research)

A group of famed southern resident killer whales haven't been behaving like residents of the Salish Sea for the last few months. 

J-Pod, the most frequently seen killer whale pod among the group, has not been seen in the Salish Sea since April 10, or just over 100 days ago. 

It has researchers like Monika Wieland Shields worried. Wieland Shields, the co-founder of the Orca Behaviour Institute in Friday Harbour, Wash., says this absence is unprecedented.

"Their presence here has been declining in recent years. So we know that they're changing what they're doing," said Wieland Shields. "[But] nothing this long from J-Pod. This is new this year."

The southern resident killer whales come into the Salish Sea during the summer months to feed on chinook salmon returning to the Fraser River, said Wieland Shields. 

Unlike other orcas who feed on mammals, the southern residents primarily eat fish. Chinook is their preferred species. 

But this makes them extra sensitive to any decline in salmon stocks along the South Coast — especially in a summer where heat and drought have made this year's salmon run anything but predictable.  

Wieland Shields says the pod must have gone somewhere else to feed on fish. 

"Reports of them have been pretty sporadic. There were a couple of reports earlier this month that J-Pod was seen at Swiftsure Bank which is off the western end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca," she said, intercepting returning salmon heading to the Columbia River and other outer coastal rivers.

The other resident pods — K-Pod and L-Pod — which generally spend less time in the area have also avoided the Salish Sea this summer, spending more time on the outer coast. 

"It's J-Pod that was really considered the most resident of the three pods, seen every month of the year here, year after year," said Wieland Shields.

"The fact that even they have just abandoned this area is indicative of just how serious things have gotten."

Killers: J pod on the brink is a CBC British Columbia original podcast about the southern resident killer whales, hosted by Gloria Macarenko. You can listen to it here.

With files from On The Coast


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