As Kathy Clarke sat at her desk on Dec. 14, she happened to glance up from her computer and saw an unusual sight: the J-pod was making its way in Howe Sound.
Clarke, whose home on Bowen Island overlooks Collingwood Channel, the west side of Keats Island and up to Port Mellon, called for her husband and then grabbed her camera. In Clarke’s 11 years on the island, she says they’ll see a blow, a couple of whales or pod of dolphins every once in a while. But a pod of orcas? Not so much.
“It was just one of those lucky days. I reached for the camera and it had a full charge, my [tele-photo] lens was on the camera. And I could just go out onto my deck and start snapping photos,” Clarke said. “That’s why I say everything lined up that day — I’m buying a lotto ticket.”
She posted her sighting and photos to the Howe Sound/Átl'ka7tsem Cetacean Sightings Group on Facebook so others could witness the whales too. They were headed toward Pasley Island, and maybe out to the Strait of Georgia when she lost sight of them. Then, she made a report to Ocean Wise’s WhaleReport.
It was tough to count how many orcas were there, Clarke said, as they took turns diving underwater and out of sight. She estimates there were 10, but maybe more. And among the whales Clarke saw was one that appeared smaller than the rest.
Earlier this year, the newest member of the J-pod, J59, was born. The female calf “was pretty rambunctious and looked pretty healthy,” when Gary Sutton, a research technician at Ocean Wise Whales Initiative, saw her in October during a survey for the Centre for Whale Research. They came across J37 with her baby tucked behind her. Hopefully, he said, there are more babies to join the 25-member pod.
Studying whales in winter
Prior to their sighting in Howe Sound, J-pod spent the previous week or so in the Puget Sound area (near Seattle) which is a pretty common location for them at this time of year, Sutton said. While he was surprised they were suddenly in Howe Sound after being in Puget Sound for days on end, Sutton said he shouldn’t have been since orcas can travel more than 100 miles per day. He’s happy to see them finding winter chinook and rolling as a big group, socializing.
Usually, the most common sightings of orcas on the Sunshine Coast are Bigg’s killer whales (also known as transients). The Southern Resident Killer Whales can often be identified by their sheer group size, Sutton said, as they typically travel in larger numbers. Some of the southern residents can be further identified by what’s called an open saddle patch, a black mark that extends into the white patch on the whale. As for differentiating between the three pods — the J, L and K pods — Sutton refers to the online catalog of photos gathered by the Centre for Whale Research on the San Juan Islands, an effort that’s been going on since the mid-70s.
It’s not completely abnormal for the J-pod to be seen in Howe Sound, Sutton said, since they’ll get close to it, especially during winter months. It is interesting to see them right around the islands. In the summer, the J-pod has a “pretty predictable travel pattern” as they move up through the Gulf Islands toward the mouth of the Fraser River (and even further up into Vancouver Harbour) as they follow the salmon run.
The southern resident killer whales were hit hard in the ‘70s, when about 30 per cent of the population was captured and moved to marine parks. Sutton said the younger animals were especially targeted, leaving a “big gaping hole in the population that they’ve had a hard time recovering from.” There was also historic overfishing on the coast, affecting the salmon runs the whales rely on as there are fewer fish and the average size of fish has decreased.
But in December and the winter months, the orcas are feeding on the chinook salmon that in turn feed on baitfish, and there’s a lot of baitfish in Howe Sound, Sutton said. That’s likely what’s bringing them toward the area, “which is certainly a good sign… If the whales are there, they’re following something — they’re following food.”
Since around 2013, these orcas have been spending less time near the Strait of Georgia in the summer, instead opting for the western entrance of the Juan de Fuca Strait, but more time here in the winter. This is a trend a new Ocean Wise Whale Initiative pilot project will begin studying in the next month or so, examining the wintering habits of whales in the Salish Sea from the Sunshine Coast to Cowichan Bay. Sutton said they hope to collaborate with Fisheries and Oceans Canada to collect prey samples and fecal samples to determine what the whales are feeding on, particularly in winter — what is bringing them here.
What about the humpbacks?
The winter pilot project will also study humpback whales. Sutton’s colleague Tasli Shaw has been tracking humpback whales in the Salish Sea since 2012. In her decade of research, Shaw’s count of humpbacks went from 26 individuals to 801 — including a record number of calves spotted this year.
“There’s just been this explosion of humpbacks coming back since historic exploitation, and it's an amazing thing to see,” Sutton said.
Humpbacks are “a huge success story,” Sutton said, as they were hunted extensively and eradicated from the area before trickling back in the 1990s.
It’s important to report
Clarke’s was the only report to WhaleReport about the J-pod in Howe Sound on Dec. 14. Sutton said such reports are important, especially in the winter months when fewer people are on the water and researchers don’t know where the whales are traveling to. There’s an immediate and long-term benefit in reporting whale sightings.
“It's not just important for citing data information, and hopefully using that information down the road to influence things like critical habitat and fisheries management,” Sutton said. For this sighting, he pointed out how close the orcas were to ferry routes. “When you submit your sighting using the WhaleReport app, these notifications get sent to the shipping traffic in the area, various freighters, letting them know that the animals are there, so they can exercise extra caution when operating around them.”