Where are the Southern Resident killer whales?

August 07, 2019

“We hope that they are finding fish in peaceful, clean waters. And when they return to the Salish Sea, we will be waiting for them.”

— Sarah Colosimo

It’s another beautiful summer on San Juan Island for our field team, where the days are long and end with glorious sunsets. Seal pups and fawns mark the beginning of new life. And the town is bustling with tourists who have come to see the resident star attraction of the islands; but the whales are not here.

We haven’t seen the Southern Resident killer whales since their fleeting visit in early July. Their appearance spanned the course of two days as they performed their classic “westside shuffle” along the shores of the island at a hasty speed, treating those who were lucky enough to witness this brief encounter. As quickly as they appeared, they too quickly disappeared. It has now been over a month since we have seen them.

The absence of the whales we know and love from these inland waters this summer is unprecedented and impossible to ignore. It is particularly prominent for us, given the purpose of our team being on island is to observe these whales. However, the reality begs us to accept that the whales are not here because this is no longer a viable habitat for them. Perhaps the whales have finally realized this too, and are unable to energetically contend with the declining salmon runs, vessel noise, and toxins that have become the reality of the Salish Sea.

Waiting for Southern Resident killer whales on San Juan island. © Farrell McClernon

The story of the Southern Resident killer whales is undoubtedly devastating. Last summer, we watched on from the shore as a mother carried her deceased calf for days on end and as a starving juvenile wasted away until she eventually disappeared. As their numbers continue to decline, with additional missing whales this year, it is hard not to feel as though all is lost and the damage is irrevocable. But we urgently need to escalate our efforts to restore the Salish Sea in the hopes that the whales will return, before we lose them forever.

It is bittersweet to be without the Southern Residents this summer. While we are without our study species in the place that has historically been considered their critical habitat, we can only hope that it is because they have found an abundant source of salmon that is filling their bellies and supporting their survival. If there is anything that these whales have demonstrated to us, it is the ability to endure and persist. Wherever the Southern Resident killer whales are, we hope that they are finding fish, in peaceful, clean waters, and when they return to the Salish Sea, we will be waiting for them.

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