Feelings about the region’s endangered Southern Resident orca whales continue to swing this year from excitement to worry.
Scientists, wildlife managers and the public have had moments of hope with the addition of a female calf this summer and three recently observed pregnancies.
Concerns also remain prominent following the presumed death of an adult orca in late July and the poor condition of a 2-year-old whale noted at the start of September.
In an effort to protect the whales known to be pregnant — each offering a chance to grow the struggling population — the state Department of Fish and Wildlife issued Monday an emergency rule for whale-watching boats.
The rule designates the three female orcas — J36, J37 and J19 — as vulnerable under an existing state law that prohibits whale watching boats from approaching vulnerable members of the Southern Resident population, comprised of J, K and L pods.
The unhealthy 2-year-old female orca, J56, is also protected as a vulnerable member of the population under an emergency rule issued Sept. 2.
Researchers first said in September 2020 that J56 appeared pale and thin. According to SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation and Research (SR3), recent observations showed the whale’s condition has worsened.
The emergency rules now in effect require whale watching boats to remain a half-mile from the vulnerable whales. State law otherwise requires all boats to stay at least 300 yards from Southern Residents and limits the number of commercial whale-watching vessels near any particular whales to no more than three at a time.
While the potential for three calves to join the population — currently at 74 whales — is exciting, obstacles remain including the pregnant mothers finding enough food, having a healthy birth and surviving birth, as well as the calves surviving long term.
“This hope ... is fragile,” John Durban of the research team SR3, which has documented the pregnancies, said in a prepared statement.
“Last year, we documented a number of other pregnant females who were not successful in rearing calves,” Durban said. “Unfortunately, this is not unusual, and we have documented a high rate of reproductive failure over the last decade. The survival of every calf is crucial to the endurance of this small and endangered population.”
The Southern Resident orcas were listed as endangered in 2005 but have not shown signs of recovery since. Scientists believe the whales are impacted by three challenges: Vessel noise interfering with echolocation used for communication and hunting, difficulty finding salmon to eat, and pollution in the water.
The idea behind boating rules and whale watching limits is to give the orcas quieter waters in which to seek food.
“We need to work together to give these pregnant whales every chance of success,” NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region Deputy Administrator Scott Rumsey said. “The more they can forage undisturbed, the better their odds of contributing to the population.”
Fish and Wildlife, along with the Pacific Whale Watch Association, urges all boaters to know the law and to follow Be Whale Wise recommendations.
Boats are required to stay 300 yards from each side of Southern Residents, stay 400 yards from the front or back of the whales, and slow to a speed of 8 mph when within a half-mile of them. Having a Whale Warning Flag on board and recognizing when others are flying the flag is encouraged.
This summer, the Southern Resident orcas have spent little time in their usual Salish Sea habitat.
Members of each pod have been seen intermittently in areas around the San Juan Islands since about Aug. 25, according to reports compiled by the nonprofit Orca Network and Monika Wieland Shields of the Orca Behavior Institute.
Some of the whales made a surprise visit into Puget Sound on Sept. 7, venturing as far south as Seattle.
The pregnant whales of J pod were among those seen in recent weeks.
“The pregnant orcas were among them, and they are looking good and behaving normally,” Howard Garrett of the Orca Network said.
Those whales range in age from about 20 to 42 years old. Two have had successful births in the past.
Garrett and Weiland Shields said in the 42-year-old whale’s lifetime researchers documented the 2005 birth of a daughter, who has since had two calves of her own.