Endangered resident orcas return to inland waters after long absence

SAN JUAN ISLAND, Wash. -- A sight for sore eyes, the southern resident orcas appeared through the fog Thursday morning on the west side of San Juan Island.

It's been 40 days since the endangered orcas were last seen in inland waters. Thursday marks just the third day all summer they've made an appearance in their ancestral home.

The Whale Museum's Soundwatch research vessel captured majestic images of the orcas in the fog. Researchers knew that J pod was in town after hearing faint calls over the Lime Kiln hydrophone overnight but the fog made it difficult to find them at first.

The newest southern resident calf, J56, was also there.

"Every baby is super important to this whole population, so every time we see her it gives us all a little bit of hope," Soundwatch program director Taylor Shedd said.

Since the southern residents' last trip inland, the Center for Whale Research declared that three orcas are missing and presumed dead: J17, K25 and L84.

The early death of J17, a matriarch, is particularly concerning. Known as "Princess Angeline," she has a young daughter, J53, or Kiki, and her other daughter is J35, Tahlequah, who famously lost her own calf and carried it on her head for 17 days just last summer. A mother's death can lead to a health decline for her children.

"We're keeping an eye on those two," Shedd said. "We all heard about J35 last year and know what she's gone through, and now that she lost her mom and has a younger sister to take care of, it puts a lot of stress on the family and the pod as a whole."

New boater regulations and added enforcement should minimize vessel stress on the southern residents while they're inland. Soundwatch, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and NOAA enforcement were all on the water Thursday, educating private boaters on the rules around whales.

WDFW said all whale watch boats were in compliance Thursday. They will have specialized patrols over the next few days or as long as the residents are around.

Sgt. Russ Mullins said enforcement officers made numerous contacts with recreational boats to inform them of the presence of endangered orcas and further educate them.

Soundwatch added that boaters should always anticipate whales in the water and be on the lookout for whale warning flags flying from boats. Boaters should also slow down when they see whale watch boats going slow, an indication that whales are nearby.