'It feels like I lost a family member'; Endangered orca population drops from 74 to 73 in annual census

The annual census undertaken by The Center for Whale Research shows that yet another Southern Resident killer whale is now considered dead.

L89 went missing in late 2021 and hasn't been seen since.

That brings the total number of deaths among the endangered population of orcas to three over the past year, during the time period in which the census is taken.

It was a gut punch Thursday for scientists and nature lovers, who follow the pods of Southern Resident orcas.

The Center for Whale Research says that three of the whales that died over the past census period were all male. There were two recent births, which helped offset the losses, but it's still a blow to the struggling populations that's now hit a 40-year-low.

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"They are an extremely spiritual and kinetic animal," said Debbie Stewart, a naturalist who lives on Whidbey Island.

When Debbie visited Washington more than a decade ago and started learning about the Southern Resident Killer Whales, it inspired her to move to the Pacific Northwest.

"They do feel like members of the family, so it has been an emotional week," said Stewart. "I spent hours learning about them, watching them and volunteering."

K44 was born around the time of her first visit and was one of her favorites to watch. She joined the Orca Network and took pictures of the K Pod in 2018 that she shared with us today. The Center for Whale Research census—declaring the deaths of K21, K44 and L89—hit her hard.

"It feels like I lost a family member," said Stewart.

Dr. Deborah Giles with the nonprofit Wild Orca says L89, also known as Solstice, was born in 1993 and was almost 30 years old.

"We do think that the females sexually select for the oldest and biggest males. So, to lose him is a real big hit to the population," said Giles.

L89’s death is the most mysterious. He did not look unhealthy when last observed in late 2021, before disappearing. Giles says it may be a case of toxins building up in his system. 

"When they are not getting enough to eat, they are metabolizing their fat stores. Toxicants that are built up in their fat stores are released in to their system and that makes them immune compromised," said Giles. "Probably what happened to L89, also known as Solstice, he probably didn’t get enough to eat." 

"Only time will tell with the L Pod whales that L89 associated with, it's hard to say how that's going to impact, especially his mom," said Michael Weiss, Research Director at The Center for Whale Research. 

As for the other two whales, Weiss says K21 was emaciated before disappearing, indicating a health issue. He says K44 may have become entangled in a net near the Oregon Coast, where an orca was found dead in June.

"There was a juvenile killer whale male found entangled of the Oregon Coast in June which was the right size to be K44," said Weiss. "As of right now, we don’t have any biological samples."

There were no pictures taken of that whale, said Weiss. There also hasn't been a DNA sample available, though he was told there were some attempts to try to obtain a sample from the net that the whale was found in. 

"It's especially heartbreaking to me to lose K44 who had yet to really reach the prime of his life," said Weiss. 

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Michael says the population now sits at 73. With two babies born recently, it's a net loss of one whale. He believes the census takeaway is that while J Pod has been holding steady or growing, the other two pods are struggling. 

"K Pod has been in a state of decline for several years now. They are at their lowest number they've been at now in the last two decades, and L Pod is at the lowest number they've had since 1976, the entirety of our census," said Weiss.

"I just hope everybody realizes that this population of killer whales is worth saving," said Debbie.

Weiss says overall, the situation for the Southern Resident Killer Whales is still ‘quite dire.’ Both he and Giles say there is hope regarding potential changes in fisheries' management practices that could boost food sources for the whales. Additionally, proposals for dams to come down on the Snake River would also in turn boost populations of fish the orcas need to feed on.