Two orcas play in the sea.

Photo Credit: PxFuel

Our Orcas: Thriving or Surviving?

News about the Southern Residents is complicated

New babies are a sign of hope, but they need salmon fast

This spring has been full of good news for the Southern Resident orca pods.

L Pod’s newest calf is a girl. That’s good news for the pod’s overall health. And researchers have confirmed that K Pod’s newest baby is still alive and kicking. That’s even better news, as K Pod has struggled the most over the last ten years.

But new babies are hungry. Anyone who’s had a newborn knows how much they eat! And finding food can be tricky.

Southern Resident orcas eat Chinook salmon. They’re hard to come by these days. Human activities like logging, factory fish farms, and mining have slashed salmon populations. That’s left L Pod, J Pod, and K Pod without much to eat.

The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) tracked the pods this spring. They found pregnant whales, which is a good sign. But they also found 13 in poor health. These whales looked thin. Their dorsal fins were flopping over.

This contrasts starkly with our transient “Biggs” killer whale pods. Unlike our residents, they really give the name “Killer Whale” its meaning.

They eat everything: Harbour seals, Harbour porpoises, Steller and California sea lions, Dall’s porpoises, Pacific White-Sided dolphins, and occasionally other whales such as Minkes, juvenile Grey, and Humpback whales.

At the top of the food chain, they are absolutely thriving. They showed up in record numbers of 70+ earlier this spring.

In some Indigenous cultures, the whale has special significance. They’re seen as messengers. Right now, they’re giving us a message loud and clear: they need our help.

Some help is on the way. Factory fish farms are being phased out. That means fewer sea lice and other diseases for salmon, which could mean more food for orcas.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has also told boats to stay at least 400 metres away from orcas from Campbell River to Ucluelet. That’s because noise from passing boats makes it harder for whales to echolocate, and that’s how they hunt for salmon.

That means whale-watching boats have to stay away, too.

Simon Pidock owns Ocean EcoVentures, a whale watching company in Campbell River. He hasn’t seen the Southern Residents since 2019.

“It’s been tough not being able to view them, we really considered them our extended family. We know how to identify each one,” he told the Times Colonist.

“But right now, every salmon counts.”