Tuesday, February 22, 2011

J1 Ruffles Officially Missing

 J1 Ruffles swimming alongside J2 Granny
Photo by Sandy Buckley

After several recent encounters with J pod the Center for Whale Research, charged with keeping the Southern Resident Killer Whale population census, has officially listed J1 aka Ruffles as missing. The last time he was photographed was on November 21st, causing concern that he may not have survived the winter.

 Ruffles was the first Southern Resident to receive a photo-identification letter (J, meaning he is a member of J pod) and number (1, the first J pod whale to be documented). His name is an attribute to his immediately recognizable dorsal fin; tall and wavy like a Ruffles potato chip.

Born in 1951 (est.) Ruffles is the oldest and most recognizable male of this endangered orca community. His closest companion is J2 Granny, a 100 year old female who is believed to be his mother. The two were often seen traveling together. Granny, along with almost all other J pod whales have been photographed back in the Salish Sea in 2011, but the absence of the massive dorsal fin normally alongside of Granny has been hard to ignore. 

Ruffles has many offspring from K,  L, and even his own J pod. Preliminary paternity testing suggests that he is the most active male breeder, and has fathered more calves than any other male in the community. Perhaps the females of his community chose to mate with him time and time again because of his mature age and massive size, an indicator of 'good genes'. Or maybe it had to do with another reason entirely, a reason we humans may never understand. What is known however, is how much he will be missed if he is truly gone.

Within the next few months the entire community will likely return to the Salish Sea, and the whales unaccounted for will be declared 'missing and presumed dead' by the Center for Whale Research. Until then all we can do is hope that Ruffles is out there somewhere, alive and well, and finding plentiful schools of salmon.  

Friday, February 11, 2011

Sighting of Our Local L Pod in Monterey Bay

 Southern Resident Killer Whales in Monterey Bay, Jan. 27th 2008
Photo by Nancy Black

About 10,000 years ago the Vashon Glacier that covered our area was melting and retreating, exposing the deep channels it had carved. The water from the Pacific Ocean flooded in and created the inland sea now known as the Salish Sea. These waters became thick with salmon, and a group of killer whales living on the outer coast followed the salmon runs in and made a new home in the Salish Sea. Three pods made up this killer whale community; J, K, and L pod. Together they lived, played, and feasted almost year round in the channels and straits.

Then, the salmon they so heavily depended upon began to steeply decline as a result of continuous commercial fishing and heavy damming of rivers. With no food, the killer whales had to expand their winter range. Their search for food also split the group; smaller groups needed fewer salmon. Up until 2000, the furthest south the 3 pods were seen was near the Columbia River along the outer Washington Coast. Then in January 2000 there was an unexpected sighting of K and L pod in Monterey Bay California! This amazed researhers, as they were not typically seen in the winter months and no one knew where they were traveling. Members of L were sighted in Monterey Bay again in March 2003, January 2008, and were just sighted again on February 10, 2011. This time, Center for Whale Research founder Ken Balcomb was there, and was able to record the encounter himself. Meanwhile, parts of J pod are being seen near Whidbey Island, Washington, about a thousand miles away from the rest of their community.

Researchers are still looking for answers behind the long distance travels, but there's one thing we can likely be sure of: until and unless the salmon populations drastically increase in the Salish Sea, we can expect to see our local resident killer whales few and far between in the winter, making long treks in search of something to eat.

Read about the Monterey Bay sightings here.