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.