K and L pods thrilled onlookers all day long in Central Puget Sound. Several of the critically endangered whales were reported to be pregnant last year.
What a day for orca sightings in Central Puget Sound.
The southern resident K pod got it started Thursday morning, cruising south toward Vashon Island at about 8:45 a.m. Then transient, or Bigg’s killer whales, came into view, with the T137s following close behind the Ks. Finally, much of L pod was also seen.
The transients soon headed north; the two types of killer whales don’t intermingle. “They got out of there,” said Howard Garrett, of Orca Network.
In all, more than 40 whales were seen in a wide swath of Central Puget Sound from Vashon Island to Point Defiance in Tacoma to Three Tree Point in Burien to Bainbridge Island, Garrett said. The nonprofit’s Facebook page was lighting up with sightings all day.
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It was the first time L pod has been seen in local waters so far this winter, said Alisa Lemire Brooks, whale-sighting-network coordinator for the Center for Whale Research. “Most all of the day went by before we had any idea who the big middle group was. It was L pod, and their first time in this winter, so it was a big deal.”
The Ks hung out at the south end of Vashon a good part of the day, before coming up the east side of the island.
Ls were spread out and got to Three Tree Point in Burien before they came back to the south end of Vashon, about an hour behind K pod.
The transient orcas prey on marine mammals, including seals. The southern residents eat only fish, mostly chinook salmon. This time of year their diet is about half coho or chum, and they will take steelhead, too.
So far there is no confirmation on a sighting of a baby. Several southern residents were observed to be pregnant last September but there’s no report yet as to any babies — or pregnancies lost.
Any news of a baby or lost pregnancy has outsized importance for the southern residents. The orcas that frequent Puget Sound have not successfully reproduced in three years. Critically endangered, there are only 74 left.
The southern residents, including J, K and L pods, are challenged by lack of adequate, quality, available food. Boat noise makes it harder for them to hunt, and toxics in their environment cause problems with their immune and reproductive systems.
The most urban whales in the north Pacific, the southern residents were the most heavily targeted for live captures for aquariums. After Washington state officials went to court to end the live capture era in 1974, the southern residents battled their way back in population, only to decline once again. They are the only population of orcas in the north Pacific that is not thriving.
The northern residents are steadily growing in population. They benefit from a larger variety of fish, and cleaner and quieter water. Transients also are growing in population and are now regularly seen in Washington waters.