This year’s Superpod was full of great talks, film screenings (I’m officially calling “DamNation” the next “Blackfish”) book signings, and more – the orcas of course – but one of my favorite things about this annual gathering is the “cross-pollination” concept of idea sharing between attendees. It’s rare to have so many researchers, advocates, and all-around fans in one place together, and the orca talk flies fast and free. Massive brainstorming sessions can happen anytime and anywhere, from a sunset whale watch at Lime Kiln State Park to an all-you-can-eat pizza session at a local café.
We talk about campaigns new and ongoing, what we can do to further spread the word about the Southern Residents and their endangered status, and how we can make current strategies more effective. New connections are made and old ones renewed; ideas from fresh perspectives put new spins on old projects, and grand plans are made for future collaborations.
All of this happens surrounded by the orcas’ home in the Pacific Northwest, with frequent visits by the Southern Residents that inspire it all. The critically endangered status of these orcas is brought into light by being in their presence, realizing that there are so few orcas left in these waters, and hearing the updates from researchers about their changing patterns and strange structures this year. While some matrilines (family groups) have been frequenting the inland waters around the San Juan Islands this year (unlike in 2013, when a lack of salmon meant all of the orcas spent less than half of their usual time in the Salish Sea), the pods are splitting up and fracturing in ways researchers haven’t seen before. They have been grouped together in strange configurations, and the entire community, usually often all in the inland waters during the summer, has only been together a few times this year. According to orca researcher Dr. DA Giles, this means that the chances for socializing and breeding between all three pods are rare, reducing the likelihood of new babies in the future.
Why the pods are changing their distribution this year and what it means for the future is unclear. When and where, and with whom, will they show up again next year? Are they splitting up due to the lack of food? Noise and harassment? On this note, we will have to wait and see, and continue to work on ways to protect this endangered population of orcas. On the plus side, observers say the four new calves look healthy and energetic, and appear to be eating well. Research (Ayers et al., 2012) has shown that the Southern Residents typically enter their Salish Sea summer habitat in good condition, indicating they have been eating well on the outer coast during the winter; but new information in a forthcoming paper from Dr. Sam Wasser’s lab indicates that their nutritional status declines over the summer months and researchers see increases in stress hormones. Hopefully the new mothers’ winter salmon diet will keep the babies healthy through the summer, and we’re all keeping our fingers crossed that J50, J51, J52, and L121 are still healthy and happy next summer.
We were graced by one orca Superpod during the eponymous gathering, with members of all three pods present late one evening. And on the human side, we were inspired to increase our efforts even as we were sobered by the reality that without quick action, we may lose these orcas forever. WDC found new support for our ongoing campaign to restore the Klamath River Basin, and made plans for new actions with our Orca-Salmon Alliance to breach the Snake River dams. Exciting things are in our future, as we continue to work towards recovery for the Southern Residents – stay tuned!