When mother orca Tahlequah lost her calf in 2018 and carried its body for 17 days, she moved people around the world who were touched by her loss. Now she has a new calf, a healthy male, born on Sept. 4.
And a new question faces the region about how Washington state could move to protect Tahlequah and give her and other orcas in the endangered J, K and L pods more space and quieter water to help them find fish.
New proposed state whale watch regulations — available for public comment until Nov. 13 — would create the first-ever licensing program for the state’s whale watch industry. It has in most recent years been a growing business, despite the downturn of the state’s most celebrated orcas, the southern residents, which frequent Puget Sound. There are only 74 of them left.
As scientists work to understand why the southern residents, listed as an endangered species in 2005, are declining, three main threats have emerged. Pollution, lack of adequate chinook salmon, the orcas’ preferred food, and disturbance and noise from vessels and boats.
The three threats interact: Noise and disturbance makes it harder for orcas to hunt, because orcas hunt using sound. And when they don’t get enough to eat, they burn their fat, releasing toxics stored there to their blood.
An orca needs between 18-25 salmon a day depending on the size and activity of the orca. Nursing is the most energetically expensive task of all for the orcas — and right now there are two nursing mothers in J pod.
In a rare photo of mother orca Tahlequah taken by drone just after her calf was born, the tender and vital bond between the two is apparent.
The photos of both new J pod mothers, J35, or Tahlequah, and J41, were taken during a health survey done by scientists Holly Fearnbach, marine mammal research director for SR3, and John Durban, senior scientist at Southall Environmental Associates.
“I think our photos are a beautiful and graphic illustration of the vulnerabilities and hope associated with these new calves,” Fearnbach said in an email. “They deserve and need protections, as do their mothers and family members who now have another mouth to feed.”
Whale watch tour operators have long argued they play a sentinel role on the water, with their presence alerting other boaters to the location of the whales. The tour operators also provide location information to scientists searching for the whales they are seeking to study and document.
Some tour operators have voluntarily decided not to take customers near the southern residents to give them space and peace.
Science has repeatedly shown that disturbance from the boats is disruptive to feeding whales. A report by the Washington State Academy of Sciences Committee on Underwater Acoustics and Disturbance in August 2020 found little evidence for any sentinel role claimed by the industry. And it confirmed noise and disturbance disrupt foraging opportunity.
Slowing boats and decreasing time around whales, as well as increasing distance from whales, are considered the primary means to reduce noise levels.
An economic analysis prepared to inform the rule-making process found that in an average year, most commercial whale watch companies could manage the costs of new rules on watching southern residents presently under consideration.
One reason is tour operators are not financially dependent on viewing southern residents and the industry, estimated to bring in about $10 million a year to San Juan Island tour companies, has remained profitable despite reduction in viewing opportunities over the past 10 years. The whales have been shifting their primary foraging range as chinook runs, particularly to the Fraser River, have declined. Today the southern residents spend far less time in the San Juan Islands, which used to be their summerlong home.
Tour operators already mostly watch more abundant species, including transient, or Bigg’s, killer whales, humpbacks and gray whales.
Bigg’s killer whales eat marine mammals including seals and have plenty to prey upon. The orcas look similar to southern residents and their spectacular marine-mammal takedowns are a hit with tourists.