The months of October and November are not unusual months to see orcas in the San Juan Islands. Although the peak season is May-September, our southern resident community of orcas, most notably J-Pod, tends to stick around and have been sighted every month of the year historically. What was unusual about October 16 was the absence of J-8, commonly known as Speiden. Speiden’s estimated year of birth is 1933, which would make her the second-oldest member of J-Pod (Granny, J-2, is estimated to be 102 years old). Speiden is always seen with Granny, and October 16, there was Granny – but no Speiden. Researchers fear that this means the magnificent elder whale has passed away, although this has not been officially confirmed.
Speiden was a friend to all whale-watchers, one of the better-known southern residents for sure. She was instantly identifiable, even from a long distance away, by her distinctive wheeze that would accompany every exhalation. She will be sorely missed among the whale-watching community of San Juan Island.
More troubling than one individual’s death – after all, she lived a very long and full life – is the realization that with Speiden gone, the southern resident community’s population now stands at a dangerously low 80. That number, coupled with the complete lack of new calves this year, has the Center for Whale Research very concerned.
Ken Balcomb of the Center told King 5 news that “we normally get four calves a year, we’re still waiting for one this year.”
The best way to prevent more losses, according to Balcomb, is to restore the dwindling Chinook salmon population. Orcas feed on that variety of salmon exclusively in the summer months, and the lack of Chinook this past year has resulted in the lowest number of orca sightings since the studies began more than four decades ago.