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Resident orcas spotted near San Juan Island after weeks-long absence

Members of J-Pod, who hadn't been documented in the area in more than 100 days, returned to the west side of San Juan Island.

SAN JUAN, Wash. — After at least three weeks without a sighting of a Southern Resident orca, members of all three pods were seen near the west side of San Juan Island Tuesday evening, according to the Orca Behavior Institute.

There were easily 40-plus whales, the Institute posted on Facebook.

Orcas spotted in Haro Strait included some from J-Pod, who hadn't been seen for 108 days. Previously, the last time members of J-Pod were spotted was April 10 near the islands.

Dr. Michael Weiss with the Center for Whale Research confirmed members of all three pods were seen. That includes new calf L 125, who was "looking fine, looking good."

Weiss said the Center for Whale Research estimates approximately 35 orcas were in the area.

Historically, May through September has been the peak season for orca activity, with daily appearances of the endangered killer whales being the norm.

The latest absence was the first time since the Orca Survey began in 1976 that the Salish Sea went 100 days without a visit from the most “resident” of its three orca pods, Dr. Michael Weiss, a biologist with the Center for Whale Research, previously said.

The Orca Network’s Cindy Hansen said there is no point for the orcas to visit the Salish Sea with the declining presence of the Fraser River Chinook salmon, with prey likely being more available on the coast.

A study published in March found that the endangered orcas in the region typically feed almost exclusively on Chinook salmon in the inland waters during the summer months. Most of that salmon comes from Canada’s Fraser River.

The lack of Fraser River Chinook salmon is believed to be caused by more difficult spawning conditions due to environmental changes and habitat degradation.

In 2019, groups called for leaders to act and replace floodgates along the Fraser River and clean up known contamination hotspots in Puget Sound and in the Fraser River delta, among other things.

Below: Southern Resident orcas return July 27, 2021.