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J Pod Endures

The Dorsal Spin
Samish (J14) with son Riptide (J30), who died in 2012. Photo © Mark Sears, 2007
Samish (J14) with son Riptide (J30), who died in 2012. Photo © Mark Sears, 2007

Chez VHP had a fortuitous and nostalgic encounter with J Pod on January 18. I fretted that we might miss our beloved Kéet, but the orcas’ leisurely pace allowed us to find them as they cruised up the west side of Vashon in dispersing fog. From a familiar vantage point overlooking Colvos Pass, I spotted them instantly, resting along the Kitsap shore.

Mark Sears accompanied NOAA researchers in their boat. The crew collected several samples – a productive outing. J Pod rested most of the day; Mark saw no foraging. L87’s sat tag revealed that the orcas went into Commencement Bay overnight, where they presumably found food.

I contemplated the timeless vision of J Pod napping in Colvos Pass – a glorious sight I have witnessed dozens of times since I moved to Vashon in 1994. Granny (J2) still leads her extended somnolent clan, today with Onyx (L87) at her side, but I fondly recall resting formations with Ruffles (J1) and Spieden (J8) beside Granny.

Fifteen J Pod members have died since 1994: exquisite whales such as Merlin (J3), Ralph (J6), Tahoma (J10), Everett (J18), and Riptide (J30), to name a few. Tahoma died in 1999 when she was about 37. Her 23-year-old son Everett died soon after in 2000, tragically exemplifying how killer whale sons do not thrive without their mothers.

J Pod visits to Vashon-Maury in January are now rare. Mark recollects an era when J Pod regularly came here in January. We had another memorable January 18 encounter with J Pod in 2002, when Kéetla/Springer -- orphan orca extraordinaire -- was at the North End ferry dock.

Mark was monitoring Springer (A73) from his boat that day when she became visibly excited. Above water, he heard her vocalizing in orca “baby talk.” Kéetla was less than two years old at the time. Typically, he watched her rub on her favorite log, catch steelhead, or ride the ferry wake.

The ostensible cause for Springer’s enthusiasm: J Pod was traveling south in Puget Sound. We surmised she could hear the orcas approaching. Would we see a sweet interaction? Alas, Southern Resident J Pod was not eager to meet the charming little foreigner babbling Northern Resident A4 Pod calls.

Rather than continuing south in East Passage, J Pod avoided Springer. The Js veered off, traveling down the west sides of Blake and Vashon Islands. On that winter day in 2002, Odin and I watched Granny, Ruffles, Spieden and their kin surface in the wine-dark water of Colvos Pass at sunset, against a rose-mauve-orange sky. Spieden’s wheezy blow echoed in the quietude.

Twelve years ago, J Pod went south in Colvos on January 18. This year, we saw J Pod with Onyx (L87) traveling north in the passage on the 18th. A wistful feeling arose when our enduring, endangered J Pod reached Blake Island and journeyed onward to Restoration Point. We probably will not see these orcas in Island waters again for many months, and when they do return, the loss of more members may well alter J Pod’s configuration.  
   
Please support the work of the Vashon Hydrophone Project (VHP): REPORT LOCAL WHALE SIGHTINGS ASAP TO 463-9041, as well as seal pups and sick, injured, or dead marine mammals on Island beaches. Prompt reports to the VHP expedite vital data collection efforts by Mark Sears and other researchers, and sustain an accurate record of whale sightings for Vashon-Maury initiated three decades ago. Send photos to Orca Annie at Vashonorcas@aol.com.