Endangered southern resident orcas spotted off Vancouver Island after late return to region

Click to play video: 'Southern resident Orcas late in returning from California'
Southern resident Orcas late in returning from California
WATCH: Southern resident Orcas late in returning from California (Aired: June 26, 2019) – Jun 26, 2019

After an unusually long absence that had some researchers worried, the critically endangered southern resident orcas have been spotted near Vancouver Island.

The Department of Fisheries and Oeans (DFO) said members of all three southern resident pods, J-pod, K-pod and L-pod, were sighted last week.

The DFO said J-pod’s new mother, J31, and her calf were also spotted.

According to the DFO, the southern residents — who now number just 74 adults — spend their summer months foraging in the Salish Sea, including the Haro Strait, Georgia Strait and Strait of Juan de Fuca.

But with no sightings by late June, there were concerns about the whales, which researchers are concerned are facing health challenges due to a lack of their primary food source, Chinook salmon.

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Some researchers, such as Prof. Andrew Trites with the UBC Institute of Oceans and Fisheries, believe the southern residents may have taken something of a spring holiday to California, where the food was more plentiful.

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“In California, they have their best return of Chinook that they’ve seen in 20 years, just unprecedented,” he said.

WATCH: Video rolls as tricky orca steal’s fisherman’s salmon

Click to play video: 'Video rolls as tricky orca steal’s fisherman’s salmon'
Video rolls as tricky orca steal’s fisherman’s salmon

The relationship between the southern residents and Chinook is still not well understood, and Trites is working on a project that would attach trackers to the whales to study their hunting behaviour.

READ MORE: Researchers alarmed as another adult southern resident killer whale and calf found in poor health

Prof. Scott Hinch, with UBC Fisheries Conservation is following a similar research track, but looking at the fish. He’s attached acoustic transmitters to 100 Chinook to track their movements and depth.

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“It’s quite possible that Chinook. in recent years. are much better at avoiding being eaten, or possibly the killer whales are not as good at detecting and finding their main prey,” Hinch told Global News last month.

According to Trites, if the southern residents have been feasting in California they should look a little fatter and healthier upon their arrival in the region.

Global News has reached out to the DFO for more information on the condition of the orcas at their last sighting.

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