Southern Resident Killer Whales glimpsed in inland waters off of Vancouver Island for the first time in 108 days have already headed back to the open seas, according to researchers.
However, one 35-year-old pod member left behind appears malnourished and is likely to die, they say.
The whales from J, K and L pods were spotted in the Salish Sea on Wednesday. Researchers had previously been concerned that J-pod had not been seen in the region in more than three months.
By Thursday morning, however, the pods were also heading back west out into the open ocean, spending just a day in an area that used to be their main summer habitat, said the U.S.-based Orca Behavior Institute.
The excitement surrounding the short visit was “dampened,” the organization said when a Sooke whale-watching company found K21, also known as Cappucino, in poor condition near Race Rocks in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
According to the institute, the adult male appeared “emaciated and with a collapsed dorsal fin, which can sometimes accompany illness in wild orcas.”
He was also several miles behind the rest of his pod and making little progress against the area’s strong currents. It’s unclear if he was left behind or chose to be alone, the institute said.
“We will never know for sure why they all came here now, or how they made the decision of whether or not to be with K21 at this time,” said researcher Monika Shields.
Shields said K21 is one of the best-known Southern Resident Killer Whales, but one that lived longer than the average life expectancy of 30 years for male resident killer whales.
“It’s never easy to lose one of these whales, but it’s even worse when they aren’t living a complete life. K21 at least had that,” said Shields.
The DFO confirmed the poor condition of K21 in a statement to CHEK News Friday.
The animal was showing what is known as “peanut head,” or a misshapen head and neck, the DFO said.
Officers from the DFO and Straitwatch, a stewardship-based monitoring program, were continuing to monitor the animal on the water.
The DFO said there are currently 75 members of the Southern Resident Killer Whale population as of June 2021.