A southern resident killer whale presumably died from malnutrition earlier this month, scientists say.

The orca, called J52, was confirmed dead on Sept. 19. The two-and-a-half-year-old animal, who was also called Sonic, was last seen alive near the west entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Sept. 15 while the Washington state-based Center for Whale Research was doing a population survey.

Mark Malleson, a field biologist with the Center for Whale Research, said Sonic had severe “peanut head” syndrome that is associated with impending death.

“They see a real depression behind the blow-hole, it’s the shape of a peanut. It’s just, you know, they’re skinny whales,” Malleson said.

“Usually, when they have that, they’re on their way out.”

Sonic was accompanied by his mother, 17-and-a-half-year-old J36 and an adult male, who was twenty-six-year-old L85. According to the Malleson, Sonic appeared very lethargic and was barely surfacing as the older whales swam around in circles and were not feeding while they were paying attention to Sonic.

The group was at least eight kilometres away from other members of the J and L pods that were foraging within a mile or two of the coastline from Camper Creek to Bonilla Point west of Port Renfrew.

Sonic was not seen with the J pod at Puget Sound on Sept 19, while J36 and L85 were observed. Sonic’s mother did not appear overly emaciated on Sept. 15 or Sept. 19, the Center for Whale Research said, but she was lean and semi-distressed.

Sonic’s death brings the number of southern resident orcas down to 76 whales, not including another that is still in captivity in Miami, Fla. Malleson said all the southern resident killer whales seen this summer appear skinny and small compared to Bigg’s killer whales in the Salish Sea.

Sonic was born during the “baby boom,” from 2014 to 2016. With his death, three of the six whales born during that time have now died. No southern resident killer whales from any pods have been born alive and survived this year.

The Center for Whale Research said all signs, including malnutrition, population number, foraging spread, days of occurrence in the Salish Sea and live birth rate/neonate survival points toward a population that is prey limited and is not viable. It adds that if something isn’t done soon to raise the amount of prey to eat, extinction is inevitable, potentially within decades.

“It’s been different, definitely very out of the ordinary year for them. We haven’t seen them much at all,” Malleson said.

However, there has been some action taken on Vancouver Island. At the Sooke Basin this spring, 225,000 chinook salmon smolts were released as part of the Chinook Enhancement Initiative as part of the South Vancouver Island Anglers Coalition.

“They’re chinook-aholics these animals. They do eat chum salmon in the fall.” Malleson said, adding that Chinook salmon has been in short supply this year.

“We’ve got to protect the salmon habitat.”

Sonic (J52) shown with the characteristic “peanut head” depression behind the outline shape of the skull covered by a thin blubber layer.

 

Alexa Huffman