The Center for Whale Research said two southern resident killer whales last seen in poor health are missing from their family groups.

Over the weekend, researchers with the centre saw J pod and K pod in the Haro Strait, including J31 with her new calf. The encounter came a week after all three southern resident orca pods were seen off the west coast of Vancouver Island by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, following an absence for much of June.

“J44 and J53 were also seen again socializing with other whales but J17 could not be found,” the center wrote in a post about the July 6, 2019 encounter.

K25 was also not seen on July 5 or July 6.

Aerial images of adult male Southern Resident killer whale K25, taken in September 2016 (left) and September 2018 (right); the recent image shows him in poorer condition with a noticeably thinner body profile. Image in 2016 by NOAA/SWFSC and Vancouver Aquarium’s Coastal Ocean Research Institute and in 2018 by NOAA/SWFSC and SR3, both obtained using an unmanned drone piloted non-invasively >100ft above the whales under NMFS research permit #19091.

Aerial images of adult male southern resident killer whale K25, taken in September 2016 (left) and September 2018 (right); the recent image shows him in poorer condition with a noticeably thinner body profile. Image in 2016 by NOAA/SWFSC and Vancouver Aquarium’s Coastal Ocean Research Institute and in 2018 by NOAA/SWFSC and SR3, both obtained using an unmanned drone piloted non-invasively >100ft above the whales under NMFS research permit #19091.

“These were the only two whales that were not seen on either one day or the other. We will continue to look for J17 and K25 in upcoming encounters but the chances of finding them are starting to look a little grim,” the centre wrote.

J17 was last seen back in March and April. The 42-year-old female orca had been extremely malnourished when she was spotted off B.C.’s coast in December but appeared to have improved a bit and shown little sign of the “peanut head” condition in March. She was swimming with the J Pod.

K25 was seen emaciated in January. Researchers believed the 28-year-old male orca has been struggling to forage on his own after losing his mother, K13, in 2017.

The residents are listed as a species at risk in Canada with just 75 left. Southern resident killer whales, like northern resident killer whales, feed primarily on salmon, specializing in Chinook and Chum.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada said the greatest threats to the southern resident orcas are a reduction in prey availability, contaminants, and acoustic and physical disturbance; ship strikes have also been recently identified as a threat.  Exposure to toxic spills, interactions with fisheries and aquaculture, and climate change are other human-related threats that may negatively impact the population.

Natural factors may also impact the survival of these whales. These include diseases, narrow prey selection, complex social structure, late sexual maturity and low birth rate, inbreeding, and mass stranding or natural entrapment.

With files from CBC and The Canadian Press

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