Every day this summer, Jeanne Hyde scanned the waters off the west side of San Juan Island, hoping that the killer whales would show up. All night, she streamed the underwater sounds from microphones submerged along the shoreline, waiting for the whales’ distinctive trills, chirps and whistles to wake her up.
Too often, she slept through the night.
“Day after day after day, I’d wake up the next morning and I’d check the recording to make sure I didn’t miss something,” said Hyde, 71, who has watched and listened for the whales every day for 14 years.
“And I’d just put a line through the date and the time: nothing, nothing, nothing. They just weren’t here.”
This summer was “the worst year on record” for sightings of endangered southern resident killer whales in the Salish Sea, according to Ken Balcomb, a biologist and founder of the Center for Whale Research, who has been monitoring the animals for more than 40 years.
As recently as 2004, the whales were spotted 150 days from May through September, or nearly every day. This year, they showed up on only 40 days in the same period, Balcomb said. Previously, the worst year was 2013, when there were 70 days of sightings.
But with this year’s record-low Chinook runs, the whales had no reason to waste their time in the Salish Sea, Balcomb said.
The southern residents’ absence this summer is just one more signal that, without more salmon, the whales’ survival is in jeopardy. A new study, to which Balcomb contributed, concludes that the only way to increase the number of whales is to increase the number of Chinook, while also addressing other threats to their survival, including noise from ships and boats that can disrupt their feeding.
The deaths of seven whales in the past year, including a calf that appeared emaciated before disappearing in September, dropped the wild population to only 76 animals. That’s the lowest number in more than 30 years, and about half as many southern residents as probably existed before dozens were killed or captured for marine parks in the 1960s and 70s.
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Originally written by Allegra Abramo