By Alana Phillips

In the gloom of winter, many of us dream of heading to sunny California for some warmer weather. But for BC’s southern resident killer whales, travelling all the way to California isn’t just for fun – they’re in search of food.

Last week, L pod was seen off Monterey Bay in central California. The sighting marks the sixth winter in a row that southern resident killer whales have been seen off California. Although it is not unusual for the whales to venture south in the winter in search of salmon, the presence of L-pod as far south as California has some marine biologists alarmed about the future of this endangered population, which numbers only 88 animals.

“Stocks of chinook salmon aren’t likely to recover in Washington State,” says Dr. Ken Balcomb, Director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbour, Washington. “If salmon fisheries aren’t closed and salmon habitat restored, these whales could end up spending more of their time in California, where salmon are more strongly protected”.

Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard is also concerned about the fate of southern resident killer whales. As Senior Marine Mammal Scientist at the Vancouver Aquarium and co-chair of the Killer Whale Recovery Team, he knows that chinook are crucial to the survival of resident killer whales. “California salmon stocks increased for a number of years but recently took a severe turn for the worse,” he says. “If chinook salmon are becoming harder to find throughout the southern residents’ range, they will need to spend more energy finding food. This means that they’ll have less reserves available for reproduction and disease resistance – and that could have serious effects on the population.”

Winter sightings of killer whales are vital to researchers to better understand the whales’ movement and foraging patterns. You can help! If you see killer whales, or any other species of whales, dolphins or porpoises, let us know!

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