Jefferson: Researchers seek help tracking orcas in winter

PORT TOWNSEND — From May to September, they frolic in the salty brine or chase salmon in the San Juans while entertaining flocks of tourists.

But where they go in winter is a mystery.

“It’s commonly suspected that they head for the open ocean, and go down to the Columbia River, where the winter chinook are coming in to spawn,” Howard Garrett says, “but we get very few reports.”

Garrett is co-founder of the Orca Network, a non-profit organization on Whidbey Island that keeps track of the three pods of orcas that range from south Puget Sound to the San Juan Islands.

Now that the pods — known collectively as the Southern Resident population — have been classified as an endangered species, Garrett is asking boaters and beach-walkers to keep an eye out for the animals.

“It’s all the more important to get those reports now that the federal government is trying to determine how to restore their habitat,” Garrett says. “Where they are tells us what they’re eating.”

Orcas don’t migrate like gray whales, Garrett says, so it’s hard to predict where they’ll be at any given time.

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