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3 Southern Resident Orcas Missing, Presumed Dead

Animals
Pacific Northwest orca with Mount Baker in the background near the Strait of Georgia off the coast of Vancouver, British Columbia. Sergio Amiti / Moment / Getty Images

The extremely endangered population of Southern Resident killer whales off the coast of Washington and British Columbia fell to 73 after 3 orcas went missing, the Center for Whale Research said in a statement.


The Washington state-based research center takes an annual survey of the killer whale population from the extremely endangered pods that once frequented the Salish Sea in southwestern Canada and northwestern Washington daily in the summer months. Now, the declining Chinook salmon stocks means the whales are rarely seen and are starving to death, as CNN reported.

But a lack of Chinook salmon means they are rarely seen in those waters anymore.

"They aren't getting their prey, and that's the problem," said Michael Weiss, a field biologist with the Center for Whale Research, to CNN. Weiss said this problem started in the 90s when the population was around 100 whales, but it has been in a steady decline ever since.

"It is right inline with the trajectory that has been predicted for several years," said Howard Garrett, co-founder and board president of Orca Network on Whidbey Island, Washington, as the Global News in Canada reported. "It's very, very sad. These are known individuals. People care about them, we've gotten to know them over many, many years and we know their family lines … and now we'll see them never again."

The Southern Resident orca population is a large extended family comprising three pods named J, K and L. The three missing orcas are J17, K25 and L84. In the summer, the whales should visit the Puget Sound, the Georgia Strait and the inland reach of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

However, it has been more than a month since the J and K pods were spotted in their summer waters. L pod has not been seen in the inland Salish Sea at all, according to the Seattle Times. Instead, the whales have stayed on the outer coast all summer.

"I predicted we would be in this fix," said Ken Balcomb, founding director of the Center for Whale Research, as the Seattle Times reported. "Until we solve this food issue, we will keep going through this trauma, getting all excited when there is a baby and all upset when there is a death. We have to take care of the food problem."

In January, the Center for Whale Research warned that J17 looked emaciated with a misshapen head and neck that were symptomatic of starvation, according to the Global News.

J17 was a 42-year-old matriarch in the pod who left behind two daughters and a son, J35, J53, and J44, respectively. Her daughter, J35, or Tahlequah, made headlines last summer when she carried her dead baby calf around the sea for an unprecedented 17 days, according to the Center for Whale Research. She has now lost her own baby and her mother.

Her death is particularly alarming since it puts her family at risk. Older female Southern Resident whales help feed their families. Sons are up to eight times more likely to die within a year if they lose their mothers, as the Seattle Times reported.

The center also reported that K25, a 28-year-old adult male in his prime, was not in good body condition last winter. He is survived by two sisters and a brother, K20, K27, and K34, respectively.

The third missing what is L84, a 29-year-old male who was the last of a surviving member in a matriline line of 11 whales.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.