Full lineup of orcas back in Puget Sound

BREMERTON - They're back!

A pod, or family group, of Puget Sound killer whales has reportedly returned to Washington's inland waters, after sojourning in the Pacific Ocean since late last year.

The return of K pod included a rendezvous with Puget Sound's other two orca groups - the J and L pods - who formed a welcoming "superpod" just north of the Canadian border on Wednesday, observers reported.

J and L pods were traveling south toward Orcas Island in Washington's San Juan island chain about noon Wednesday when they apparently heard acoustic calls from K pod, said Brenden Oranato, who was aboard the Serengeti, a whale-watch boat operated by Seafun Safaris out of Victoria, British Columbia.

"Js and Ls swung around and began swimming north at high speed," Oranato told the Kitsap Sun newspaper. "All three pods met up approximately six miles north of East Point," a portion of British Columbia's Saturna Island.

The return of K pod on the Fourth of July was about a month later than usual.

Those aboard the Serengeti said they witnessed a "greeting ceremony," in which the members of each pod form a straight line that heads toward the other groups. When they merged, the whales breached - or threw themselves out of the water to crash down with a splash, said Jeff LaMarche, who was on board the Serengeti.

Dave Ellifrit, of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, said he observed the whales both Wednesday and Thursday, and they appeared to be in good shape.

One young orca in K pod vanished last fall, and is feared dead, he said. But two calves in L and J pods appeared to be doing well.

L pod, which includes about 40 whales, and K pod, with about 20 members, spent most of the winter off the West Coast. Members of K pod were spotted off San Francisco during the winter. They generally return to Washington's inland waters in late May or early June.

J pod, with about 24 members, can be spotted in the Puget Sound area almost any time of year.

The three pods together make up the "southern resident" population of killer whales, and are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.