The population of endangered southern resident killer whales has dwindled.

Breaking an unprecedented run of days this summer without frequenting their home waters, J, K and even possibly L pod southern resident orcas were all seen July 5 on the west side of San Juan Island.

This was the first summer since observations have been kept that the whales were not seen at all in June, and showed up only briefly one day in May.

“J and K and maybe some L off my house in Haro Strait now,” Ken Balcomb wrote in an email to The Seattle Times from his home. “The whales were off Neah Bay yesterday. Tide is ebbing. If (the tides) are bringing many fish they may push further north when the tide floods. Whales are very spread out.”

Balcomb, founding director of the Center for Whale Research, and other researchers had not been able to do their usual work with the orcas so far this summer as the whales continued to stay away, presumably searching for Chinook salmon in a year in which Chinook are scarce in the orcas’ home waters.

It remains to be seen if the whales stick around, or only briefly visit.

Lack of available, quality food is the biggest threat to the southern residents’ survival, in addition to toxins in their environment, and noise and disturbance by boats. Underwater racket and disturbance by recreational boaters and commercial shipping make it harder for the whales to find what food is available.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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