Here in the Salish Sea, the warmer months signal that it’s whale watching season. The water surrounding the Pacific Northwest island where I live is home to several types of whales, including three distinct species of orcas.
Transient killer whales, also called Bigg’s orcas, eat seals, porpoises, sea lions, and sometimes other whales. When we spot a group of two to six orcas from right here on land, we’re usually seeing transients. (Ironically, “transient” orcas are the ones most likely to hang around in familiar places.)
Another type of killer whale, called offshore orcas, stays further out to sea, so we need to be in a commercial-sized boat to see them. Offshore orcas travel in groups of twenty or more and prey on sharks. (Seriously!)
But the orcas that are most near and dear to my heart are the critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales.
Southern Resident orcas eat only wild salmon and live in the coastal waters of British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. They use a highly developed system of echolocation to find their prey and communicate with each other. Decreasing quantities of wild salmon, as well as increasing noise from shipping traffic, are two factors affecting the decline of the Southern Residents. As I write this, there are only 77 Southern Residents left.
These orcas are highly relational and live their entire lives in close-knit family units. Daughters stay with their mothers for life and share the rearing of their young with their grandmothers, aunts, and sisters. They’ve been known to play a midwife role for each other at births.
They’ve also been observed showing signs of deep emotion.
In 2018, a Southern Resident named Tahlequah (J35) gave birth to a calf who did not survive. Tahlequah carried her dead baby at the ocean’s surface for 17 days and across 1,000 miles.
For those of us who watched this grief unfold, day after brutal day, it was heartbreaking.
But Tahlequah’s story continues. In 2020, when Tahlequah gave birth to Phoenix (J57), scientists witnessed a remarkable event when Southern Residents gathered from near and far to celebrate. “It was like a big picnic,” said Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research.
So far, in 2022, three calves have been born to the Southern Residents and one has survived. Yet unnamed and of unknown sex, this calf (J59) was first sighted on March 1 and belongs to Hy’Shqa (J37).
Update: As of April 28, a new calf has been sighted with Spock (K20). Southern Resident calves have a survival rate of about 50% in the first year, so we are watching and waiting, hoping and praying, for this new little one.
There are lots of resources available if you’d like to learn more about orcas! I share newsy updates on my Facebook page, and you can always link to more information through these wonderful resources:
- Explore the Center for Whale Research, an organization dedicated to the study and conservation of the Southern Resident killer whale population in the Pacific Northwest.
- Get to know the Southern Residents by name.
- Read the historic updates posted by Lynda Mapes of The Seattle Times about Tahlequah’s “tour of grief” in 2018.
- Watch a short video of the Southern Residents celebrating Phoenix’s birth on September 5, 2020, or read one scientist’s personal thoughts about that remarkable event.
- Read good books! Start by checking out my review of Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator by Jason M. Colby.
- Listen for whales by tuning into the Orcasound hydrophones that are located here in the Salish Sea. (Yes, you can really hear these amazing creatures communicate with each other—and in the very moment it’s happening!)
And one more thought. Consider telling a friend about Southern Resident orcas! Together, we can make a difference for these amazing whales!
(Photo courtesy of Unsplash.)