Southern Resident Orcas
A beloved icon of the Pacific Northwest, orcas are the focus of much scientific inquiry and hold particular cultural and spiritual significance for Northwest tribes who often feature them in art and stories. The three Southern Resident orca pods, known as J, K, and L pods, historically traveled, foraged, and socialized throughout the inland waters of the Salish Sea from late spring through late summer feeding on Chinook salmon. As Chinook salmon numbers have dwindled, changes in pod structure, pod movement, and seasonal usage of the Salish Sea have become increasingly apparent over the last 5-10 years.
A uniquely distinct community of orcas, Southern Residents are unlike the other orca communities found throughout the Pacific Northwest. Obligate fish eaters and salmon specialists, Southern Residents do not eat marine mammals or other whales. They communicate using their own exclusive dialect, typically travel in large, extended family groups led by grandmother and mother orcas, and stay in these extended family groups their entire lives.
Each individual can be identified by its saddle patch, the light gray marking found just behind the dorsal fin that straddles the orca’s back--no two are exactly alike, nor are they exactly symmetrical. Dorsal fin shape and size, along with other markings, like the shape and size of their white eye patches, size of dorsal fin, and notches and scars, can aid in individual identification. These markings can be assessed by sight or using photographs. Using photo-identification methods, each orca has been identified by the Center for Whale Research with a specific alphanumeric designation that indicates their birth order in each pod, such as J22, K26, or L121, and the movements and behavior of each member and group can be studied over many decades. Each individual is also given a nickname by The Whale Museum, such as “Oreo”, “Lobo” or “Windsong.”
Social Structure and Behavior
The Southern Resident community is an extended family, or clan, that is distinct and separate from all other orca populations, with a unique dialect and culture. It is comprised of three pods – J, K, and L. When Southern Resident pods join together after a separation of a few days or a few months, they will sometimes engage in “greeting ceremonies” — ritualized formations of each pod face one another for several minutes, then gradually merge into active groups, each existing of members of different pods, accompanied by intense underwater vocalizations and spectacular “play” and social behavior.
An Endangered Species
Southern Resident orcas are listed as endangered in both the U.S. and Canada but have continued to decline despite recovery efforts. With fewer than 75 animals and almost twice as many deaths as births in some years, Southern Residents are on the edge of extinction. In 2015, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) identified Southern Resident orcas as one of eight species most likely to go extinct in the near future unless immediate action is taken.
Southern Resident orcas face a number of threats to their survival:
Lack of prey: The single greatest threat to survival of the Southern Resident orca population is depletion of their preferred prey, Chinook salmon. Data from the Center for Whale Research has shown that Southern Resident mortality is correlated with coast-wide Chinook salmon abundance. Drone research from SR3 has shown that Southern Residents are sometimes visibly thin, and a study from the U.W. Conservation Canine program discovered a 69% miscarriage rate primarily due to lack of food. This research indicates that restoring prey for Southern Residents should be our top priority.
Pollution: Southern Residents are among the most contaminated
marine mammals in the world, exhibiting high levels of DDT, PCBs, flame retardants, and other contaminants known to cause immune and reproductive dysfunction.
Noise: Southern Residents are subject to extreme stress from any human-created noise in the ocean. Activities including Navy training and testing exercises, shipping traffic, recreational and commercial boating, and construction have made our waters louder than they have ever been. Orcas rely on sound to navigate, communicate, and locate prey - essential activities made incredibly challenging in an increasingly noisy ocean.
Threat of oil spills/small population risk: With so few individuals remaining in the population, the Southern Residents are at
increased risk of inbreeding depression or a disease outbreak, and a catastrophic event such as an oil spill in their habitat would decimate the highly social orcas.
There are currently 73 individuals in the Southern Resident orca population – 25 in J Pod, 16 in K Pod and 32 in L Pod. This marks the lowest number in L Pod since the Orca Survey census began in 1976. But a hopeful sign is that there are seven new calves in the population since 2019, indicating that the mothers were able to find enough salmon during the months leading up to their births. These little ones inspire us to continue with our education and advocacy efforts.
A Call to Action
For more information on how you can help, check out:
Orca Action Month’s Take Action page
Orca Action Month’s Events & Activities page