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Rivers & Watersheds

During Orca Month in 2022, through stories and videos, we'll explore some of the watersheds and rivers that are essential to Pacific Northwest salmon and vitally important to the endangered Southern Resident orcas and a healthy marine ecosystem. 


  • Amanda Colbert

J17 Princess Angeline by Amanda Colbert

J1 Princess Angeline.

1977 – 2019 female

by Amanda Colbert

Orca Network

J17 Princess Angeline was my “spark” Southern Resident. Meaning she is the orca that began my love and my journey into advocating for the endangered Southern Resident orcas.

It was a beautiful, sunny day in June of 2014. The day would be full of “firsts:” my first visit to San Juan Island and the first time I would see an orca in the wild. I had no idea to the degree this encounter would change me and the course of my life.

I spied her first—the black fin and shiny back that broke the water barrier. The loud “whoosh” of her exhalation hung in my ears, a smaller orca surfacing just beside her. They both slipped back under the surface just as quickly as they appeared. More black fins were appearing off her right flank, farther from us than she was, a chorus of blows rising from the background. This repetitious act of surfacing to breathe would continue for a few minutes as the orcas travelled north. What I realized was that the lagging orcas’ heading seemed to match hers. It became apparent that she was leading this little group. Their breathing was timed in succession with one another. They were individuals but moved as one unit, paced by this female orca who exuded confidence and certainty. It was as if she were a planet, pulling moons along her gravitational field. For these moments, I was caught up in their world and mesmerized; it was as if she was pulling me with her gravity, too. The curiosity and awe I felt towards her was almost overwhelming. I was compelled to find out who she was—what was her story?

Luckily, I had captured a decent photo revealing her left side saddle patch. Through the use of a Southern Resident identification guide, a naturalist onboard our vessel taught me how to match up my picture to her unique markings. This orca was J17 “Princess Angeline.” She now had a scientific designation and a name, in my mind. Looking over the crisper photo of her left side in the ID guide, J17 had an interesting saddle patch pattern with a swirl of black skin that disrupted the solid gray—a “finger-saddle” as I would later learn. There was a slight crook to the tip of her dorsal that altered the sleek, halfmoon shape that most of the other females I’d seen appeared to have. I was told about her scientific designation, her nickname and its Duwamish origination as Princess Angeline, was Duwamish Chief Seattle’s daughter. I learned about her fish-eating family, her place as a matriarch, the important information she kept, and passed along to her family. She wasn’t just some orca I saw out in the wild. She was unique, named, and part of an endangered community. A word that immediately made my heart ache. I left Princess Angeline and her family, that trip, and the island with so much on my heart; she occupied a lot of space in my mind, after that. I had definitely imprinted upon an orca.

I wouldn’t see her or her family again until 2018, but I spent that lapse in time learning everything I could about them. I wanted to know what to do to help. To keep them on the planet. And I was feeling a sense of urgency and longing. Four years seemed to go on forever. But then came a surprise.

Out looking for gray whales near Langley in April 2018, orcas appeared in misting rain that turned into stinging sleet, and then back to rain. These orcas would turn out to be J Pod. I stayed out in the weather, searching, because I knew she was out there. And who would I identify first? J17. This time she had a much smaller calf in tow. Her little family had grown, and from the looks of it, so had her confidence. She looked like a proud mom, spiritedly breaking the water’s surface just before her new calf, J53 “Kiki.” Again, I was cast under the spell of her remarkable grace as she led a portion of her small family that I could now recognize after studying the Southern Resident ID guide—granddaughter J46 “Star,” son J44 “Moby,” and daughter J35 “Tahlequah.” My heart swelled. It was like I was visiting with a dear, old friend and I couldn’t help but smile at how well she appeared to be doing. And in some weird way, I wonder if she knew what that moment felt like to me. Because for a few minutes, she seemed to linger there with Kiki, as if imparting her own “hello; look what I’ve been up to in your absence.” Though the overall encounter was brief, I felt the magic all over again. The gravitational pull seemed even more intense, this time.

I would have several other encounters with J Pod, and somehow, Princess Angeline was usually the first orca I’d spot. And right near her, there was daughter Kiki. Maybe I was always looking harder for those two, or maybe it was something else. I cherished the half dozen encounters I had with J17, and now I hold them near and dear to my heart. I’d love to say they were enough, but I could have looked for, watched, and reveled in the sight of that orca forever. Though there has been a lot of tragedy and loss among J17’s little family in the short time I’ve been acquainted with them, and she is no longer with us, she showed me so much about orcas’ emotional capacities and their individuality. She taught me that there is so much more to life than the things you have, but rather, the importance of sharing the planet with the other living beings that call this place home. My initial spark of curiosity into her world was fanned to flames by knowing her, and then losing her. Advocating for the recovery of her population, striving to protect her remaining legacy, and ultimately, the planet, is a task I’ve taken on because I loved something more than I love myself. I’m indebted to her, always, for teaching me to see the world through different eyes. I am better for knowing her. She may be gone, but I still feel that familiar pull whenever I’m lucky enough to spy a group of Southern Residents, but most especially when I can pin-point Kiki. I watch Kiki, now often trailing her nephew, J47 “Notch,” or in close proximity to niece J46 “Star,” and I’m awed by how her surfaces seem to match the grace that her mother had. Possibly another way J17 still imparts a subtle “hello.”

J17 lives on through her entire matriline, but I see it most in J53. It’s an honor any time I am within proximity to watch the J17 matriline as they seem to eloquently embody her spirit. Her family has proven that they are just as determined and graceful as she was. And so, my advocacy and determination strengthens right along with them.

-Amanda Colbert

  • Susan Berta

Former Washington State Secretary, Ralph Munro photo by Susan Berta

J8 Ralph.

1956 – 1998 Story by Susan Berta

Orca Network

August 23, 1999

It was a beautiful day in the San Juan Islands. The sun that had been eluding us all summer shone brightly - the orcas, who hadn't been around for a few days, were traveling north up the west side of San Juan Island, arriving at the Lime Kiln Lighthouse precisely at 1:30 p.m. This was also the time and place Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro had scheduled a Press Conference to say goodbye to J6, who had been named Ralph in honor of the work Ralph Munro had done for the Southern Resident orcas. J6 was one of seven Southern Resident orcas who were last seen in 1998, the beginning of a sudden and steep decline in their population, which continued for several years and resulted in the Southern Resident orcas being listed as endangered. Ralph and his former wife Karen held the press conference to help bring awareness and attention to the alarming number of Southern Resident orca deaths taking place, and especially to pay tribute to J6/Ralph, the orca they had such a special connection with, a loss felt deeply by them and by so many of us. Ralph began his talk by describing the day he and Karen were out in their sailboat and met J6 and his family, and just as he began talking, all three pods went frolicking by, right behind Ralph as he spoke. He joked about the whales showing up precisely at 1:30 pm, not before, not after—right on time for the press conference. And just as Ralph began talking about the special connection J6 and his pod made with he and Karen that day in Puget Sound, an orca breached right behind him! We all gasped, and Ralph turned around to see the big splash. Then he started to speak again, and once more, another breach! As Ralph tried to continue with his story of meeting J6 and his family, he kept getting interrupted by this one orca, with no less than SIX full breaches exploding right behind Ralph as he spoke of his strong connection with the whales, and J6 in particular, and what a great loss it was to lose J6 and the other whales who did not return that year. Then it was confirmed that the whale who breached those six times, just as Ralph was talking about J6, was identified as J8, J6's sister. After the speech, Ralph and Karen tossed a wreath into the water to honor the passing of their beloved J6, and the other whales we lost that year, and laid roses on the rocks in their memory. Ralph and Karen's connection with the whales was clearly obvious to everyone there who witnessed that magical moment that was just too perfect and precise to be a mere coincidence. Magic, maybe, but not coincidence.

J1 Ruffles. The Whale. The Legend. ©CWR

J1 Ruffles. The Whale. The Legend.

1951 – 2010 m

by Cindy Hansen

Orca Network

He was quite likely the most famous and well-known wild orca in the world, next to Keiko. In front of thousands of adoring fans, he would slowly surface and then just as slowly disappear beneath the water again, as if he knew how impressive that wavy dorsal fin was. People from all over the world saw him and loved him, but one admirer in particular remains etched in my memory.

Danny (name changed for privacy) was a special needs man who was a passenger on our whale watch boat at least once a year. He loved us, and he loved Ruffles. Each time he walked on the dock to start the trip, he would embrace all of us in a huge bear hug so strong we would have to hang on to each other to keep from falling in the water. We adored him. And we knew that whenever he was with us, we were going to have a fantastic day with J Pod. Because Danny had a special connection with Ruffles that was difficult to comprehend. I’ll never forget the day we were watching J Pod traveling close to shore off Henry Island. Ruffles left the group and did a complete circle around us. He surfaced four or five times, always right next to Danny, who was laughing gleefully as he followed his whale around the boat. After Ruffles had visited his friend, he returned to Granny and the rest of the pod close to shore, and continued on his way.

My last year working on the boat, the last day I saw Danny, we had a report of the L12s at Salmon Bank while J pod had headed north to the Fraser River the previous day. We had a choice to make – go for the sure thing or take the chance that J Pod would be headed back down Rosario Strait, which they often did in those days. It was an easy decision – Danny was on the boat. We took the chance and of course J Pod was there, as we knew they would be. And as he had done so many times over the years, Ruffles left the group and surfaced right where Danny was standing. It was a wonderful last memory of the strange and beautiful relationship between the two of them. I can’t begin to understand or explain the connection, and maybe I don’t want to. Maybe it’s enough just to know that it existed, and to remember the joy it brought to a friend.

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