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Lasting Legacies

During Orca Month in 2023, through stories and videos, we'll honor the Lasting Legacies of the Southern Resident orcas and celebrate the legacy of the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act.

Coming soon!


  • Monika Wieland Shields

J19 Shachi and J41 Eclipse. 2005 ©Monika Wieland Shields

J19 Shachi 1979 female

Story By Monika Wieland Shields

When I first got to know Shachi, she had no living offspring and was going on ten years without having had a documented calf. I probably would have given her long odds at becoming the next matriarch of J-Pod, but in hindsight, some of the clues were there. She certainly associated with some of “the greats”, including the undisputed matriarch J2 Granny, the oldest Southern Resident male and prolific father J1 Ruffles, and her likely grandmother J8 Spieden. I can only speculate what knowledge Shachi may have learned over the years from these J-Pod elders.

Shachi’s life changed forever in the summer of 2005 when she gave birth to J41 Eclipse, one of the few calves known to have been born in the Salish Sea. I remember so clearly hearing the reports over the radio from whale-watchers in Rosario Strait: “There was no calf here yesterday, right? There’s definitely a calf today!” A couple days later when J-Pod came north past Lime Kiln on one of those glassy-calm early mornings, I had one of my most memorable whale encounters of all time. Granny, Ruffles, and Spieden in the lead, followed by Shachi with little Eclipse in tow. Right in front of my perch on the rocks, Shachi gave three tail slaps while her still-wrinkly pink calf popped to the surface beside her.

That encounter would cement Eclipse and Shachi as my favorite Southern Residents, and I would have so many unique encounters with them in the future. They’re the two whales who circled the kelp bed my kayak was rafted up in a few years later, for one. I was also fortunate enough to be on the water the day Shachi’s first grandchild was seen. Eclipse, who was later determined to be the youngest Southern Resident mother on record, was only ten, so at first we assumed J51 Nova was another calf born to Shachi after a ten-year gap! Nova would surface sandwiched between mother and grandmother, and there’s no doubt that he was well cared for by both as he started to grow up.

When Granny passed away in 2016, everyone had a guess as to who would take her place as the leader of J-Pod. J16 Slick was the oldest living female, but was also often a bit of a rebel, breaking her family group off from the rest of the pod, and wasn’t, at least in my observation, a strong associate of Granny’s. For me, the new matriarch would be indicated by which whale would be in the lead when J-Pod went north up Haro Strait. Granny was symbolic in this regard, sometimes being a mile or more ahead of everyone else. We always joked that her attitude was, “I’m going to the Fraser, the rest of you can come or not,” and that firmness of purpose was always enough to get the rest of the whales in line to follow her lead. Other whales would often waffle back and forth, looking uncommitted to going north, but if Granny went, the rest would eventually follow.

In 2017, Slick and Shachi were both in that role of “first whale up Haro Strait”, so it wasn’t immediately clear to us who the new matriarch would be, and for all we know it was up for debate among the whales, too. But in the years since, it has more clearly become Shachi who is out in front, though her sway over the rest of the pod is still not as strong as Granny’s. At times, Shachi will do the “Granny thing” and head north with a purpose on her own. But when the rest of the pod doesn’t follow, milling around on the west side of San Juan Island instead, she invariably doubles back. I remember one occasion in the summer of 2020 when she was the only whale to pass me at Lime Kiln going north, while the rest of the pod were visible only as occasional blows to the south. She made it maybe a mile north of the lighthouse before breaching a couple of times – an unheeded call to the rest of the pod? An act of frustration? - before flipping south herself and swimming with purpose back to rejoin the other whales. Later that month she decided to go north regardless, but J-Pod ended up splitting into three groups, with only 8 whales following her all the way through Active Pass! Perhaps it takes a while, even within J-Pod, to earn the respect commanded by Granny.

  • Katie Watkins

Welcome Home Superpod. Story By Katie Watkins, Photo of Southern Resident Orcas by Susan Marie Andersson

We had just moved to Whidbey Island, mostly on a whim and dedication to long-time friendships. We found ourselves living in a house with my two best friends and their families, 12 of us all together, for five months until we all found “proper” housing. Being packed into a house was an adventure in and of itself, but we had also found an incredible spot, sitting on top of the hill above Libbey Beach, with an unobstructed view of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I spent most of my non-working, non-momming hours on that porch, scanning the surface for whales. We had been following Tokitae’s story for the year before we moved over and I was bound and determined to live out all of my childhood dreams of living with orcas. We spent months watching and seeing nothing (well, save for a few sea lions that us inlanders promptly mistook for whales every time). We started following the Orca Network posts, but were really unfamiliar with most of the locations that were mentioned. Then, one day, we saw that they were heading south and were starting to be seen in the distance from Fort Casey. Hey, we knew that place! We were having a very lazy weekend day and most of us were still in pajamas, even though it was past noon. So, we sent out some scouts (the ones with the least kids to be contained) and waited eagerly by the phone. We got a call ten minutes later and I’ll never forget what came next, “We’ve got orcas.” The whole house went into chaos and frenzy, putting on the closest available shoes and coats and gathering the cats, aka children, into various cars. I couldn’t tell you who rode with whom. I like to think we took a headcount, but I can’t promise that. We caravanned down to Fort Casey and threw children out of car seats and onto the grass. Then, we ran up the hill like a stampede of hastily-dressed rhinos. At the time, we were all novices and owned maybe two pairs of very weaksauce binoculars between the lot of us. But, as soon as we got to the crest of the hill by the armory, we could tell that we weren’t going to need binoculars. What I had been imagining as my first sighting of orcas was quickly dispelled. THIS is how you know there’s orcas. It’s so obvious. The onyx black of their dorsals was so incredibly easy to spot and their movements as a family were coordinated and magnificent. They were everywhere you could see, from east to west and north to south. Too many to count. We were fighting over binoculars, screaming out shouts of joy, and, I can imagine, looking just like the orca newbies that we were. Pure joy.

We learned later that this was a Superpod, and then we learned what that meant—a large family gathering of our local southern resident orcas. All three pods were present that day. Granny (J2) at the helm. We had read about her incredible legacy. It was my first superpod, and it was also my last. That was the fall of 2014 and we never saw all three pods together like that again. I feel incredibly grateful that we had that moment, and that it was our first orca sighting ever. What a way to come into the world of the Salish Sea. But, I also get a deep sadness when looking back on that memory. We see them less and less, and we know that their future is incredibly fragile. All this makes this memory more delicate and something to treasure forever—the day our superpod met theirs.

  • Colleen Weiler

Photos left to right: K25 Scoter with salmon, Monika Wieland Shields. K25 Scoter dorsal with tag, Connie Bickerton. NOAA map tracking K25 Scoter. L84 Nyssa, Monika Wieland Shields. NOAA map tracking L84 Nyssa. L84 Nyssa passing Lime Kiln lighthouse, Monika Wieland Shields. A young L84 Nyssa, Cindy Hansen.

K25 Scoter 1991 – 2019

L84 Nyssa 1990 – 2019

Story by Colleen Weiler

We owe so much to two special members of the Southern Resident community, K25 (Scoter) and L84 (Nyssa), both of whom are no longer with us, but whose roles as “tagged orcas” gave us a glimpse into where their families went and what they did when they left the Salish Sea. The use of these tags was controversial from the start of the project, and studying a highly endangered population can create a difficult conundrum: how to gather the information needed to develop the best possible regulations, but in a way that doesn’t cause more stress. I won’t dive into a debate on that topic here, because I want to remember K25 and L84 and how they helped (even unknowingly) advance protective measures for their extended family.

They both carried tags for months, two of the longest deployments of the handful of Southern Residents who were tagged. The information they provided is the basis of the recent proposal to protect the Southern Residents’ coastal range as critical habitat, and showing us when and where the orcas looked for food also shone a spotlight on just how important the Columbia Basin is. It’s a salmon hotspot for the orcas, and they spend a lot of their time in coastal waters moving around the mouth of the Columbia River, especially as the spring Chinook start to gather. With this information, the argument to restore Columbia-Snake salmon to increase the food available to the Southern Residents is even stronger, and I’m hopeful that real change will happen soon in the Columbia Basin to bring back salmon.

Living in Oregon, I don’t often have a chance to see the Southern Residents, but they are always on my mind. Sadly, Oregon weather in the late winter and early spring is not the best for spotting whales – especially the quick fins of orcas a few miles off the coast – but I love just knowing they’re out there. Thanks to K25 and L84, I know when the Southern Residents are off our coast, traveling with their families and looking for food. They are going to the places they’ve always gone, looking for the food they’ve always eaten, and living the traditions they’ve learned from their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and sisters. K25 and L84 may be gone know, but in opening a brief window into the world of the Southern Residents, they’ve created a lasting legacy. With what we’ve learned from them, we can create better protections for these truly “Pacific Northwest” orcas.

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