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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!


  • Bonnie Gretz

K1 Taku 1955–1997 male. Story and photo by Bonnie Gretz

July 1994:

I arrived at the Center for Whale Research as an Earthwatch volunteer, knowing very little about whales, and essentially nothing about orcas. It was serendipity that I was there at all, as the timing came together at the last minute. On the second day, my team was the one to go out if the whales were spotted, and we were on the water by 7 a.m., with Dave Elefrit at the helm of "High Spirits." It was sunny and the water was flat glass, with no other boats around. Dave seemed to look over the horizon and said "It's K-1 Taku and his mom, Lummi." We had learned that Taku had his dorsal fin notched by researchers to help prove that individual orcas could be identified. As the whales came closer and closer, we were getting pretty excited. Then Taku went under the boat, turned on his side, and looked directly at us! (Dave said he'd never seen him do this before!) At that moment, I (metaphorically) fell into his world and resolved to learn as much as I could, and to somehow help these amazing animals.

Fast forward to July 7, 1996 and I'm back in the San Juans, attending "Whale School" on Spieden Island. As I lay in my tent the first morning, about 5 a.m., listening to the breeze in the towering trees, and so happy to be back and hoping to see a lot of orcas, I heard someone yell "orcas in Spieden Channel!" We all rolled out of bed in our p.j.s and stood on the bluff. There, with the early morning sun sparkling on the water, was K1 Taku and three other orcas, including a calf! I knew for sure this was my "heart home" and somehow, my main focus was to be on these orcas.

Since then, I moved to Whidbey Island and become deeply involved in volunteering for the American Cetacean Society and Orca Network, and have been able to be a volunteer whale watch naturalist. So thanks, Taku, you helped me focus my life!

K1 Taku

poem by Bonnie Gretz

As the early dawn light opens my eyes,

Slowly my mind becomes aware of fresh sea-scented air,

the call of the ravens, the whisper of the wind.

But suddenly a call!

"The whales are here, in Spieden Channel!"

I run into the meadow above the sea,

the sky softly gleaming blue, pink, gold

the water like glass, swirled with the tide, sparkled with sun.

But oh! There they are!

Those sleek glistening dorsal fins gliding west, surely on the scent of salmon

or maybe greeting the dawn with joy.

The family is there....a little one, staying close to mom, sisters and aunts...

And that awesome big dorsal of (oh maybe!)...

My Taku...rising so slowly up,

his blow hangs like crystal drops in the still morning air.

I watch with my heart

Knowing they've come to greet me,

To welcome me back..

Back to the home of my spirit...

  • Katie Kirking

J49 T'ilem I'gnes born 2012 male. Story by Katie Kirking. Photo, J49 T'ilem I'gnes and J37 Hy'Shqa, by Amanda Colbert

For most of her life, my grandmother wanted nothing to do with the ocean. We never knew exactly why but learned not to push. Despite the fact that she wasn’t a fan of the ocean in which they swam, our love for the Southern Residents and passion for saving them rubbed off on her. When she moved to a nursing center just a few blocks from me that happened to have a top floor gathering area with a perfect spot to watch for orcas in the Bainbridge ferry lanes and in Elliot Bay, she decided she would come with us to that top floor spot to see what she could see. We taught her some of the tell-tale signs to watch for and eventually spotted some orcas with her (thanks to the Orca Network’s spotting network!). We were watching from a distance, but it’s fair to say she was hooked. She kept abreast of the developments with the whales and celebrated every birth. She made sure the staff at the nursing center knew about the Southern Residents and had a chance to look for them when they were in the area. When J49 was born, we adopted him for her 93rd birthday and it was love at first sight. Referring to him as “my baby whale,” she shocked her entire family by requesting to move to a window bed in a room that had a peek-a-boo view of the water when one next became available, allowing as how the ocean was growing on her and she needed to keep an eye on her baby whale. Soon, her wish was granted. We outfitted her with binoculars and kept track of whale sightings, always letting her know when she had J pod heading her way, and much of the time being able to race over and watch for whales with her. We actually saw Southern Residents on a number of occasions from her room and it was magical every time. We were really too far away to get good IDs, but we always made sure she knew when J49 was part of the pod in the area. She “saw” her baby whale on a number of occasions. Whether or not it was actually J49 or not is debatable, but we always celebrated with her and the pure joy evident as she would excitedly recount the various tell-tale signs of whales in the area she had seen during the day before we arrived was absolutely heart-warming.

My grandma loved all of the Southern Residents, not just because her granddaughters did, but because the role of grandmothers within the family structure of the pods was so much like our own family. She always said a grandma’s job was to watch over and guide her family. That’s precisely what she did for our family, and as far as she was concerned J49 was a part of that family too. In her final weeks, J pod headed our way and we were able to watch our orca family with my grandma one last time. It’s unlikely my grandma was able to see much during that special encounter, but she knew the whales were there and perhaps I’m foolish to think so, but it felt like J pod might just know there was a human grandma who loved them a great deal and wanted to see her baby whale one last time. J49 will always be special to my whole family-the little whale who did the impossible and turned a woman who disliked the water for her first 93 years into one who loved watching the ocean and looking for her baby whale throughout the final 5 years of her life. No human and perhaps no other whale could have accomplished the same.

Katie Kirking

  • Andy Scheffler

Photos of J50 Scarlet with Family including mom, J16 Slick

J50 Scarlet

2014 ~ 2018

Story by Andy Scheffler

By now, many of us know that Southern Resident Killer Whales are a unique population of whales, and that they are in a period of overall decline. While their population seems to rise and fall following similar rates in their preferred salmon prey, because the individual whales are well-known and thoroughly documented over the years, their stories seem more akin to the emotional roller coaster we might feel about our own families. It is interesting to note that, among other things, killer whales do possess large numbers of spindle cells in their brains, a cell which is most associated with processing emotions. So the fact that they appear to be tight-knit groups with special bonds and fiercely individual personalities is not just humans anthropomorphising them. Families led by moms, grandmas or even great-great-grandmas stick together for life with their kids, brothers and sisters, sometimes grouping up with aunts, uncles and cousins as well, and engaging in acts of celebration or mourning with the arrival or departure of a pod member.

Back in late 2014, the SRKW population was in a major birth slump, with no new surviving offspring since J49 T'ílem I'nges, who had been born in August 2012. Even more dire, well-loved J32 Rhapsody was found floating deceased in the Gulf Islands December 4 of that year, and inside her, a female calf, also deceased.

But then, like a beacon in the dark, J50 appeared. She was a miracle, she was strength, she was hope, she was joy. Deemed "Scarlet," her birth marked the beginning of a brief prosperous period of SRKW births over the next year, a bonafide baby boom. And she came into the world spunky as can be, a firecracker from the start. The daughter of J16 Slick, already 42 (est.) at this time, putting her right on the cusp of the end of her reproductive years, Scarlet's birth may have been a challenge - she was a miracle. It is known that other orcas may act as sort of 'midwives' around a birthing female, supporting her and helping to push the calf to the surface for its first breath. Whether she was stuck, born upside-down and backwards, or quite what, we will never know, but when she was first spotted, her tiny back was criss-crossed with the scars that reflect her name from the teeth of other orcas who, it is theorized, may have literally grabbed hold of her and pulled her out of Slick - she was strength. It was with great relief that this little whale was observed to be a female, which is important to ensure the SRKWs will have mothers in the future to take over from females like Slick, now perhaps the third oldest of the living wild SRKW population, who are aging out of their calf-bearing years - she was hope. Her playfulness, exuberance and joie de vivre was evident quite quickly as she was spotted frequently playing, cavorting, and jumping clear of the water - she was joy.

She also had a strong and seemingly quite loving bond with her family, especially her big brother J26 Mike. As an adult male, Mike's dorsal fin was the same height as Scarlet was long at her birth, and watching the two of them swim along together, the sheer size difference, the appearance of the protective big brother keeping the curious young calf from getting into trouble was heartwarming to watch. She also seemed to be chummy with her nephew J52 Sonic, born just a few months after she was to J36 Alki (another of Slick's offspring). I remember a day in the summer of 2015 where J-Pod was heading through Active Pass in the Canadian Gulf Islands, when bouncing baby Scarlet was racing about in the current and eventually went towards a bull kelp bed floating just below the surface. Orcas and other whales like to drape the blades and stipes of these big marine algaes over their backs and fins, perhaps delighting in the smooth texture or getting a bit of a scratch from it. Scarlet bit off a little more than she could chew, imitating her bigger, stronger family members this time though, and she seemed to get wrapped up and stuck in the kelp as the rest of the pod continued onwards. Soon her two big sisters circled back to 'rescue' her, both spyhopping on either side of her to help lift her up and out of the kelp, then twisting under her to push her up out of the water to breathe while they somehow untangled her. They all swam on, soon reunited with Slick and Mike, and headed out in the Georgia Strait. I will always wonder what kind of whale 'conversation' was going on among them all that day.

Unfortunately, Scarlet (and Sonic as well) is one of the little whale calves making up the dire statistics of mortality of young SRKW, though she did make it nearly to her fourth birthday. She was a fighter, but her complicated birth and small size may have made her more vulnerable to illness, parasites or malnutrition. A concerted effort was made to treat her in the wild via antibiotics and fish after she turned up looking thin, but unfortunately, these were not successful, and she disappeared a short time later. She is still a symbol of light in dark times, and will always be remembered fondly by anyone who had the absolute privilege and joy of seeing her as the active, spunky, carefree little calf she was. Slick, Mike, Echo, and Alki continue on plying the Salish Sea, hopefully remembering her fondly as we all are.

Andy Scheffler

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