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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!


  • Caroline Armon

J38 Cookie by Sara Hysong-Shimazu ©2013

Back in 2004 when I was working as a Marine Naturalist on a tour boat, we had an extraordinary encounter with the J22 family off the southwest end of San Juan Island.

Jpod was in the Strait of Juan de Fuca very spread out in family and small groups. The waters and and currents were calm, so engines were turned off. We watched the J22 family out in the distance, mom J22 Oreo with her son J34 DoubleStuff, and her new calf J38 Cookie. We put the hydrophone in the water and heard their vocalizations! Cookie left his mom and brother and swam toward us. Then Oreo's vocalizations increased and Cookie responded vocally and he sounded like the baby he was! My imagination said Oreo was calling, scolding Cookie to come back to her, and Cookie was saying 'in a minute mom'. Curious Cookie did take his time swimming back to mom.

Hearing the distinct difference in Oreo's and Cookie's vocalizations was extraordinary and although we can often hear vocalizations, we can rarely identify who specifically is 'talking' as the Southern Resident killer whales have life long bonds to each other, and are especially physically close in their formative years.

By Caroline Armon

  • Caroline Armon

J2 Granny Photo by Caroline Armon

Wise Elder Matriarch J2 Granny

1911 – 2016 female

My first profound encounter with J2 Granny happened early in my career, as a Marine Naturalist on the Salish Sea. It’s summer in the year 2000. I’m standing behind a group of people on the tour boat’s side-deck as we watch Granny’s family of 4 generations swim north up San Juan Channel. Part of my job is to interpret the behavior of these Orca for the group of tourists onboard. An elder woman standing in front of me shares that she is the same age as Granny, and is also a great-grandmother. Standing next to her is a young woman, a new mother holding her baby. The baby starts to cry and the great-grandmother and I reassure the flustered mom, who is worried the baby is bothering other people, and is about to take the baby into the boat cabin when Granny leaves her family and swims up next to the boat, right below us. She slowly spy-hops raising her head out of the water and slowly turning, gazes at each of us, straight into our eyes. Then she slowly sinks back down into the water and swims back to her family. Time stops, freeze-frame moments. I don’t remember if the baby stopped crying, we were all stunned. The depth, the awareness, the sentient being we shared eye contact with in Granny’s soulful eye is indescribable, beyond words, an unforgettable encounter that endeared Granny to me and all. I wish I too could echolocate: send and receive three dimensional photographic and x-ray-like information, as Granny can. I can only imagine her perception of us humans. She recognized the distress in that crying baby, she came and comforted us. It was a dream come true for that other great-grandmother, and an extraordinary story for that baby who is now grown up. Granny responded to a natural sound of universal communication. It was an interspecies connection that still inspires my advocacy.

I have so many memories of Granny leading her family, J-pod, and all the pods — she was the matriarch of the clan of Southern Resident killer whales. She was often with the first group of whales sighted. On one perfect July day, sunny and warm, tall ships sailing in San Juan Channel, there were reports of Orca in Rosario Strait. As we approached the strait, a thick marine fog lay on the water and reduced visibility. We heard the powerful breathing of the whales echoing long before we saw them. The sun melted the fog and there were Orca everywhere the eye could see. It was a super-pod: the entire clan, 85 whales at that time, spread out in families and groups. That summer day J1 Ruffles appeared to be in the lead of the clan as they swam south along the eastern shores of Lopez Island. Then Granny surfaced in front of Ruffles and took the lead. Approaching the end of Lopez, the super-pod had to decide whether to continue south, or make a right turn into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and head west. Matriarch Granny turned right and all 84 whales followed her.

Granny seemed to give Ruffles his space as he would often be out in mid-channel while Granny and her grandchildren would be close together near shore. Another beautiful, scenic summer day, we were drifting in calm waters while J-pod families leisurely swam down Boundary Pass. As we observed a steady stream of whales, I remember wondering: where were Granny and Ruffles? She wasn’t with the first group. Then we saw she was at the end of the J-pod stream by herself, and Ruffles was another mile behind all by himself. As Granny was passing us, she abruptly turned around and sped swam back to Ruffles. He joined her and they both rapidly swam side by side, leaving a whale wake, until they caught up with the rest of J-pod. Powerful and agile, looking like the dolphins they are. (Science classifies orca as the largest member of the dolphin family, all these common and scientific names can be so confusing.) We definitely sensed Granny’s in charge, she was the clan eldest.

In the autumn of 2014, while at Lime Kiln Point State Park, we watched Granny leading the way once again, traveling north scanning Haro Strait for salmon. She turned back south and dove playfully, turning upside down and rolling around in the bull kelp beds near shore by the lighthouse. Did Granny feel the wonder from all of us by the lighthouse, absorbed by her presence? Or did she come by to grace the bride and groom and their guests sitting mesmerized on the rocks? Delaying their wedding ceremony until Granny continued on her way.

Granny heard, felt, touched, saw, and knew more than any other Southern Resident Orca. She had so much experience, awareness of ocean life, and history to share and teach her clan. She witnessed being shot at, captures and deaths of her relatives and community members, declining salmon, declining habitat, toxins in the water, and increasing noise, all impacting their lives and their acoustically oriented world. Yet she still breached and played in her last years, shared salmon with her family in her last days, lives on in the 5 generations and community she was part of, and our memories.

Monumental Matriarch, J2 Granny leading her family

  • Lodie Gilbert Budwill

Legendary Superpod

Story by Lodie Gilbert Budwill

Video and Images by Center for Whale Research

Taken under Federal Permits

NMFS Permit 21238/DFO SARA 388

It was September 5th 2020 and the day started out hazy with a lot of chop on the water. Visibility was poor for sighting whales from my location at Eagle Cove facing south. If it wasn’t for a distant breach, followed by a large male dorsal fin poking up above the whitecaps, I wouldn't have known the whales were around.

I messaged Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research Founder and Senior Scientist at

7:45 AM to let him know that an adult male was offshore of Granny's Cove headed south, and I could see more whales far offshore, near Hein Bank. Ken answered back, "Weather is not good for an encounter yet. Maybe in a few hours." Conditions were far from ideal to spot whales, and even worse to be on the water, so the plan was to wait until the seas calmed down. Meanwhile, reports rolled in of K Pod and L Pod nearing Race Rocks heading inbound. Was this going to be a long-awaited Superpod? There hadn’t been a true superpod with all members of J, K, and L pod documented in Haro Strait in 4 years.

Conditions had greatly improved over several hours. The water had gone from dark and rough, to flat and calm. I loaded up my gear and met Ken at Snug Harbor to depart on Chimo. This was my first time on the water with Ken aboard Chimo, but I had heard many stories over the years about how the whales recognize and behave around his boat. I was beyond excited to experience this day!

We departed the dock at 2:30 PM and headed southwest towards Hein Bank, being careful not to cross the US/Canadian border. We had a long distance to go, but Chimo really glides over the water. As we drew closer, we could see activity in the distance. Katie Jones was onboard the CWR research vessel, Orcinus, and phoned to let us know their location. She shared the news that she and Dave Ellifrit were viewing J35 Tahlequah and her newborn calf. I saw a worried look come over Ken's face for a split second, that turned into a big warm smile as Katie shared with him that all looked good. (J35’s previous calf died shortly after birth. She carried her dead newborn on her rostrum for 17 days which Ken referred to as her “Tour of Grief”).

Upon our arrival, the whales were spread across the border in social groups: some on the US side, some still in Canadian waters. Ken spotted J35 and her calf from a distance and he took photos with his telephoto lens. He wanted to give her space. He commented while photographing, "Looks like a healthy and precocious baby." The calf was swimming well, right next to J35's side. It was a beautiful sight, mother and baby, both swimming together.

After sighting J35 with her calf, it was time to photo document as many whales as possible for Orca Survey ID. I could tell that Ken was determined to accomplish this task. This was the first Superpod in a very long time and a good opportunity to ID certain whales that hadn't been seen much in the past year.

Ken positioned Chimo, and we sat still in the water, observing whales far off in various directions. The water was flat and glassy as he waited patiently and very knowingly with camera in hand. Suddenly, off the boat's starboard side, a large group of whales exuberantly burst through the surface with loud exhalations. They coasted at the water's surface, gliding towards the boat until they were just a few yards from us and then abruptly stopped. They held in logging position with their rostrums pointing to the bow of Chimo. The female whale in the lead started vocalizing above water. The vocals made Ken giggle, and I couldn't hold back "Awwww"! They stayed still with us like this at the surface for several minutes. Ken photographed while I took video. I felt like I was witnessing a greeting ceremony between the whales and Ken!!!

The encounter continued for several hours with Ken capturing ID photos of various individuals needed for Orca Survey. The whales continued to hang out generally in the same location, socializing close to the US/Canadian border. When the time came, Ken said, "Okay, we'll leave these guys here now. It's time to head home." As sad as I was to have to leave these whales, I was filled to the brim with gratitude and happiness for having such an incredible experience!

Ken started to slowly motor away. As he did, I noticed the whales we had been with, pivoted in position and were pointing directly toward the back of Chimo. Ken gradually increased speed and headed for home with his eyes on the horizon. I kept my eyes on the whales that we were leaving behind … or I thought we were leaving behind! HA! They were definitely following the boat! I tugged on Ken's flannel sleeve, "Ken, the whales are following you!" ... " Yeah, they do that sometimes"…." Ken, the whales are porpoising now, I think they're trying to catch up to you!" He laughed a jolly laugh! Eventually, they caught up to Chimo, at this point they were paralleling both sides of the boat, porpoising, high-speed rolling, twirling, and a few on-the-move breaches. When Ken would slow down, they would slow down, and when he would speed up, they would speed up. I asked Ken if he always has whale escorts on his way home, he replied, "Yeah, sometimes, it makes it hard to get home"!

After several miles of travel with whale escorts off both sides, Ken stopped the boat. The whales stopped too. They moved in front of Chimo, just a short distance off the bow, and then engaged in a massive roly-poly, cuddle puddle. At this point, I was taking video with my jaw dropped to the floor! There are no words to fully describe this experience (the videos provide the visual). It was like a love-fest of tactile behaviors at the surface of the water. We witnessed whales spy-hopping in unison, three and four at a time, while cheek to cheek, rolling and twirling, pec-slapping, tail-lobbing. It made us wonder if this was an all-family celebration of J35’s newborn baby!

We were starting to lose light, and it took longer to get home than expected, but it was the experience of a lifetime! We started the encounter with the joy of J35's newborn baby, followed by an incredible, long-awaited Superpod with all members of J, K, and L pod.

But I will never forget the experience of being on the water with Ken, the greeting we received upon arrival, and the escorted travel home. It felt totally surreal, yet it was so real!

There is no doubt in my mind that these whales recognize, respect, and enjoy Ken's company on the water. He has dedicated his life to them as an advocate -- a voice for the whales -- documenting their existence, their births, and their deaths for over 45 years.

They are family.

Written by: Lodie Gilbert Budwill

Lodie has been a passionate observer and supporter of the Southern Resident Killer Whales for over 30 years. The whales drew her to San Juan Island which she now calls home. Lodie is the Community Relations Coordinator for the Center For Whale Research.

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