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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!


  • Rachel Haight

Matrilines by Rachel Haight

J28 Polaris & J54 Dipper

2015 – 2016

Story by Rachel Haight

J28 Polaris & J54 Dipper

2015 – 2016

Story by Rachel Haight

Like many others, I fell in love with orcas after watching Free Willy as a kid. I was born and raised in Nebraska, about as far as you can get away from any ocean. But that didn't matter, as the sea and the whales have always had my heart. My mom brought me on vacation to see the Southern Residents back in 2004, and I vowed to myself that I would live out here one day. I made that dream come true by moving to Whidbey in July 2012. I started land based whale watching in August 2012 and since then I have spent thousands of hours watching whales of all kinds and have had too many memorable experiences to count.

Of the resident pods, I have spent the most time following J pod all around Puget Sound. A few J pod individuals have my heart, two of those being J28 Polaris and her baby J54 Dipper. I loved her unique notch in her fin. I loved that without fail, I saw her in every J pod encounter I have had, and usually close by.

When I came to visit in 2004, we stayed in Anacortes and I fell in love with the area. I loved the view both of and atop Mount Erie and it's become a beloved icon to me, still to this day. One memorable whale watch tour about 6 years ago, I had the privilege of watching J28 Polaris feed just off the boat in a glassy calm Rosario Strait with Mount Erie as a backdrop. It was like a symbol of all my childhood dreams coming true in one moment and I'll never forget it.

I have utilized nearly every ferry run to get a better glimpse of these amazing creatures. My most memorable encounter happened on the Coupeville ferry run. On a cold December day in 2015, J pod was headed into Admiralty Inlet and crossed paths with the ferry. J28 with a tiny fin passed behind the ferry. At the time, I had assumed it was J53, as J28 assumed babysitting duties for her baby sister. The next day, the Center for Whale Research confirmed the news of J28 giving birth to J54 a week prior, so it was really special to meet her baby boy I already loved so much before his birth was officially announced.

My most memorable, and last, days with both J28 and J54 came in April 2016. I was on a whale watch tour when we came across the J17s and J22s in slow steady travel south off the west side of Whidbey. J28 & J54 were traveling right next to mother/grandmother J17 & J53. It was the most precious moment, seeing 3 generations of orca including 2 young calves. The family bonds of these whales never cease to amaze me. They spent the next several days doing the "Whidbey east side shuffle", a time that will forever be the best days of my life. I got to spend so much time with J28, J54, and their amazing family. And, I got to do so with my beloved human pod that loves these whales as much as I do. J28 and J54 unfortunately passed away just six months after this magical time, so I will always cherish these incredible encounters.

We are so fortunate to be able to form both bonds with the orcas and with each other because of a shared burning passion. J28 Polaris and J54 Dipper will always hold a special place in my heart and gave me so many lovely memories and for that, I am forever grateful.

  • Owen Begley-Collier

J27 Blackberry in San Juan Channel. Video by Cindy Hansen

J27 Blackberry

b. 1991 Male

by Owen Begley-Collier

The first time I saw orcas up close, I was a 10 year old messing around in the waves at south beach. The waves were pretty small, but to 10 year old Owen, I might as well have been at Nazare. As I waded in the chilling surf, my mom yelled out my name. When I came over she said she thought she saw the white belly of an orca among the whitecaps out in the distance. Even 10 year old Owen knew that there was a 99.9 percent chance that it was also a whitecap, but I was down to go to Lime Kiln to see what we could see. All throughout the day we had a feeling we would come across some orcas, and there was no better place than Lime Kiln for that to happen.

On our way there I saw what looked like a couple of fins through the glare of the sun, and they were heading in the direction of Lime Kiln. So we continued on and ran down the gravel path to the lighthouse. When we got down, there were no whales in sight, so I decided to scramble on the rocks to pass the time. As I was facing the rocks, my mom yelled, “Owen look!” Right in front of me was the slick black fin of an orca only a few feet away from where I was standing, I was eye to eye with my equal in water. At first I could barely process what I was seeing. When my mind finally did process it, I started yelling excitedly and obnoxiously as the whales porpoised in the wake of a ship further offshore. Despite my screaming, a large male orca decided to make a visit. Out of the blue, this huge orca bursted out of the water with a gunshot sounding breath that knocked the wind out of the people sitting on shore. He was even closer than the first whale, and we all sat frozen on the rock as he slipped back into the sea. His fin was wavy and his saddle patch looked like a cloud, no one got pictures of him, but if I had to guess, I would say it was probably Blackberry. As the sun went down, the whales became tiny specks on the horizon with little puffs of spray hovering above them. A little bit of luck and possibly some telepathic communication had led us to an experience we would never forget, and that gives me motivation to continue protecting these whales by pushing for the removal of the Snake River dams.

  • 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

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