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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!


When a species is listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the federal government is also required to identify geographic areas that should be designated “critical habitat” for the species. These areas have physical (water quality or open passage for migration) or biological (prey) features essential to the species’ reproduction and survival - essentially, what they need from their habitat to survive. Some of those features may also require special management considerations or protection. Critical habitat designation does not close an area to human activities, but it does require review of federal actions that might impact the features of the area. For more information about critical habitat designation: Critical Habitat | NOAA Fisheries.

Southern Resident orca critical habitat was originally designated in 2006 and included the inland U.S. waters of the Salish Sea. It was revised in 2021 to include the coastal waters of Washington, Oregon, and California. This initial critical habitat designation and its recent expansion were necessary steps and an important use of the ESA to protect the orcas and their home. While there is still work to ensure that critical habitat is protected and given the best level of review for any proposed activities, knowing what the Southern Residents need to survive - and where they need it - is vital for their survival and recovery.

To read more about the process of designating critical habitat for Southern Resident orcas, check out the story below.

L Pod, San Juan Island ©Orca Network.

Designating Critical Habitat

When a species is listed under the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies in charge of species management and recovery - such as the National Marine Fisheries Service or the US Fish and Wildlife Service are required to determine whether there are geographic areas that should be designated critical habitat. This is defined as specific areas that contain physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the species and that may require special management considerations or protection. This designation does not close an area to human activities, but it does offer additional protections from federal actions that might impact critical habitat. These federal agencies are required to perform additional scrutiny on proposed projects to understand any potential impacts to an endangered species or their home, and may require specific mitigation measures to reduce the effects of an action. For more information about critical habitat designation: Critical Habitat | NOAA Fisheries.

Critical Habitat map for Southern Resident orcas ©NOAA Fisheries.

Southern Resident orca critical habitat was originally designated in 2006, a year after their endangered listing. It included approximately 2,560 square miles of habitat in the U.S. waters of the Salish Sea - the waters in Haro Strait and around the San Juan Islands, Puget Sound, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. While this was a great first step, it clearly wasn’t enough, as this is only a portion of the range Southern Residents are known to travel in.

In 2014, a petition was filed by Center for Biological Diversity to revise critical habitat and include the orcas’ coastal habitat off Washington, Oregon, and California. In 2015, NOAA Fisheries concluded that the revision was warranted and began collecting and analyzing data to revise critical habitat. This process took a staggering 4 years but in 2019, NOAA Fisheries released a proposed rule that finally became official in August 2021. The revised critical habitat for Southern Resident orcas now includes almost 16,000 square miles of marine waters from the U.S.-Canada border down to Point Sur, California. For more information about Southern Resident orca critical habitat: Critical Habitat for Southern Resident Killer Whales | NOAA Fisheries

While there is still much that needs to be done to recover Southern Resident orcas, this initial critical habitat designation and its recent expansion were necessary steps and an important use of the ESA to protect the orcas and their home. As a result of this designation, federal agencies must now consult with NOAA Fisheries to ensure any actions they fund, authorize, or undertake are not likely to destroy or adversely modify the orcas’ critical habitat or the essential features that have been identified as necessary to their survival.

  • Monika Wieland Shields

Our next legendary Southern Resident orca is K40 “Raggedy”, easily one of the most identifiable whales in the entire population. Estimated to be close to 50 years old when she died in 2012, Raggedy was never seen with a calf, and was usually traveling in close association with her presumed mother and brother. There are many mysteries surrounding this little matriline. Why did they switch pods? How did Raggedy get her notches? While we will always have more questions than answers, Raggedy certainly leaves behind a Lasting Legacy.

Check out the story below on K40, written by Monika Wieland Shields, Co-Founder and Director of the Orca Behavior Institute.

K40 Raggedy and K21 Cappuccino in 2011. Photo ©Monika Wieland Shields.

K40 Raggedy

K40 Raggedy ~ c.1963-2012

K40 Raggedy was part of my first-ever “close encounter” with the Southern Residents. It was July 2001 and my parents and I were aboard the Bon Accord on a whale-watch trip out of Friday Harbor. We met up with a superpod near Open Bay, and the boat had been shut off for an hour as we watched groups of whales in every direction intermingling with one another and spyhopping, tail slapping, and breaching. Three whales suddenly popped up aiming for the boat and I slid down off the roof of the Bon Accord, video camera in hand. As K18 Kiska, her son K21 Cappuccino, and likely daughter K40 Raggedy circled the boat I could look directly down and see them underwater. Raggedy surfaced directly in front of me and the video recording captured my sixteen-year-old voice, shaky with excitement, exclaiming, “I got wet from the spray! Oh my God!” Needless to say Raggedy had a special place in my heart from that moment on, but she would remain a whale full of many more questions than I ever got answers.

Why is she K40?

From the get-go I wondered how we had a whale numbered K40 when there were, at the time, no whales K35 through K39. It turns out this is because she, along with the rest of her family group, were originally designated as L-Pod whales. Before 1977 they were always seen with L-Pod. Then, between 1977 and 1981 they started being seen with Ks, and after 1981 were almost always seen with Ks. Michael Bigg suspected they might be Ks due to their acoustic call types, and in 1986, coinciding with the birth of K21 Cappuccino into this family group, the switch from L to K was officially announced, the only time any Southern Residents have had their pod designation changed. Raggedy's family was our first clue that matrilines are probably more stable than pods, as we've seen other whales and groups of whales seemingly shift pod associations for both short and long lengths of time.

Why was her fin so ragged?

Raggedy’s name came from the five notches on the trailing edge of her dorsal fin. While it’s not uncommon for Southern Residents to get notches in their fins, we know very little about how they acquire them, and that remains true in Raggedy’s case. While Bigg’s killer whales may acquire some of their scars from their marine mammal prey fighting back, that wouldn’t be the case for the fish-eating Southern Residents. While some theorize entanglement scars might be a possibility, the whales do often rough-house with each other as evidenced by the rake marks from orca teeth they often have on their bodies. It’s possible these notches come from play or even discipline from other whales, but we will never know for sure how Raggedy got her notches.

What’s her relationship to the rest of her family?

While there is a genealogy written out for Raggedy’s sub-group of K-Pod (the K18 and K30 matrilines), it seems the mother-offspring relationships have never really been clear as the family associations were reorganized several times. What is known is that, despite living to be nearly 50 years old, Raggedy was never seen with a calf, leading to speculation that she was probably infertile. Unlike other females without offspring of their own, I never saw Raggedy babysitting or playing with calves of other whales. This always led me to wonder if it was possible that maybe she never wanted offspring if she didn’t have the natural mothering instinct.

30+ years after Raggedy’s sub-group was first misidentified as part of L-Pod they have remained somewhat “rogue”, clearly K-Pod whales by their acoustics and dominant associations but still sometimes breaking off for weeks or months at a time to travel with J-Pod, L-Pod, or even off on their own. After the death of K18 Kiska in 2004, Raggedy and Cappuccino were the only remaining members of this sub-group, but they then seemingly recruited K16 Opus and her son K35 Sonata to their wandering ways.

Raggedy went missing in during the summer of 2012, leaving the adult male K21 Cappuccino as the only living member of their family group. Cappuccino was one of the rare males to find a way to survive after losing his close female relations, maintaining a solid bond with Opus and her son. He lived another ten years until passing away in 2021 at 35 years old. With the losses of Raggedy and Cappuccino, the K18 and K30 sub-group came to an end, but they will never be forgotten. I will always remember them side-by-side, Cappuccino with one of the most distinctive saddle patches in the whole population, and Raggedy with one of the most iconic fins.

  • Cindy Hansen

Today we honor the legendary matriarch of K Pod, K7 “Lummi”. Lummi was thought to be the oldest member of the Southern Resident orca community when she died in 2008 at an estimated age of 98 years old. Imagine all she saw and experienced in her lifetime, as she led her family through the waters of the Pacific Northwest. If her estimated age is correct, she would have lived 63 years before the passage of the Endangered Species Act, and would have been 95 years old when the Southern Residents were listed. What an amazing legacy from a special whale.

Check out the story below to read an account of Lummi’s life, written by Orca Network’s Education and Advocacy Coordinator, Cindy Hansen.

K7 Lummi with members of K Pod. Photos ©Cindy Hansen.

K7 Lummi

K7 Lummi is a legendary K Pod matriarch. She was one of the most easily recognizable whales in the Southern Resident community, with her beautiful saddle patch and the double notches in her dorsal fin. She was estimated to be 98 years old when her remarkable life finally came to an end. Just imagine all that she experienced in her decades of traveling the waters with her family. In her estimated birth year of 1910, Sir Wilfred Laurier was Prime Minister of Canada, William Taft was President of the United States, the waters were free of industrial chemicals, Pacific Northwest rivers were flowing freely, and salmon was plentiful. Over the next century, Washington State and B.C. Ferries began transporting passengers throughout the Salish Sea, shipping traffic and recreational boater traffic increased, DDT and PCBs were invented and then later banned, and overfishing, habitat destruction, and the construction of dams led to a precipitous decline in Pacific salmon. Lummi witnessed her family members first being shot at and used for target practice, then rounded up and kidnapped for a life of captivity, and finally being loved and appreciated by people from all over the world.

To me, she always seemed like a unique kind of matriarch. While Granny was demonstrative and made it very clear that she was in charge, Lummi seemed to calmly and gently lead her family through all of the births and deaths and changes taking place around her. In 2005, she took in teenaged Onyx L87 after the death of his mother and allowed him to join her large extended family, demonstrating that, for these whales, family is more than who you are born to.

When Lummi died in 2008, a memorial was held for her at Lime Kiln Point State Park. Non-profit organizations, naturalists, researchers, and whale lovers gathered together to celebrate this extraordinary life, and a canoe family from the Lummi Nation performed a blessing to send her on her way. The event was powerful, elegant, and serene, much like the whale herself. Now, whenever I see K Pod, I think of Lummi. I see her spirit in the family members she left behind, and I remember her beauty, her strength, her devotion, and her lasting legacy.

Lummi Memorial with members of the Lummi Nation. Photos ©Cindy Hansen.

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