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Rivers & Watersheds

During Orca Month in 2022, through stories and videos, we'll explore some of the watersheds and rivers that are essential to Pacific Northwest salmon and vitally important to the endangered Southern Resident orcas and a healthy marine ecosystem. 


Clockwise top left: L1 and L35, L1 and L35, L35 Breach, L1 breach 1995, photo by Mindy Zushlag, L1 and L35 1995, L35 with rest of L pod in 1990. Photos courtesy of Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research. Map below shows Turn Point, Swansons Channel and Boundary Pass.

September, 1995

L35 was always one of my favorite matriarchs in the Southern Resident Community. This might have been due to the fact that the L35 subpod (as it was called in the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s) was not always present when the rest of L pod came in and they were the least frequently seen SRs at the time. But L35 also had a cool look with her pointy fin and beautiful open saddle. We get asked all the time about pod leadership and who is making the decisions-and this is one of the only anecdotes I have where it looked like a matriarch was calling the shots.

It was an early morning on a nice late September day. I had just arrived home the previous evening from a two week NOAA cruise to Southeast Alaska. I was trying to sleep off my jet lag in the 1968 pick-up camper that I was staying in that Summer, (and for another nine Summers after that), when I heard fellow staff person Stefan Jacobs yell to me from the driveway that whales were heading north. I didn’t think I could move that quick so soon after my trip so I told Stefan to go away. I immediately felt guilty and lame about wanting to sleep in so I yelled to Stefan to go ahead and wake up the Earthwatchers who were on the boat that day. It ended up being a good decision to get up and go—it is almost always worth one’s while to get out of bed and get moving for early morning whales.

We moved quick enough to get our trimaran, “High Spirits” off the dock and to the whales while they were still in Mitchell Bay heading slowly north toward Kellett Bluff and then Turn Point. We had L pod minus the L12s, and K pod was also around. We spent most of our time with a group consisting of the L35s (L35, L1, and L54) and most of the L9s since they were the whales we usually saw the least of. The whales traveled slowly north toward Turn Point spread out in groups in pretty early morning light.

As they neared Turn Point, L pod began to group up some. There seemed to be some confusion as the whales milled at Turn Point. Some looked like they wanted to head on a more northerly direction toward Swanson Channel. L35 and L54 had begun heading northeast up Boundary Pass like the whales usually did in those days.

The whales milling nearest us began splashing just a little as they tried to point north. L35 then did a big breach before she continued pointing up Boundary Pass. As if to emphasize her point, L1 then did a huge breach —he was a huge whale—beside us in the midst of the other L pod whales. And then all the L pod whales angled northeast and began traveling up Boundary Pass…

We all chuckled at the matriarch’s wishes being backed up by her hulking son!

The whales spread back out in groups and singles as they headed up Boundary Pass. We stuck with the L35s and L9s for most of the time since it was hard to leave a group that had both L1 and L33 in it. Along with L38, these two were probably the largest adult males in the community at the time and they all had towering dorsal fins of the kind we don’t see anymore. We finally caught sight of the K pod whales present near East Point as they porpoised north toward Pt. Roberts. L pod grouped up again at East Point into a tight line up of whales. They gave us one last surprise of the day when the whole pod turned right toward the boat and passed all around and under us as they headed north toward the Frasier River. This would be my last memorable encounter involving L35 as I barely saw her in 1996.

So remember, the early birds sometime get the best whales-so learn to move quickly in the morning!

L1 Oskar, male, 1959 – 2000

L35 Victoria, female, 1942 – 1996

  • Amy Eberling

J56 Tofino with her uncle, J27 Blackberry making a close pass by the rocks at Land Bank on San Juan Island. Photo by Susan Marie Andersson. Story by Amy Eberling

Many think an orca is an orca.

How lucky are we to know that couldn't be further from the truth. Not only are there different ecotypes of orcas that rely on a healthy and thriving Salish Sea that are culturally and uniquely expressive in so many different ways, but the individuals among them branch even further into idiosyncratic personalities and behaviors. An orca is no longer just an orca when you hear the underwater calls, witness the cuddle puddles, or feel the exhilaration after watching a breach. My on-the-water experience with the Southern Resident orcas changed the trajectory of my life. When the world feels heavy, I remember the sight and sound of water and air passing through a blowhole. Breathe out. Breathe In. No choice but to dive back in. Experiencing an orca, paired with quality education, can invoke the environmental change necessary to bring quicker and greater efforts to restore declining parts of our ecosystems. We need to connect more people with these brilliant marine mammals and the ecosystems they rely on. Thank you OM, for helping with that.

Amy Eberling

  • Sara Hysong-Shimazu

L25 Ocean Sun and family members. Photo and story by Sara Hysong-Shimazu

It was a foggy day out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca years ago when L119 was just about a year old and L113 was just a few years older. The group of whales known as the L12s, which is actually several different matrilines that closely associate, were foraging and socializing together. The whales were spread out in singles or in small groups and in the distance we caught sight of three fins, surfacing together.

As we drew closer we could see it was L25 "Ocean Sun" closely flanked on either side by L113 "Cousteau" and L119 "Joy". She seemed to be on babysitting duty. The younger whales were feeling a bit rambunctious, rolling around together and with their guardian as the three milled inheeh area, not really going anywhere that particular morning. I always find it intensely fascinating and lovely to watch some of the older whales closely associate with the youngest members of the pod. It reminds me of our own family gatherings. But eventually, just like us, we're tired of babysitting.

Ocean Sun gave a couple percussive slaps of her flukes and within a few minutes the group was joined by L77 "Matia", Joy's mother, who seemed to take charge of the young ones while Ocean Sun headed off into the fog. We later found her swimming with L41 "Mega" off a couple of miles from the rest of the family. Perhaps she was getting a bit of a break after a morning with the kids.

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