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A Superpod, a Greeting, and a Goodbye

Photo and story by Cindy Hansen

A superpod is a time of great joy and celebration, both for the Southern Resident orcas and the humans who love them. When all three pods come together, greeting friends and family members much like we would do at parties or family gatherings, their joy and exuberance are contagious.

Years ago, on a beautiful summer day, J Pod was in Rosario Strait resting. They were traveling side by side, moving slowly through the water as one, exhaling together, and submerging together. Suddenly, they awoke and became incredibly active. We lowered a hydrophone and could hear their calls ringing loudly through the water. Then they began to porpoise south, spyhopping and breaching along the way. Something had certainly excited them! What no one had yet realized was that K and L Pods were inbound, and J Pod was on their way to a reunion. How did they know? Could their calls have carried past the islands that lay between the pods? Did they somehow sense each other’s presence? Did they have a pre-arranged meeting time and had they been resting up before the big party?

(to hear what a superposed sounds like, read John Boyd's Orca Tale from last Sunday)

Eventually we could see the blows and fins of K and L Pods getting closer, apparently just as excited as their friends. And then suddenly, all activity stopped and J Pod became silent. They began to line up side by side, almost as if they were going into resting mode again. But this was different, because the other pods were facing them and doing exactly the same thing. We realized that we were about to witness a Greeting Ceremony – one of the most sacred of Southern Resident orca cultural traditions. The two groups lined up and faced each other for several minutes, completely still and quiet. No one on the boat said a word as we waited breathlessly. And then, it was party time! The two groups came together and began rolling over each other, playing, socializing, greeting old friends, celebrating their culture in a way that only they can truly understand. The calls on the hydrophone were deafening. It was a special moment and we realized what an honor it was to witness this.

A few years later, on a drizzly foggy September day, we were with a superpod that had gathered several days earlier. We watched them interacting with one another, enjoying each other’s company. And then suddenly they began to line up with their pods and face each other. What was happening? They couldn’t be getting ready to have a Greeting Ceremony — they had already been together for days! They became quiet and still, and faced each other for a few minutes. Then they turned away from one other and swam in opposite directions. One group eventually continued west into the Pacific Ocean, while the other remained in the San Juan Islands. We were stunned! Had we just witnessed a good-bye ceremony? I had never read or heard of this happening before. And I have not seen it since. It was a one-time glimpse into a mysterious and beautiful part of their world, and evidence that no matter how much we learn about them, they will always have the ability to surprise and amaze us.

Superpods used to be a fairly regular occurrence in the San Juan and Gulf Islands during the summer months, particularly during what came to be known as “Superpod September”. But sadly, true superpods, involving every member of all three pods, have become somewhat of a rarity in the Salish Sea in recent years. There simply isn’t enough salmon here to support all of them together in one place for any length of time. And as a result, I can’t help but wonder if they are losing an important part of their culture. What if the Salish Sea is significant not just as a source of food, but as an important gathering place? Is lack of salmon impacting not only their health and reproduction, and their ability to simply exist, but also depriving them of an important part of who they are as a community? We know that as the Fraser River Chinook runs have all but disappeared, the Southern Residents are spending more time feeding off the coast. And of course we all want them to find enough salmon to survive and reproduce. But perhaps it’s shortsighted of us to assume that as long as they are finding food somewhere, even if it isn’t here, they’re fine. Perhaps, like so many of us, they have a sense of place, and there are certain special areas that feel like home. If so, we owe it to them to restore their home to a place where they can thrive. Where they are free to once again honor their culture, gather, greet one another, and sometimes even say good-bye.


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