J17 Princess Angeline by Amanda Colbert
J1 Princess Angeline.
1977 – 2019 female
by Amanda Colbert
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.