On the Summer Solstice of 2015, friends and I received the words we anxiously await when on San Juan Island: orcas are northbound in Haro Strait! From different areas, we converged at that magical location on the west side of San Juan Island where the Southern Residents would sometimes swim close to shore, the lighthouse at Lime Kiln Point State Park. I made my way down the rocks to a spot as far out in the water as I could get, and then we waited. Eventually, we could see them coming toward us from the south, and then… ”They are coming up the shoreline!!” We watched with the sense of awe that never diminishes when in their presence, as members of J and K pods leisurely swam by, one after the other. Suddenly, there was the intense sound of an orca exhalation beside me, as L87 Onyx surfaced, swimming through the kelp and trailing it behind him. Somehow, I managed to snap three photos of him as my heart felt like it might beat right out of my chest.
L87 Onyx has a unique history that has not been observed with any other Southern Resident orca; he is the only individual known to have switched pods, not only once but multiple times. He was born in 1992 to L32 Olympia who passed away in 2005, at which time he started traveling with matriarch K7 Lummi and her daughter K11 Georgia, staying with the latter upon K7’s passing in 2008. When K11 died in 2010, L87 Onyx switched pods once again to travel with matriarch J8 Spieden, continuing on with J pod and Southern Resident leader J2 Granny once J8 died in 2013. J2 went missing in 2016, and since then L87 Onyx has returned to traveling with his original pod, L pod. Through so much loss, he has found a way to adapt and persist, when oftentimes, male resident orcas do not survive long after losing their mother (or mother figure). What will he do in the future? He will keep us guessing!