Protect what you love: Southern Resident Orcas of the Salish Sea

Southern Resident Orcas are one of three orca ecotypes found in the Salish Sea. Unlike the so-called Transient and Offshore Orcas, they feed primarily on Chinook Salmon. But salmon stocks have declined dramatically in recent decades. Since 2005, Southern Resident Orcas have been considered endangered.
Orca Whale (orca orcinus)

Salish Sea, Washington State, USA. In 2018, the Salish Sea orcas appeared in many headlines. The heartbreaking story that occurred there in that summer was accompanied by equally heartbreaking pictures. In these, one could see Tahlequah. The mother orca pushed her dead baby in front of her. Tahlequah pushed and mourned for 17 days. Many hearts mourned with her.

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Three years after this sad incident, I landed in Seattle to fulfill a long-awaited wish: I wanted to see the majestic orcas with my own eyes. My plans included a multi-day kayak tour, several whale watching trips, and land-based observations. Before planning my trip to the realm of the orcas, I did not know anything about Tahlequah and her baby, number J57. Nor did I know that a dead orca calf was not an unusual occurrence among Southern Residents and how poorly their population was doing. To be honest, I didn’t even know they existed.

Orca (orca orcinus), Killerwal
At up to ten meters in length, males are larger than females and have a towering dorsal fin up to two meters in size.

In the Realm of the Orcas: The Salish Sea

The Salish Sea refers to the marine area between Vancouver Island and Washington State. It includes the Juan de Fuca Strait, the Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound. Due to its ecological importance, the entire area is designated as a Marine Sanctuary. It includes more than 18,000 square miles of inland sea, estuaries, lakes, rivers and streams, and more than 400 islands. The Salish Sea is home to 253 species of fish and 37 species of marine mammals. Orcas, harbor seals, Steller sea lions, bald eagles, otters, and harbor porpoises have their habitats here and can be frequently observed.

Orcas of three different ecotypes occur in the Salish Sea:

  • Southern Resident Orcas
  • Transient or Bigg’s Orcas
  • Offshore Orcas

Each ecotype has different feeding habits as well as different dialects. The Transient Orcas feed on marine mammals; the Offshore Orcas specialize in sharks; and the Southern Residents feed on fish. They eat primarily Chinook salmon, but also halibut, lingcod, steelhead, chum, skate, and northern anchovy. In their foraging, Southern Residents follow the seasonal occurrences of salmon, called salmon runs, when salmon migrate to the rivers to spawn.

From spring through fall, Southern Residents are frequently seen in the coastal waters of the Salish Sea. During the winter, however, they hunt salmon in the open North Pacific Ocean or roam the coast from Monterey, California, to south Alaska.

orca identification
Individuals can be identified by the size and the shape of their dorsal fin and saddle patch. Each orca is given an identification number and a name that is supposed to reflect something personal about the whale. Tahlequahs calf J57 died without a name.

All photos in this article show Transient Orcas. During my stay I saw among others the following whales: T49a2, T79c, T79d, T37, T34, T36a, T36, T137.

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The Southern Resident Orcas are Endangered Animals

Right at the beginning of my research on the orcas of the Salish Sea, I came across the story of Tahlequah and her calf. After my tears dried, I watched a video about the Southern Residents. It documented the threats and decline of the population and was very pessimistic about their survival.

In 1995, there were still 98 Southern Resident orcas. Just 24 years later, in 2019, the population had dropped to 73 animals. There were fewer only in 1976, after several animals were taken or died in capture attempts for aquariums. At the end of 2020, the population totaled 74 whales: 24 in the J Pod, 17 in the K Pod, and 33 in the L Pod.

What is a Pod?

A pod is an extended orca family consisting of mothers and their offspring. Some families consist of up to four generations. Southern Resident orcas are divided into three Pods: J, K, and L.

Group of Transient Orcas, San Juan Island
Group of Transient Orcas near San Juan Island.

Surprise and good news! There is new offspring!

In February 2021, the lady orca “Surprise” (L86) was seen with a new calf: L125. A year earlier, in 2020, two calves were also born in the J-pod: J57 and J58. All three calves seem to be in good shape so far, which is by no means a given.

Since 1998, 80 orcas have gone missing/have died, including 15 orcas in the first 18 months, while still nursing.
A former calf of Surprise was also among the deceased babys : Her calf, L120, died the very year it was born in 2014. Another calf of hers, L112, was born in 2009, but it died just three years later as a result of trauma from military exercises.

And there’s more good news: Just before publishing this article I got to know, that three Southern Resident Orcas from the J-Pod are pregnant. So hopefully in the coming year more orca babies will be born!

Southern Resident Orcas are listed as an endangered species in both the United States and Canada. The decline of the orca population is primarily caused by the following:

Declining Salmon Populations

Salmon is the primary food source of Southern Residents, making up as much as 85% of their diet. Chinook salmon is clearly preferred. However, due to habitat loss and overfishing, salmon stocks have plummeted in recent decades. Today, 14 species of salmon and steelhead are listed as at-risk of extinction under the Endangered Species Act. Because of declining salmon stocks, Southern Residents are increasingly undernourished and show more of what are called “peanut heads.” That is, they are so skinny that their heads take on the shape of a peanut.

Whales do the so called "spyhopping" in order to visually inspect the environment above the water line.

An adult orca eats 45-135 kilograms per day. An adult Chinook salmon weighs about 14 kilograms. So the orca must catch 3 to 9 salmon per day. That doesn’t sound like much at first. But if you scale that up to the entire Southern Resident population, that’s about 703 to 2112 salmon. Every day.

"Why don't the Southern Resident Orcas just eat seals like the Transient Orcas?"

I kept asking myself this question again and again. I eat a vegan diet. But before I would starve, I would still reach for a piece of cream pie or even a schnitzel. Why don’t the orcas just help themselves? But apparently that’s not quite as simple as in my case. To understand the complexity of this question, we need to look back a bit:

Orcas have specialized in different prey depending on the available food and the competition. They sought out their ecological niche in which they could do well. This evolution took place over several million years and produced different ecotypes of orcas. These ecotypes differ not only in their prey and hunting strategies, but also in their dialects.

And just like millions of years ago, orcas still pass on their knowledge from generation to generation. This includes the knowledge of what is edible and when, as well as where and how to hunt the prey. Changing habits is difficult, as everyone knows from personal experience. But what Southern Residents have in addition is a lack of physical ability: they have smaller, less robust teeth and lighter jaw bones than their relatives. Teeth and jaws are suited for chewing fish, but not the bones of marine mammals.

But there is evidence that Southern Residents are beginning to eat other fish that were not previously on their menu. So they are trying to adapt. But for each new species of fish, the orcas have to adjust their hunting techniques, change movement patterns or dive deeper. Hopefully, the smart animals will learn quickly.

Orca Whale San Juan Island
Transient orcas often roam close to shore in search of seals.

Toxic Exposure

But it is not only malnutrition itself that weakens the orcas: when food is scarce, the fat reserves are more and more used up. In the process, fat-bound pollutants such as PCBs, lead and mercury are mobilized, which now cause damage in the whale’s metabolic cycle. Orcas are particularly affected by the pollutants in the Salish Sea, because as alpha predators they are at the top of the food chain. Thus, when they feed, they also ingest all the pollutants that their prey has already accumulated.

The mobilization of pollutants is particularly dramatic in nursing orca mothers. This is because they accumulate in the fat-containing breast milk and enter the calf’s less resistant body in high concentrations.

Where do the pollutants come from? Abandoned landfills in the sea, pollution of inland waters by waste/insufficiently treated sewage/road drainage, and the use of pesticides are the main causes of marine pollution.

Surface Impacts

The Salish Sea is extremely busy, especially around the San Juan Islands. In addition to cargo ships, ferries, and fishing vessels, also whale watching boats and recreational boating pose a threat to the whales. The most obvious danger is that of collision. Every year there are cases of marine mammals being killed by propellers. However, collision avoidance also stresses the animals. Another stress is the exhaust emissions from the ships: If the whale comes up for air at the wrong moment and in the wrong place, it may inhale boat exhaust.

Be Whale wise! when the orcas are so close to the boat, the engine must be put in neutral.

Underwater Noise

Whales communicate with each other using a variety of clicks, chirps, squeaks, and whistles. They navigate using echolocation, which also helps them locate their prey. The constant noise pollution caused by shipping traffic leads to permanent stress.

Transient Orcas in the Haro-Strait
Two Transient Orcas in the Haro-Strait. The wild animals share the sea with boats and ships of all sizes.

Who is Tokitae?

On August 8, 1970, about 80 orcas were herded together in Penn Cove near Whidbey Island. Several whales were separated from their family with nets. Seven juveniles were captured. At least five whales drowned during the capture.

A total of 45 orcas were captured in the southern Salish Sea in the late 1960s and ’70s. The animals were sold to SeaWorld and other marine parks around the world. Tokitae was purchased by the Miami Seaquarium in September 1970 for $6,000. She is the last survivor of the orcas captured at that time. Today, Tokitae is 52 years old. She has spent 48 of those years in captivity.

Friends of Tokitae are advocating for the animal’s transfer to a large sea pen in the Salish Sea. There, Tokitae should recover from her time in the aquarium and become accustomed to the natural environment. The intention is then to carefully release her so she can return to her mother Ocean Sun (L25, 83 years old) and her entire L-pod family. Hopefully, this plan will come to pass soon.

Orcas have been held in captivity since 1961. Since then, at least 166 orcas have been captured in the wild. From 2012 to 2018, at least 29 orcas were captured in Russia and temporarily stored in the “Whale Prison.” Fifteen of them were sold to China and three to Moscow. Ten young orcas illegally captured in 2018 were returned to their natural habitat in the Sea of Okhotsk in 2019.

In August 2021, there are at least 57 orcas in captivity, of which 27 were captured and 30 were born in captivity.

Whale Wheel Coupeville
The "Whale Wheel" in Coupeville depicts five Orcas in the Northwest Native art style. It reminds of the Native American Circle of Life. The wooden wheel honors the orcas and wants to remember the whales taken and killed here during the Penn Cove orca captures of the 1970s.

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Protective Measures for Southern Resident Orcas

One of the most important actions for the conservation of Southern Resident orcas is the protection of salmon populations and their habitat. Several institutions and initiatives are already working to maintain or restore salmon river continuity and habitat quality. But this is not easy. After all, more than four million people live in the Pudget Sound area. It’s a major challenge to balance all the needs.

Commercial salmon fishing also continues to occur in Pudget Sound area, but it is tightly regulated. In addition, the release of hatchery salmon for amateur fishermen is intended to protect wild salmon. If anglers hook a wild salmon, they must throw it back into the water. Only farmed salmon marked on the fin are allowed to be kept.

Despite many efforts, Puget Sound Chinook salmon populations remain very small and far from reaching their recovery goals.

Another important factor in protecting orcas is regulating ship traffic, water sports and whale watching tours. Be Whale Wise! is the motto. This includes keeping your distance and slowing down as soon as whales are near. To indicate whales, there is also a special flag that the whale watch boats hoist on sightings. And to keep an eye on everything and alert boaters to follow the rules when necessary, Sound Watch boats patrol the water. And some whale watching boats also take the reins themselves when necessary, stopping private boats that are speeding too fast toward the whales.

Be Whale Wise
Attention! There are whales around here. To indicate whales in the vicinity, there is a special flag that the whale watching boats hoist.

Orca Recovery Plan

To protect and enhance the Southern Resident orca population, NOAA Fisheries has developed a killer whale Recovery Plan:

  • Protecting killer whale habitat
  • Support salmon restoration efforts in the region
  • Reduce vessel effects by improving whale watching guidelines
  • Establishing regulations or protected areas as needed
  • Reduce existing and monitor emerging contaminants
  • Prevent oil spills and improve response preparation
  • Use available protections to minimize effects from human-caused sound
  • Enhance public awareness and education
Whale Researchers launch a drone.

10 simple Things

Will these protection efforts be enough? That’s hard to predict. But what is certain is that if everyone does a small part, it will be easier for the whales. Here are 10 simple things everyone can do everywhere. And if you don’t have orca whales around, I’m sure other animals will be happy about your efforts.

  1. Don’t eat salmon; leave them for the orcas. If you are going to eat fish, find out beforehand if it was caught sustainably.
  2. Don’t litter – reduce, reuse, recycle.
  3. Do not use pesticides in your gardens.
  4. Use biodegradable cleaning products.
  5. Take public transportation. Here is just one of many reasons: Tire abrasion enters our rivers and oceans as microplastics via rainwater from roads.
  6. Support organic agriculture by buying organic products. Preferably also local products.
  7. Participate in clean ups.
  8. Support river restoration. Check with a local conservation organization or with a Regional Fisheries Enhancement Group to learn more about opportunities, such as tree plantings or work parties.
  9. Do not dam up water in rivers by building pools out of stones.
  10. Donate to whale conservation, for example, by symbolically adopting a Southern Resident Orca.

The more people who know the Southern Resident story and help protect these fascinating animals, the more likely the population is to recover. So please tell this story and share it with your friends.

Whale Bell Coupeville
The whale bell at Coupeville, Penn Cove, is rung when whales appear. The orca is made in the typical Northwest Native art style.

Power Animal Orca – the Wolf of the Seas

Many indigenous peoples of North America and Canada revere orcas. They see them not only as the lords of the sea but also as the guardians of cosmic knowledge. Also called the “sea wolf,” the orca is considered a symbol of strength, dignity, prosperity and longevity. For this reason, it is widely used as a heraldic animal and as a motif in art. In addition, there are myths in which orcas in human form live in villages on the ocean floor. Sometimes they draw land people to them in the depths of the sea or they show them the way home.

My Furry Friend

An orca also accompanied me during a difficult, uncertain time. He was about 40 centimeters long and furry. He quickly conquered a place in my bed. That bed was in the intensive care unit in a hospital. The day after Christmas in 1998, I had a serious riding accident in the countryside. Pale as a sheet and staggering I turned up at the farm where I rented the horse. I have no memory of any of this. Nor do I remember the drive to the hospital, the examinations or the diagnosis: a double fracture of the skull at the forehead. It took a few days until I perceived that an orca was lying in my bed. I held on to him. The doctors couldn’t tell me if I would be able to see, walk, or smell normally again. In these moments I squeezed my orca a little tighter.

Four years later, I learned to dive, something the doctors thought I could never do. Five years later, I volunteered at a whale watching station in the Azores. In the summer of 2021, I finally saw orcas. But even when I’m not in orca territory, the orcas are always with me: there is still my furry friend, as well as stickers on my laptop, magnets on my refrigerator, and a tattoo on the inside of my left arm, right next to my heart.

Recommendations for Whale Watching in the Salish Sea

In Washington State, you can spot orcas in a number of ways: by classic whale watching boat, by kayak, and even from land. Sightings of Southern Resident orcas are most likely from May through September. In addition, it is possible to see Transient Orcas year-round.

We saw several orcas in the Haro Strait already on our first whale watching tour. They were Transient Orcas. Southern Residents have not been seen for a longer time. Instead, sightings of Transient Orcas had become more frequent. This tendency already showed up in the last years. Also during my second and third trip I saw “only” the Transients. I was so extremely happy to see Orcas and I don’t want to devalue the Transients. Yet, at the same time, I was sad that they were not Southern Residents. I hope they found a corner in the Salish Sea where the salmon is a little more abundant.

The Classic: the Whale Watching Boat

Orca watching tours depart from Friday Harbor, Port Angeles, Port Tonsend, Anacortes or even Seattle. But how do you find a good operator? See if the provider is a member of the Pacific Whale Watch Association and follows the Be Whale Wise Guidelines. My tip:
Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching.

Orca Whale Watching San Juan Islands
Maya's Legacy Whale Watching provides small group ecosystem and whale watching tours on San Juan Island.

Orca Experience with the Kayak

On YouTube, I often see spectacular videos of whales and kayakers having close (sometimes a little too close) encounters. What a terrific imagination: an orca pops up next to your kayak and peeks at you. A dream! And immediately the kayak tour was booked: three days with San Juan Kayak Expeditions through the island world of the Salish Sea. At the end of July and beginning of August the chances for orca sightings should be good. But as it is with wildlife observations: you need a lot of time, patience and above all luck. Unfortunately, orcas did not show up during the three days of paddling. But we were able to see many other animals, especially harbor seals and bald eagles.

Please note: Even though a kayak is not as noisy as a motorboat and does not have a propeller that is dangerous for marine mammals, you still have to keep the minimum distance of 200 yards (183 meters). Follow the Code of Conduct for Kayakers.

Kayak tour San Juan Islands
Looking for Orcas during a multiday kayak tour at San Juan Islands.

Whale Watching from Land and the Whale Trail

Whale sightings are also possible from land at any time. It is the least intrusive and also the least expensive way to observe orcas.

Viewing points where the chances of sightings are particularly good are grouped together in the so-called Whale Trail. This runs along the west coast of Southern California to the border with Canada. Numerous observation points are also designated around Seattle, on the Olympic Peninsula and the islands of the Salish Sea.

Lime Kiln Point State Park on San Juan Islands is the lookout with the best sighting opportunities for orcas. There are also information boards and a hydrophone. Therefore, it is also called “Whale Watch Park”. You will need to purchase a Discovery Pass to visit the state park. That’s $10 for a day pass or $30 for a Discovery year pass. If you are on the road for a longer time and want to visit more than three state parks, the latter is worth it.

Not far from the state park, you’ll also find free parking lots on the bluffs overlooking Haro Strait. If it’s windy or rainy, you can watch from your car, and if the weather is good, you can walk several trails and spread out your picnic blanket.

Tip: Sunsets at Lime Klin are hard to beat. Maybe you are lucky enough to see an orca jumping through the picture.

whale trail salish sea
The sign of the Whale Trail indicates viewpoints with the best chances of seeing orcas and other marine wildlife.

Film Recommendations for Whale Lovers

  • Blackfish (2013) tells the fate of Tilikum, a captive orca since 1983 who has been implicated in the deaths of three people.
  • Orca, the Killer Whale (1977), an animal horror film about an orca’s vendetta against a whaler who killed the orca’s family.
  • The Cove (2009) documents how dolphins are regularly slaughtered in the Japanese coastal town of Taiji.
  • Big Miracle (2012) tells of a rescue operation in Alaska to save gray whales trapped in the ice.

Center for Whale Research. https://www.whaleresearch.com/. Downloaded on September 5, 2021.

The Whale Museum. https://whalemuseum.org/. Downloaded on September 5, 2021.

Orca Network. http://www.orcanetwork.org/Main/. Downloaded on September 5, 2021.

Be Whale Wise. https://www.bewhalewise.org/. Downloaded on September 5, 2021.

NOAA Fisheries. Killer Whale – Conservation and Management.  https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/killer-whale#conservation-management. Downloaded on September 14, 2021.

Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office: State of Salmon in Watersheds 2020. https://stateofsalmon.wa.gov/. Downloaded on September, 5, 2021.

Claudia Roch in Arbeitskreis für Vergleichende Mythologie e. V. (April 12, 2019): Wale in der Mythologie der Nordwestküsten-Indianer. https://www.vergleichende-mythologie.de/wale-in-der-mythologie-der-nordwestkuesten-indianer/. Downloaded on September 10, 2021.

Orca Spirit Adventure (December 30, 2020): Why Can’t The Southern Resident Killer Whale Diet Change in Light of Dwindling Chinook Salmon? https://orcaspirit.com/the-captains-blog/southern-resident-killer-whales-diet/. Downloaded on September 14, 2021.

Have you ever seen these fantastic animals? Where was it? Do you have any questions or comments about my article? Then I would be happy if you write me a comment. I would also be very happy if you share my article with your friends. 

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