Tag Archives: southern resident killer whales

“He had a good life” – the story of a magnificent orca, by Ken Balcomb

L41.    Photo credit: Center for Whale Research – WhaleResearch.com

By Ken Balcomb, Founder and Senior Scientist, Center for Whale Research

“My first acquaintance with the Southern Resident killer whale (SRKW) we designated L41 was in 1977, the year after we began the annual Orca Survey of this population that continues to this day. His mother was L11, who was one of nine females to produce new babies that year following the cessation of captures in 1976. We watched the energetic young male baby as he grew up, and we had great hopes that he and his companions would fill in the youthful cohorts of the population that had been decimated by captures between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s.

L41 last seen by the Center for Whale Research on August 11, 2019 (Encounter #51). Photo by Mark Malleson, Center for Whale Research

L41, with an adoption name Mega, traveled with his mom and sisters in a subgroup of L pod that became known as the L12s, named after his presumed grandmother, who was the likely mother of L11. It should be noted that the alpha-numeric designations are not in the birth order sequence in the early years of the Orca Survey – because nobody knew the population composition prior to our study. The whales were numbered in those early years in the order that they were first seen, and it was only after we had all of them identified in 1976 that subsequent new babies received the next sequential alpha-numeric designation for identification. L41 was among the first to receive a designation that identified him as a member of the new known-age youth cohort of the SRKW population.

L41 with L124 on January 11, 2019 (Encounter #2). Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research.

When he reached social maturity in his early twenties around 1997, L41 began to father babies. And, he became the champion male breeder in the SRKW population with fourteen known offspring that survive to this day in all three pods. Only J1, with the fathering of eleven living offspring in the SRKW community, has done as much to increase the population. A very few other males have contributed one or two offspring in this population.

L41 with L25. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research.

We will greatly miss L41 as an important breeder and as a prominent indicator of the L12 subgroup that now rarely ventures into the Salish Sea. In 2019, we only saw the L12s twice – once on January 11 in the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca, and once on August 11 off Carmanah Point Lighthouse on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island. It will be extremely difficult to monitor the demographic vigor of the L12s if they do not come into the study area, and if this indicator male is not present. We are hopeful that L41 is alive somewhere and returns to the subgroup, but he did live to a ripe old age and fathered more baby whales than any other whale in the community.

He had a good life.

Unidentified orca.                                                                                                 Photo credit – Dale Mitchell, Eagle Wind Tours


Saving the orcas- how a five-year-old raised $2000 to help an endangered species

Meri and her parents

For months, five-year-old Meri saved her allowance until she had $12 in her bank, which she planned to give to the Center for Whale Research to help save the endangered Southern Resident orcas.
While $12 is a lot of money for a kid, Meri was more focused on the joy of being able to help the hungry whales and figured that other children would love to join her.
And so it was, with the help of her parents and local author Brenda Peterson, her fundraising event raised over $2000. It included a bake sale, time for dancing and story telling, and activities for the kids.
Author Brenda Peterson read from her book Wild Orca.

Meri made signs and decorations for the bake sale:

The family put together educational materials:

They set up an art table for children to contribute their own thoughts and artwork:

The money will go to the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Washington. Biologists from the US and Canada are urgently focused on saving the small population of endangered Southern Resident orcas, and are doubtless buoyed by the dedication of this little girl with a big heart.
Meri and her parents have set a model for families everywhere who want to make a difference and help return the planet to a sustainable home for us all.

NOAA biologists on a previous encounter with the Southern Resident orcas.


Another Southern Resident killer whale is losing body condition, and researchers are concerned about the pregnant females

K25 has lost body condition

Will we lose Scoter (J25) next? NOAA and partner organizations are watching him carefully as they consider options to increase the volume of Chinook salmon that can be made available to the orcas. Biologists report that it is not unusual for a male to die once their mothers are gone, especially when fish are scarce. Scoter’s mother died in 2017.
Also of concern is the question of how viable the expected calves will be, based on data that show 70% of the Southern Resident orca births have failed to produce healthy calves during recent years. (Read more on the pregnancy failures),
NOAA’s announcement:

Scientists from NOAA’s Fisheries Southwest Fisheries Science Center are currently working in collaboration with SR3: SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation and Research The previous link is a link to non-Federal government web site. Click to review NOAA Fisheries disclaimer to collect aerial photogrammetry images in an ongoing study to monitor the growth and body condition of endangered Southern Resident killer whales. These data support management actions to ensure an adequate supply of their Chinook salmon prey. In the shorter term, the aerial perspective also offers important insights into the health of individual whales. Earlier this month, this collaborative study provided key information on the condition of an ailing young whale, J50 The previous link is a link to non-Federal government web site. Click to review NOAA Fisheries disclaimer , and her mother, J16. In recent days, the photogrammetry team have documented another SRKW individual to be in notably poorer body condition compared to recent years.
K25, a 27-year old adult male has been documented in aerial photographs since 2008.
This year, his body profile is thinner than previous years (see images [above]). This change coincides with the loss of his mother, K13 in 2017, and likely reflects the challenges he faces without her help in capturing and sharing prey. Males rely on help from their mothers, and other family members, to meet their increased energy demands, and long term demographic monitoring The previous link is a link to non-Federal government web site. Click to review NOAA Fisheries disclaimer has shown that adult males have an increased mortality risk following their mother’s death, highlighting K25’s current vulnerability.
Offering a more hopeful outlook for this group, aerial images collected this week have also documented K27, K25’s sister, to be heavily pregnant, along with a number of other females in all three pods (J, K and L) within the population. Whales carry their baby weight below the ribcage, just like humans, enabling later-term pregnancies to be reliably documented from aerial images of body shape (see images [above]).
Unfortunately, there is currently a high rate of reproductive failure The previous link is a link to non-Federal government web site. Click to review NOAA Fisheries disclaimer in this population, and K27 has been documented to have aborted a fetus The previous link is a link to non-Federal government web site. Click to review NOAA Fisheries disclaimer in recent years. Follow-up monitoring by our colleagues at the Center for Whale Research The previous link is a link to non-Federal government web site. Click to review NOAA Fisheries disclaimer will determine the success of these pregnancies

Saving J 50 (Scarlet); public meetings will be held by NOAA September 15th and 16th

J 50 (Scarlet) loves to breach and when she was healthy breached once 50 times in a row. Photo credit: Clint Rivers

This announcement by NOAA, DFO Canada, and their team gives us hope that not only are they doing everything possible to save J 50 (Scarlet), but whatever actions they take will be in the best interest of  both her health and her family ties.
The scientists don’t have much time to act, yet they want the public to understand what it will take to help this naturally lively whale who is so imbued with character and once had energy to spare, and whose survival may be key in the restoration of the Southern Resident killer whale population.
NOAA has arranged two public meetings in Washington State for next weekend (September 15th and 16th), but if you can’t attend, any live streams, audios, or reports will be updated here.
J 50 (Scarlet) has lost significant body condition since May. Photo credit:  SR3/NOAA

UPDATE from NOAA:  September 11, 2018

J50’s condition in recent weeks has underscored the urgency of recovering the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population.  NOAA Fisheries and our partners have been exploring and taking action to save J50 because of her importance as a contributing member of this population, and particularly to J Pod.

The public has a stake in the J50 response and the recovery of Southern Resident killer whales and we understand many people are concerned.  We want to know what people in the region think about this effort and potential steps so we are holding two public meetings in Washington State to hear the public’s views:

  • Saturday, Sept. 15, at 7 p.m. in Friday Harbor at Friday Harbor High School
  • Sunday, Sept. 16, at 1 p.m. in Seattle at University of Washington, Haggett Hall Cascade Room

J50’s condition has declined over recent months to the point where she is emaciated and often lagging behind her family. Field treatment has not improved her condition, and veterinarians believe they have exhausted all reasonable remote treatment options and her survival is unlikely.


The next steps could include further intervention, such as a rescue operation and conducting a hands-on physical examination. That could lead to more in-depth diagnoses, rapid treatment, and return to the water or short-term rehabilitation and care to improve her chances of survival, with the ultimate goal of reuniting her with her family.

Two objectives will determine any further intervention to help J50:

  • providing appropriate conservation medical actions for J50 to  protect her potential contribution to the recovery of the population, and
  • avoiding harm to the rest of J Pod and the Southern Resident population of 75 whales.

No rescue would proceed while J50 remains with J Pod and her family group. Response teams would act to rescue J50 only if she becomes stranded or separated from the rest of J Pod such that any risks of the intervention to the rest of J Pod are minimized.

The overriding priority of any rescue intervention would be to evaluate, treat, and rehabilitate J50 in a manner that would support the greatest chance of her survival while ensuring her return and reunification with her family as soon as possible so she can contribute to long-term recovery of the population.

If veterinarians and other experts who assess J50 in the field determine that she cannot be treated or rehabilitated, teams would promptly return her to J Pod to spend the rest of her life with her family.

Photo: J50/Scarlet swims near Point Roberts, Wash., on Aug. 10. (Photo by Katy Foster/NOAA Fisheries, under permit 18786.)

Updates on the sick orca calf J 50 (Scarlet) – she’s thin but she’s a fighter (9 Sept 2018)

Rest assured, government agencies in Canada and the US are committed to doing what they have been tasked by law to do in treating this sick young whale. Scarlet has amazed researchers in her tenacity and ability to stay with her family – albeit at her own pace – as she continues to lose body condition.
NOAA, DFO Canada, the Center for Whale Research and others are working around the clock to monitor and to strategize urgent care procedures for little Scarlet, one of the last members of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales.
The team’s priorities are clear:
First, do no harm. Under the US Endangered Species Act:

“…all federal agencies shall seek to conserve endangered and threatened species and shall use their authorities in furtherance of the purposes of the ESA…It also requires these agencies to ensure that any actions they fund, authorize, or carry out are not likely to jeopardize the survival of any endangered or threatened species, or to destroy or adversely modify its designated critical habitat (if any).

Second, preserve the population’s viability. Under Canada’s Species at Risk laws:

In preparing a recovery strategy, action plan or management plan, the competent minister must consider the commitment of the Government of Canada to conserving biological diversity and to the principle that, if there are threats of serious or irreversible damage to the listed wildlife species, cost-effective measures to prevent the reduction or loss of the species should not be postponed for a lack of full scientific certainty.



“Biologists are mobilized and responding to an emaciated and ailing three year-old killer whale (born December 2014), J50 also known as Scarlet, of the critically endangered Southern Resident population. J50 appears lethargic at times with periods of activity, including feeding. Scientists observing her agree that she is in poor condition and may not survive. Responders from NOAA Fisheries and partner organizations are exploring options ranging from no intervention to providing medical treatment, potentially delivered in a live Chinook salmon, which has never before been attempted in the wild. Potential treatment may include medication and nutrition.” Updates are from NOAA.
September 8:
J50 was seen lagging a half-mile to a mile behind the rest of her family group at times on Friday (9/7), and her body condition is not improving. She appeared to have lost more weight and looked very thin.
With growing concern, we are working with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to evaluate options. Our highest priorities are to do all we can to ensure J50 remains a contributing part of the Southern Resident killer whale population and to prevent any harm to her and her family under any potential response scenario.
That is the bottom line.

J50’s deteriorating condition. (Photo: Katy Foster)

September 6:
Results are back from fecal and breath samples the team collected from a small group of J Pod whales, including J50.
Based on genetic analysis, we determined that the fecal sample (collected 8/17) likely came from J16, J50’s mother. This sample showed evidence of parasitic worms. Since J16 catches fish that she then shares with J50, the veterinary team prioritized treating J50 with a dewormer, following antibiotics.
A second fecal sample was identified as coming from J27, an adult male. Researchers at our Northwest Fisheries Science Center extracted DNA from the breath sample collected on 8/9.
While the sample was small and yielded little DNA, researchers are adapting their analysis to make the most of the available material.
J50 is still keeping up with her pod (Photo: Katy Foster)

September 4:
Biologists observing J50 on Monday (9/3) noted she was remarkably active and engaged with J Pod despite her severely emaciated condition.
J50 stayed close to her mother, J16, and continued the longer dives expected of healthy whales. Veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena of the Vancouver Aquarium provided J50 another dose of antibiotics through a dart, following up the initial dose administered on 8/9.
The treatment priority has now shifted to administering a dewormer, also through a dart, to reduce any parasitic burden on J50’s system.

September 3, 11:45 a.m.:  Good news!
Multiple organizations are reporting that J50 has been spotted with J Pod in the Salish Sea this morning. We will continue efforts to assess the health of J50 and treat her according to the priorities outlined by the team of veterinarians and scientists.
September 3: J50 was not seen returning from open waters off the West Coast of Vancouver Island to the Salish Sea with J Pod this weekend (9/1-2). Biologists from The Center for Whale Research, Soundwatch,  and the University of Washington spent much of the day Sunday with other members of J Pod, including J16, her mother, and J50 was not seen with them.
The team has several boats on the water today to look for her. One of the last sightings by DFO on Thursday (8/30) reported that J16 and J26, J50’s brother, were lagging behind most of J Pod by about three nautical miles, and J50 was lagging about a half-mile behind them. Sometimes she got closer, but she looked to be struggling to keep up.
The standard for determining the loss of any of the Southern Residents is to spot a whale’s family group multiple times without them. This rule may be relevant for J50 in order to confirm her status given how far behind the other whales she had followed at times.

Poll – do you think that the starving young orca J 50 should be captured for medical treatment?

Photo: J50/Scarlet swims near Point Roberts, Wash., on Aug. 10. (Photo by Katy Foster/NOAA Fisheries, under permit 18786.)

“Starting in early August, an international team of biologists mobilized and began responding to an emaciated and ailing three year-old killer whale (born December 2014), J50 (also known as Scarlet), of the critically endangered Southern Resident population that frequents the Salish Sea in the Pacific Northwest. J50 appears lethargic at times with periods of activity, including feeding. Scientists observing her agree that she is in poor condition and may not survive. Responders from NOAA Fisheries and partner agencies and organizations in both the United States and Canada continue to monitor J50 and are exploring options to provide medical treatment, including delivering antibiotics and nutrition. More information on J50 and the status of response efforts can be found on our J50 webpage.” Source: NOAA  Questions and Answers on J50 Emergency Response
(This poll is now closed) – UPDATES on J 50

The Southern Resident killer whales lost another member – there are now only 75 left

The Center for Whale Research has confirmed the absence of 23 year old L92, Crewser. He was in the prime of life.

The remaining Southern Residents have changed their use of the Salish Sea – which includes Puget Sound and extends up to the Georgia Strait in Canada – and may eventually find this region an unsuitable habitat for their needs unless we move swiftly and decisively to restore Chinook salmon populations.
From the Center for Whale Research media release:

On Monday, June 11, more than 50 Southern Resident killer whales returned to inland waters, including J pod, L87, and most but not all of L pod. It has been nearly 2 months since J pod whales and L87 have been seen in local waters, an unusually long break but not unexpected based on trends in the past decade.
In recent years, encounter data and sighting data compiled by the Center for Research show that the Southern Residents have been spending fewer days in inland waters in the April-May time frame.
This trend parallels a decline in the abundance of the Fraser River spring Chinook salmon runs. Based on data from the Albion Test Chinook Test Fishery on the Fraser River, the number of Chinook salmon returning to the Fraser River has been unusually low so far in 2018.

For more details and find out how to help, please see previous article.

The orcas we know and love are finally back – will they stay all summer?

Southern Resident killer whales in search of Chinook salmon might give up and go somewhere else if they don’t find enough to eat.

Star (J46) in 2016 with her mother Polaris (J28) and brother Dipper (J54). Photo credit: Center for Whale Research

In 47 years of observation by the Center for Whale Research (CWR), this is the first year that there were no sightings of any of the Southern Resident orcas in May. Last summer they were barely in the inland waterways around the San Juan Islands in Washington State or the neighboring Gulf Islands in British Columbia, Canada.
The dismal and depressing realization that what CWR senior scientist Ken Balcomb has been warning everyone who would listen has come to pass;  the lack of a dependable source of Chinook salmon means that these whales will starve to extinction or just change their summer feeding strategy entirely and go elsewhere.
But there is hope, and not just for the whales – people are empowering themselves to help fix the salmon crisis. There’s been a shift in the public psyche as people give up on governments that have dragged their feet for decades, and instead ask themselves what they can do to help…then do it.
Case in point – what is missing from this video?

Where are the hordes of boats? Even when more boats accompanied these whales later there was little to no detectable underwater engine noise reported on hydrophones. The Pacific Whale Watch Association has self-imposed voluntary reductions in speed and distance from the whales and spend more time with the other local orcas – the Transients, which are dynamic and interesting orcas in their own light.
While the boats are dedicated to making it easier for the orcas to capture salmon by reducing engine noise, that is only part of the problem. Salmon have been scarce, and lack of food is affecting both birth rates and maternal deaths.
Two thirds of the pregnancies fail, often in the last months of the 17 month gestation.
From the Center for Whale Research:

The females are getting pregnant; however, two thirds to three quarters of the conceptions apparently result in miscarriage, although this statistic may in part be due to a natural predator response to a limiting carrying capacity of prey.
It is the late-term miscarriages that are most risky to the mother’s survival, and we have seen an increase of these mortalities in recent years with necropsies evidencing birth complications and prolapsed uterus as contributing to death.
This grisly observation argues for a year-round versus episodic sufficient supply of suitable prey to feed these large iconic mammals through a pregnancy cycle – an eight thousand pound pregnant female whale requires about 4-5% of her body weight per day (320-400 pounds!) of suitable prey.

In the summer and fall of 2016 researchers and naturalists saw this happen as a dedicated orca mother and her dependent calf slowly died, leaving only her older calf, Star (J46) alive.
When her mother and last brother (a previous brother had been found dead, having barely survived birth) were losing their struggle against hunger and disease, Star did her best. She brought them whatever salmon she could find and supported them until they took their last breaths.
Read this compelling story on the Stranding Network.

Graphic by Haze Summer

It’s clear – if we don’t restore the salmon we’ll lose the whales along with the dependable spring salmon that characterizes life in the Pacific Northwest.

How to help (more suggestions can be found following at the bottom of the page here):

Sign the petition to remove obsolete dams

If the lower Snake River dams were breached, it would double or triple survival rates, restoring many millions of fish to the Columbia Basin.
• Give the orcas a fighting chance to recover by increasing their food supply.
• Breaching costs the state nothing. The first two dams can be breached for the cost of another EIS estimated at $80 million; 5 years to completion

Save Our Wild Salmon

With its historic productivity, low human population, and remaining pockets of large, high, pristine and well protected habitat, the Columbia and Snake River Basin represents our nation’s best opportunity to restore the large numbers of Chinook salmon that endangered, hungry orcas need to survive and recover.

David Suzuki Foundation

The fate of the Salish Sea orcas hangs in the balance.
These 76 orcas — also known as the southern resident killer whales — are Canada’s most endangered marine mammal. Immediate actions are needed to set up refuges, reduce acoustic noise, address pollution and protect chinook salmon, the whales’ primary prey. Climate change and a projected seven-fold increase in tanker traffic from the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion make immediate action more urgent than ever.

The Pacific Salmon Foundation

The Pacific Salmon Foundation was established in 1987 as an independent, nongovernmental, charitable organization to protect, conserve and restore wild Pacific salmon populations in British Columbia and the Yukon. Today, the Foundation galvanizes the breadth of vested stakeholders to support Pacific salmon from stream to estuary to ocean.
The Foundation: 
Raises money and makes grants to volunteer community groups that conserve and restore streams across the province.Manages watershed initiatives in British Columbia that catalyze industry, First Nations, provincial and federal governments, and other non-profits.
Advances science to improve the understanding of factors that limit the abundance of Pacific salmon.
Works with government to prioritize and facilitate strategic salmon conservation in the province.

Two of our urban killer whales have died, including Nigel from L-pod

Nigel (L 95). Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research.
Nigel (L 95). Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research.

20 year old Nigel (L 95) and a two week old female calf were found a week apart in British Columbia, Canada. They both belonged to the Southern Resident Killer Whale clan. The necropsy (animal autopsy) reports are inconclusive at this point.
Nigel was tagged for a NOAA study, you can read about it here. The tag broke off, leaving parts in his dorsal fin (noted in the report below) but researchers found the information gained useful in learning where the Southern Resident orcas spend the winter.
Fisheries and Ocean Canada necropsy report:

A male killer whale was found floating dead near Esperanza Inlet, B.C. on March 30th, 2016. A necropsy was performed on April 1st, 2016, to determine the cause of the animal’s death.
This animal was identified as L95, an approximately 20 year old Southern Resident killer whale, via a scar from a satellite tag deployed on the whale by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in February 2016.
The Southern Resident population is listed as endangered under the Species at Risk Act in Canada.
No clear cause of death was apparent in the initial necropsy. Results include:

  • advanced decomposition,
  • fair to moderate body condition,
  • tag implant site at the base of the dorsal fin. Gross dissection and X-rays of the tag site indicated that the tag petals were left behind when the tag detached, but revealed no apparent localized or tracking inflammation.
  • diffuse peritonitis (inflammation of the membrane that lines the inner abdominal wall and covers the abdominal organs) with pronounced spleen enlargement, and
  • perforation of the caudal abdomen (near the posterior end) and herniated loops of intestine attributed to decomposition and bloat.

DFO can also confirm that the dead killer whale calf found near Sooke, BC on March 23rd, 2016 has been ID’d by the Vancouver Aquarium genetics team as a southern resident.
The female calf was less than 2 weeks of age and had not yet been categorized.
Further analysis will be done to determine which pod the calf belonged to. A necropsy was performed on March 25th, 2016.
The initial/gross necropsy results did not indicate a cause of death, but given the young age of the animal, a birthing complication is suspected.
Analysis of tissue and blood samples is underway for both animals, and results will be provided to DFO in the final necropsy reports in 3-4 weeks.
The results of these necropsies will feed into a growing body of knowledge to assist in assessing the threats to Southern Resident killer whales from a population health perspective. This data allows us to look at trends, pathogens, or other indicators that may affect their life histories.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada would like to acknowledge the efforts and collaboration from the BC Ministry of Agriculture (and in particular, Drs Stephen Raverty and Heindrich Snyman, Veterinary Pathologists who performed the necropsy exams), Vancouver Aquarium staff for their DNA sequencing, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), not to mention numerous dedicated DFO staff and biologists.
For more information on NOAA’s tagging program, please go to: https://www.nwfsc.noaa.gov/research/divisions/cb/ecosystem/marinemammal/satellite_tagging/faq.cfm
For more information on Southern Resident killer whales: http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/species-especes/profiles-profils/killerWhalesouth-PAC-NE-epaulardsud-eng.html

Sixth New Calf for the Endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, the Fifth This Calendar Year!

“Great news!!! A new calf was documented today in J pod! The calf, designated J53, was seen traveling with J17. This is the third calf in J pod this year! More information will be coming soon . . . .” The Center for Whale Research

The Center for Whale Research reports that J50 was born in December (so she is a 2014 calf). J51, J52 and now J53 are all 2015 calves. L121, and L122 are also 2015 calves.


Southern Resident killer whales are the only known resident population to occur in the U.S. Southern residents are comprised of three pods: J, K, and L pods. The Southern Residentsare considered one “stock” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and one “distinct population segment” (therefore, “species”) under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The Southern Resident Killer Whale population is currently estimated at about 80 whales, a decline from its estimated historical level of about 200 during the late 1800s.
Beginning in the late 1960s, the live-capture fishery for oceanarium display removed an estimated 47 whales and caused an immediate decline in Southern Resident numbers. The population fell an estimated 30% to about 67 whales by 1971. By 2003, the population increased to 83 whales. Due to its small population size, we listed this segment of the population as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2005 and designated critical habitat in 2006.
Their range during the spring, summer, and fall includes the inland waterways of Washington state and the transboundary waters between the United States and Canada. Relatively little is known about the winter movements and range of the Southern Resident stock. However, in recent years, they have been regularly spotted as far south as central California during the winter months and as far north as Southeast Alaska, through our Northwest Fisheries Science Center’s satellite tagging work. (NOAA).
More information soon!