About 20 years ago, my fascination with whales and dolphins began. Traveling around the world to see these majestic mammals in their natural environment has played an important role in my life ever since. Hector’s dolphins in New Zealand, humpback whales in Australia and the United States, Southern Right whales in South Africa, a blue whale in the Azores – every encounter is special. One place, however, had captured my heart many years ago and I was very excited when I finally had the chance to go there: Lime Kiln State Park on San Juan Island in Washington State, USA. Also called “Whale Watch Park”, this spot on the west side of San Juan Island is a whale watcher’s paradise. In the summer, the members of the Southern Resident orca community, who are in the focus of our campaign “Don’t let Orcas be Dammed” regularly swim past the lighthouse, much to the delight of the whale watchers who gather on the rocks, waiting for exactly this to happen.
Last year in August, I was one of them, and I can still remember the excitement when I was told that orcas were on their way to pass this special place. It was a foggy day, so that the first thing I remember was not seeing the orcas, but hearing them! “Woooooooooooooosh,” I could hear their breaths, one of the most beautiful sounds on earth, if you ask an “orcaholic”. No less than 13 orcas swam past the lighthouse at a respectful distance. They were members of J-Pod, including the famous Granny (J2), estimated to be over 100 years old.
Of course I was asking myself: “How could these people know the orcas were on their way to Lime Kiln?” And this was only one of the many questions I asked my fellow whale watchers, who obviously had been here before, on this exciting evening. I was told that there was a hydrophone network where orca calls are picked up in different locations, as well as a sightings network where whale watch boats update each other and the Visitor Centre and lighthouse at the park.
During my week on San Juan Island, I was very spoiled with sightings. I saw orcas every single day and also learned some amazing and compelling stories about individual members of this endangered population.
Due to the long-term research done by the Center for Whale Research the endangered population of the Southern Resident orcas is one of the best studied cetacean populations in the world. Every single orca in the community, which is divided into three pods (J, K and L Pod), is known to researchers. I was quite fascinated by some family stories I heard and would like to introduce you to some individuals of the population in this blog.
Granny is the matriarch of J-Pod and it is estimated that she was born around 1911. When the annual census of the Southern Resident community began in the early 70’s, Granny was already a full grown adult. As researchers discovered the social structure of orcas and learned that they stay in family groups, led by their mothers, for their entire lives, they suspected Granny was the mother of another full grown orca – Ruffles (J1). Based on his age and the fact that she hasn’t been seen with a new baby in 40 years of research, Granny was likely around 60 when the study began, putting her over 100 years old today.
Hy’Shqa (J37) and T’ilem I’nges (J49)
Little T’ilem I’nges was born in 2012. Until December 2014, he was the only surviving baby in the community. His name means “singing grandchild” and he is the first offspring of 14-year-old Hy’Squa, whose name means “blessing” or “thank you.” They were both named in a traditional ceremony by the Samish Indian Nation in 2013.
The J16s are Slick (J16), her son Mike (J26), her daughters Alki (J36) and Echo (J42) and, since December 2014, little J50, Slick’s youngest daughter. At first there were doubts if Slick was the mother, as she is estimated to be 43 years old. But according to the Center for Whale Research, these doubts “are about gone” and Slick is now the oldest documented mother in the history of more than 40 years of research.
Surprise! (L86) and Sooke (L112)
On February 11, 2012, a young female orca was found dead on a beach in Washington State. She was identified as L112, also known as Sooke or Victoria. She was the second offspring of Surprise!, L86, and her death was caused by severe acoustic trauma.
In September 2014, Surprise! was sighted with another calf. Unfortunately little L120 only survived a few weeks before he/she was not seen with their mother again. A tragic loss for the mother, the family group and the whole population.
Onyx has a very fascinating life story. As his ID reveals, he was born into L-Pod in 1992. But his mother, Olympia (L32), died in 2005. After her death, Onyx was seen with K-Pod for a couple of years and now travels with J-Pod since 2010. So sightings reports these days often say “J-Pod and L87”. This is not the first documented case of orcas adopting orphaned youngsters, but this usually happens within the same pod / family group.
Ocean Sun (L25)
Ocean Sun, another matriarch of the Southern Residents at an estimated 87 years old, is believed to be the mother of Tokitae, who was captured on August 8, 1970, in the infamous Penn Cove captures. Tokitae has performed under the name “Lolita” in the Miami Seaquarium for people’s entertainment since September 1970. A detailed rehabilitation plan for bringing her back to her home waters has been set up, but so far there hasn’t been any support from the industry to give Tokitae her well-deserved freedom. One step could be her inclusion in the Southern Residents’ Endangered Species Listing, recently announced by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
These individuals and their family groups highly depend on Chinook salmon as their main food source. But stocks have been declining, in large part due to dams blocking the way to the spawning grounds the salmon used for many generations. Removing those dams could be a chance for the rivers to recover, the salmon stocks to grow, and the endangered orcas to have enough to eat. Please support our campaign “Don’t Let Orcas be Dammed” and join us in thanking PacifiCorp for their cooperation in the effort of removing four of their dams. We will also submit your signatures to the Congress to show our support for the new bill introduced for the Klamath River restoration.
The Southern Residents are a very unqiue community made up of individuals with their own personalities and stories.
Do you have a special connection to a particular Southern Resident, or another whale or dolphin? Share your story in the comments below!