Documenting Orcas in the San Juans

Summer / 48.5333° N, 123.0833° W / 2014

During our trip to the Pacific northwest a few weeks ago, I was able to work with the Center for Whale Research (CWR) documenting the Southern Resident killer whales, or orcas, returning to their summer feeding grounds around the inland waters of Washington state and southern British Columbia. It was nice to get away from the lab in Florida and spend some time off the Pacific coast.

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The Southern Resident orcas are a large extended family, made up of three pods: J, K, and L pods.  Each spring they begin showing up in the calm inshore waters surrounding the San Juan Islands to feed on the runs of Chinook (King) salmon from the local rivers. With news of their return, biologists with the CWR and I headed out to photograph and film their arrival to account for any new (calves) or missing (presumed dead) members of the pod. Photographs and video are very helpful in showing us whether individuals have signs of emaciation (sickness or starvation), and can even allow us to note possible pregnancies.


There are currently less than 90 Southern Resident orcas left in the wild. The population was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act due to low population numbers in 2005 (and Canada in 2001). In the early 1980s marine parks captures devastated the population by taking more than 1/3 of the animals for entertainment purposes (the popular documentary Blackfish goes more in depth about this). Recovery of the Southern Residents has been slow ever since, making the CWR’s work even more critical than before. 

We had a great time at the CWR. Having first studied this population when I was an undergrad, seeing the resident orcas again is like visiting old friends.
*all photos and video were taken by me or staff at the CWR under a federal research permit.