Take a closer look at our resident orcas
What is a resident orca? Resident orcas are fish eaters – consuming up to 400 pounds of fish per day! Here in the Pacific Northwest, the resident orcas are salmon specialists, with about 80% of their diet being Chinook salmon. Chinook is believed to be favored for its high fat and calorie content. Resident orcas may also eat bottom fish and other salmon species.
The resident orcas that visit the waters surrounding San Juan Island are known as the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SWKW) and are comprised of three different pods (J, K, and L) containing 84 individuals as of fall 2015. The Northern Resident Killer Whales are located further north in the Strain of Georgia and comprise A-I groups containing about 230 whales total.
Following the salmon
The Southern Resident Orcas visit the San Juan Islands almost every day in the summer months, but are seldom spotted during the winter months. SRKW distribution relies entirely on where the salmon are. Salmon are born in rivers and then spend several years growing large in the open ocean. After a few years, the salmon return to the very stream they were born in to spawn.
Salmon migrations typically happen during the summer months. The SRKW mainly feed on a Chinook salmon run that passes San Juan on its way to the Fraiser River in Canada from June through September. A large, deep canyon on the west side of San Juan Island is perfect for foraging salmon, which is why orcas are often encountered in this area.
During the winter months the SRKW have been seen as far south as Monterey Bay, California, and along the west coast of Vancouver Island. J Pod most frequently visits the Salish Sea throughout the year, while L Pod seems to prefer the outer coast of Oregon and Washington during the winter. Very little is known about K Pod’s travel patterns, as they are seen the least of any pod throughout the year.
These pods are made up of family groups that will travel together for their entire lives. As a matriarchal society, offspring spend their wholes lives with their mothers, creating strong family bonds. Within a pod there are aunts, uncles, grandmas, sons and daughters who make up the family groups.
Whales typically only leave their designated pod for mating purposes or social play. Often all three pods will meet and travel together in what is known as a “superpod.” Each pod has its own dialect of clicks, whistles and squeals, much like accents in humans.
Identifying the orcas
Until the mid-70s not much was known about the orcas that inhabited the Salish Sea. In 1976, Ken Balcomb, Michael Bigg and Graeme Ellis started making identification photo cards to start cataloguing the orcas in the Salish Sea. They found there are actually several different types: Southern and Northern Resident Orcas, transient orcas (or Bigg’s killer whales), and, sometimes, even offshore orcas.
Using the saddle-patch, a unique marking directly behind the dorsal fin, the orcas in the area were slowly catalogued, using an alpha-numeric system, with photo IDs. For example, the first whale identified in J Pod is J1, then J2, J3 and so forth. The resident orcas are also given familiar names with the most famous orca being J2, Granny, who is estimated to be 104 years old! The transients are given the letter T then a number and another letter a, b, or c, to describe offspring.
The Southern Resident Orcas are the most prevalently seen orcas around San Juan Island, and have been continually studied since 1976. All of the work leading to orca identification culminated in the now well-known Center for Whale Research, based on the west side of San Juan Island. The Center for Whale Research is dedicated to censusing, identifying and conserving the Southern Resident Killer Whales.
Still hope for this endangered species
In 2005, the Southern Resident Killer Whales were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the United States. During the 1960s and ‘70s, many animals were taken for aquariums. Along with the added decline in salmon populations and toxins in the food chain, SRKW have been unable to recover their historic numbers. With 6 new babies in 2014 and 2015, and continued recovery efforts, there is still hope.
How can you help? Always make sure to buy wild and sustainably caught fish, reduce your carbon footprint, and volunteer/donate to groups like Save our Wild Salmon, Long Live the Kings, and The Center for Whale Research.
San Juan Safaris dedicates itself to respectful wildlife viewing and teaching guests about the Southern Resident Killer Whales so that every person that joins us becomes an advocate for the orcas and the Salish Sea.