Photo by David Ellifrit, NOAA Fisheries Service
DID YOU KNOW?
That Orcas (often referred to as Killer Whales) are actually dolphins!
Powerful as they are, orcas have a special place in several Pacific Northwest cultures as guardians of the sea who protect people against sea monsters. Orcas are found in all the oceans of the world, but the best-known populations live in the Pacific Northwest. There are populations that live in deep waters far offshore, some that are transient and sometimes visit the inland waters of Puget Sound, and some that prefer the shallower coastal waters and that we call resident orcas.
The social lives of orcas revolve around their families, known as pods. In their oceanic world, orcas use clicks and whistles to communicate with each other. Each orca pod has its own dialect, a unique set of noises that distinguishes their family from other pods. The Southern Resident Killer Whales, for instance, are grouped into three pods that are named after the letters of the alphabet: J, K, and L.
This is a matriarchal society where the females are known to live up to a century- almost twice as long as the male orcas. Big on family values, orcas also love their grandmothers! Older and wiser, once a female orca is about 50 years old, and can no longer reproduce, she takes charge as the head of the pod. You can now find her swimming at the front of the group followed by her relatives. She helps feed and raise her offspring and their young ones and can pass on her wisdom about where best to hunt and how to survive in these waters. In 2017, J pod lost their Granny (J2), thought to be over 105 years old. Without her around, her family has lost her protection, guidance, and knowledge.
They are top predators as a species, but each group has developed their own taste for unique prey. While transient orcas eat marine mammals like sea lions and porpoises, resident orcas prefer fish, specifically Chinook salmon.
Orcas are very committed family members and have been known to mourn their lost ones too. The public display of grief by Tahlequah (J35), the orca who lost her newborn hours after birth in July 2018 in the Salish Sea, touched the hearts of many. Tahlequah swam thousands of miles across the Pacific Northwest clinging to her lost calf for 17 days. Her family always stayed at her side, supporting her on this journey, through her grief, as any close-knit family would.
Orcas Love Their Grandmas as Much as We Do, Seeker Wild
The iconic Southern Resident Killer Whales are currently listed as endangered by the USFWS and in Canada by the Species at Risk Act.
A lack of proper food, underwater noise pollution, and contaminants in the ocean are major threats to their survival. In recent years, the Southern Resident Killer Whales have been suffering and now only 74 individuals remain. They are the most fragile orca population since they live near the coast where humans live and operate. Their favorite food is Chinook Salmon, populations of which have also been declining and several even listed as threatened or endangered. Without enough Chinook to sustain them, Southern Resident Killer Whales are unable to grow and reproduce successfully.
OUR ALLY FOR PROTECTING
Georgia Strait Alliance
Georgia Strait Alliance is a Canadian non-profit organization dedicated to marine conservation of the Strait of Georgia. Since 1990, it has been using science, advocacy, collaboration, outreach, education and stewardship to find solutions to marine threats, including those facing southern resident killer whales. It is a proud environmental voice for British Columbia’s coastal communities and species-at-risk in the Strait of Georgia.
HOW YOU CAN GET INVOLVED WITH PROTECTING ORCAS
Our allies at Georgia Strait Alliance have suggested actions that can help save southern resident killer whales:
Give them space. Keep at least 200 meters between you and southern resident killer whales—that’s about the size of a football field.
Choose sustainably caught seafood. It is important to support fisheries that have low bycatch rates and that do not physically damage the environment.
Reduce, reuse and recycle. Marine animals can get sick or die from ingesting pollution and trash that ends up in the ocean. You can make a difference by minimizing the waste you produce and keeping garbage out of the ocean.
Use reusable shopping bags. Plastic bags can end up in the ocean, causing detrimental effects on the health of all organisms—from microscopic zooplankton to southern residents. Cloth bags are stronger, last longer, and won’t end up in the mouths of marine life!
Join the Orca Action team! Learn about actions you can take and information about the protection and recovery of the iconic southern resident orca population.
Donate to Georgia Strait Alliance and join them in protecting our unique inland sea.