Earlier this year, it was announced that a new Southern Resident killer whale had been born last December! Lucky, as it had been nicknamed, is a part of the L pod and a few months after it was born, another southern resident was born to the J pod. For a short time, there were 76 Southern Resident Killer Whales but in the last couple of weeks, three older orcas have been missing and presumed dead, bringing the population back down to 73. So even with the two new orca babies, the population of the southern residents is still at a 30 year low.
There are three pods (or families) of Southern Resident Killer Whales: the J pod, K pod, and L pod. These pods share the Salish Sea with Bigg’s Orcas (also known as transient orcas) for part of the year but there are a few differences between resident and transient orcas. For one, residents primarily eat Chinook salmon while transients tend to eat marine mammals like harbor seals, sea lions, a couple types of porpoises, and more. Additionally, resident orcas are tightly bonded to their pods/families and tend to travel in larger groups than the transients.
To the trained eye, it can be easy to identify whether an orca is a transient or resident (and what pod the resident might belong to) but there are some general physical differences that amateur whale watchers might be able to see. The easiest is the dorsal fin, as there are some differences between transients and residents. Transient orcas have a sharply pointed tip on their dorsal fin while residents tend to have a more rounded tip on theirs. Additionally, transients tend to be longer and heavier than residents but that can be difficult to notice from afar.
Southern Resident Killer Whales are an important part of the Salish Sea ecosystem and for Coast Salish peoples. They are an iconic part of the Northwest, to say the least. While the southern residents spend a significant amount of time in the Salish Sea, the L and K pods have been known to travel to the coast of northern California in the winter while the J pod tends to stay closer to the Salish Sea. All three pods have been spotted as far north as Alaska!
But as their food supply continues to dwindle, southern residents have spent more time away from the Salish Sea. All three pods have been known to spend the summer months in the Salish Sea but they weren’t spotted for more than a month this year. This is incredibly concerning because it’s an indication that the Salish Sea ecosystem is out of balance and humans will soon be affected in similar ways. Raynell Morris, a Lummi Nation elder, has been quoted by a few news organizations about this problem and said:
“If qwe ‘lhol mechen are not spending as much time as usual in the Salish Sea, it’s because they are looking for healthier waters… They’re speaking to us. If we don’t take care of our home, where will we go? What happens to them, happens to us.” (source)
The Lummi Nation is currently located in Whatcom County, Washington and call the southern residents “qwe ‘lhol mechen”, which roughly translates to “our relatives under the water”.
There are many ways we can help the Southern Residents!
- Reduce, reuse, recycle, and upcycle. Reducing the amount of trash we throw away can help limit the amount of pollution that might end up on beaches, the oceans, and other ecosystems.
- Go to or organize a beach clean up. Pollution is a huge issue and has immense effects on all kinds of wildlife, including orcas. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is thousands of miles away from the Salish Sea but plastics and fishing nets still have a great impact on orcas and other animals here.
- Contact your elected officials and support legislation like the Endangered Species Act. Our elected officials from the local, state, and federal level work for the people and have to listen to their constituents. USA.gov has resources on finding out who your elected officials are and there are a few organizations that have resources on what to say to your officials if you don’t know where to start. The AZA, for example, has a Legislative Education Center and the Washington Conservation Society has a way to send a message to Congress about the ESA, which includes a general script.
- Why you should care about changes to the Endangered Species Act—and what you can do to help the animals by Macie Lavoie, HelloGiggles
- Hold corporations accountable and fight against actions that threaten the orcas and their home. According to The Guardian, just 100 corporations produce 71% of global emissions. This means that even with many people making a change, there are larger forces at play.
- Support nonprofits that work on climate change issues, wildlife protection, and ocean clean up. Some nonprofits include: