Orca Survey is a long-term photo-identification study of the Southern Resident killer whales (orcas) in North America's Pacific Northwest. The study was initiated by Principal Investigator, Kenneth Balcomb, in 1976 (under contract to the National Marine Fisheries Service) to ascertain the population size of the killer whales in the Greater Puget Sound environs of Washington State.
The Early YEARS
In the late 1960’s through the mid-70’s, killer whales (orcas) were captured and put on display in marine parks. Historically, these whales had been considered by many cultures to be vicious and dangerous animals, that humans should avoid. A botched attempt to kill an orca for use as a sculpture model led to the “discovery” that they were most often docile, intelligent, and capable of learning. The popularity of viewing these animals in marine parks, up close and personal, snowballed. As a result, almost overnight, the world’s attitude toward killer whales changed.
During this time, numerous killer whales were captured by humans in the Pacific Northwest; a region where they had been historically abundant. Sadly, many whales died in the process. After a few years of steady increase in captures, the Canadian government decided it was prudent to determine how many killer whales there were in this part of the world. The common perception was that there were thousands. Not long after the completion of the Canadian study, the United States government decided to follow suit. In 1976, Orca Survey was launched as a census to determine the status of the newly defined population: Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW).
Forty-Four Years of Research
For over four decades, the Center for Whale Research (CWR) has conducted an annual photo-identification study of the Southern Resident killer whale population that frequents the inland waters of Washington State and lower British Columbia. These studies have provided unprecedented baseline information about population dynamics and demography, health, social structure, and individual life histories of these killer whales. More is known, in fact, about this population of orcas than about any other group of marine mammals in the world.
There were several things discovered in those early years that have since influenced not just killer whale (orca) research around the world, but many fields of marine mammalogy. The most important discovery was that killer whales could be identified individually based on a whitish-grey patch on their back called a saddle patch. The saddle patch along with different shaped dorsal fins (often displaying nicks) identified each killer whale as unique, much like the human face. It quickly became apparent as a result of individual whale identification that there were far fewer animals than previously thought, and that they tended to travel in predictable groupings. CWR scientists helped pioneer this technique of individual cetacean photo-identification; it is now considered a standard method for research on free-swimming cetaceans worldwide. Identification of individual whales also led to the discovery of different types of killer whales which appear to be dissimilar in diet, behavior and social structure. These early studies drove the United States government to put a stop to the capture of killer whales.
An Endangered Population
The detailed information about the orca population status and trends derived from the Center for Whale Research’s long-term studies have been used to support population management decisions in both Canada and the United States. In 2001, the Southern Resident killer whales became listed as endangered in Canada under the Species At Risk Act (SARA) and, in 2005, the SRKW population received the same designation in the United States under the federal Endangered Species Act. Although the Southern Resident killer whale population was never likely large, it has declined to a point where it is in grave danger of survival. Threats to SRKW survival, including a decline in food abundance (Chinook salmon), pollution, and other environmental stressors, are likely causes of the orcas’ diminishing status.