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Since 1976 the Center for Whale Research (CWR) has been the leading organization studying the Southern Resident killer whales in their critical habitat: the Salish Sea. 

Since 1976 the Center for Whale Research (CWR) has been the leading organization studying the Southern Resident killer whales in their critical habitat: the Salish Sea. CWR performs health assessments to ensure the viability of the whale population, informing elected officials of their ecosystem needs, and sharing the whales’ story with the world. Our 48 years of research has created the only long-term data set about the behavior, health, and social dynamics of the Southern Resident killer whales.

What we do at CWR

The Center for Whale Research is the leading voice for the gravely endangered Southern Resident killer whales (orcas), having generated over four decades of scientific research and health assessments. This work has been used to inform decision-makers and elected officials about the whales' ecosystem requirements to ensure the future viability of this playful, social, and beloved population of animals. CWR's unique on-the-water research approach entails recording information through whale encounters that provide essential social, demographic, health, and geographic information. CWR offers this information to U.S. and Canadian government agencies annually for conservation and management purposes.


Finding the Whales

Thanks to a dedicated, and mostly volunteer, sighting system made up of whale watch tour operators, researchers, and killer whale enthusiasts, CWR can monitor the location of whales in the region on a day-to-day, year-round basis. When the whales frequent their critical habitat in the Salish Sea in the spring through fall (May to October), CWR knows their location 99% of the time. Taking into account several factors, such as the distance of the whales from CWR's offices on the west side of San Juan Island, the whales' travel direction, their behavior, and, of course, weather, we will launch one of our research vessels for an on-the-water encounter.


Orca Survey

Depending on the duration of an on-the-water encounter, several hundred photographs or data points are taken. Back in the CWR offices, the photographs are downloaded, identified, and sorted into a massive database. The information recorded in each encounter provides valuable social, health, demographic, and geographic information. CWR's unprecedented long-term collection of photographs and data comprises the Orca Survey project, and it has generated numerous peer-reviewed journal articles. CWR's goal is to monitor the Southern Resident orcas through the entire lifespan of a generation. We believe that this work is essential in ensuring the long-term health, recovery, and conservation of these magnificent creatures.


On the Water

An on-the-water encounter refers to any time we come in contact with killer whales (orcas), either from one of CWR's research boats or while on land, where at least one individual whale is identified and photographed. The number of CWR staff and volunteers on board a research vessel varies, but typically 2-4 people are present on an encounter. Once we come into contact with whales (i.e., close enough to identify individuals by sight), an encounter has begun. During the encounter, the primary goal is to photograph all individual whales present from the left and right side. The secondary objectives include capturing catalog-quality ID photographs of as many individuals as possible and assessing the health of each whale. The tertiary goal is to collect prey samples or scat for analysis. Additionally, we record several parameters such as GPS locations, behavior, travel direction and speed, social groupings, feeding events, and environmental conditions.


Education, Outreach, and Collaboration

CWR devotes significant time to cataloging photos, entering data, writing reports and peer-reviewed journal articles, creating ID guides, and sharing information with the public through social media (i.e., CWR website, blog and Facebook page) and at numerous educational events. We collaborate with many partners including NOAA, WA Department of Fish & Wildlife, UC Davis' SeaDoc Society, tribal governments, the University of Washington, Exeter University (England), Orca Network, The Whale Museum, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. CWR is a non-profit [IRS 501(c)(3)] corporation, and thus all contributions are tax-deductible to the full extent allowed by law. 

Our Funding

Currently, and since 2007, the Center for Whale Research has been under contract to National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to conduct the Orca Survey project, as well as monitor the Southern Resident killer whales. NMFS uses this information to make informed management decisions, as well as to support other research. As government funding continues to shrink, we depend more and more on the public for support. Please consider making a charitable contribution today to support the CWR's essential work that ensures the viability and conservation of this beloved population of orcas.

Learn about the ways you can help CWR reach its goal of 100 years of killer whale studies and conservation.
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