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For five decades, the Center for Whale Research (CWR) has been the leading organization studying the Southern Resident killer whales in their critical habitat of the Salish Sea. 
The Center for Whale Research’s scientific studies has created the longest-running data set concerning the Southern Resident orca community, including its population, health, behavior, and social dynamics.

 Our research and regular health assessments of the gravely endangered Southern Residents uniquely qualify us to provide evidence-based direction to elected officials about conservation objectives that will meet the whales’ critical Salish Sea habitat needs.
The Center for Whale Research

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 informs decision-makers and elected officials about the whales’ ecosystem requirements to ensure the future viability of this playful, social, and beloved population of animals. The Center for Whale Research’s unique on-the-water research approach entails recording information through whale encounters that provide essential social, demographic, health, and geographic information. CWR annually offers this information to U.S. and Canadian government agencies for conservation and management purposes.


Finding the Whales

Thanks to a dedicated and mostly volunteer sighting system of whale watch tour operators, researchers, and orca enthusiasts, the Center for Whale Research regularly monitors the location of whales in the region. When the whales frequent their critical habitat in the Salish Sea in the Spring through Fall (May to October), CWR knows their location a high percentage of the time. Depending on the distance the whales are from CWR’s research offices on the west side of San Juan Island, their travel direction, behavior, and the weather, we launch our research vessel for an on-the-water encounter.


Our Research

Time and weather permitting, several hundred photographs, UAV/drone video footage, and numerous data points are recorded during an on-the-water encounter. In the CWR offices, research staff download, sort, and identify the photographs, videos, and information 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, data, and recent aerial video comprises the ORCA SURVEY and Aerial Observation Study projects, which have generated numerous peer-reviewed scientific journal articles. One of our goals is to monitor the Southern Resident orcas through at least the entire lifespan of a generation. We believe this work is essential in ensuring these magnificent creatures’ long-term health, recovery, and conservation.


On the Water

An on-the-water encounter refers to any time Center for Whale Research staff come in contact with killer whales (orcas), either from a CWRs research vessel 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 boat varies, but typically 2-4 people are present. 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 sides. The secondary objectives include


Right-side photo-ID shot of J59 in Boundary Pass during

2024 OS Encounter #16 on February 16

(Photograph by CWR’s Research Director Dr. Michael Weiss).

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

The Center for Whale Research 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 our ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center and online (i.e., CWR website, blogs, and social media) 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. The Center for Whale Research 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 National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) contract 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 tax-deductible, charitable contribution today to support the CWRs essential work to better understand and conserve the beloved Southern Resident orca population.



Your generosity ensures our ongoing efforts to understand and assist the J, K, and L pod families now and for generations to come. Our focus is on their future.

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