top of page


Orca ID Banner_L25.jpg
L pod matriarch, L25, has significantly different saddle patch shapes making her relatively easy to identify. 
Orcas (killer whales) can be identified individually by their natural markings and differences in fin shape.

Unique markings and dorsal fin shape allow Center for Whale Research staff to identify individual orcas by sight.

Canadian Dr. Michael Bigg pioneered the photo-identification technique to document free-swimming whales’ population size and structure.

How are killer whales identified?

Like many other cetacean species, orcas (killer whales) can be identified individually by their natural markings and differences in fin shape.


Orcas have a prominent dorsal fin that varies in shape and size, often with distinctive nicks, indentations, and scars varying in shape and location. The whitish-grey pigmentation on their back—their saddle patchalso varies from individual to individual in shape (pigmentation pattern), size, color, scratches, and scarring.


Like a human fingerprint, each saddle patch is different, and these differences help us tell the whales apart. Individual identification of the Southern Resident orca community allows us to maintain a precise annual population census, where every individual is known and counted.

Screen Shot 2022-01-21 at 11.55.24 AM.png

ABOVE: Female, L77, left-side ID photograph from September 6, 2021 (Encounter #65);

BELOW: Male, T128, left-side ID photograph from May 30, 2021 (Encounter #30).

Screen Shot 2022-01-21 at 11.55.42 AM.png
Screenshot 2024-03-22 at 2.01.29 PM.png

 K Pod’s matrilines and alpha-numeric designations in 2023.

Mike Bigg VIDEO.png
  • Youtube
Orcas' alpha-numeric designation

Orcas receive an alpha-numeric designation based on the letter of the pod they belong to and the order in which they were first identified.

In the 1970s, Canadian Dr. Michael Bigg pioneered the photo-identification technique to document free-swimming whales’ population size and structure. Dr. Bigg proposed using detailed photographs to obtain a more accurate account of killer whale populations, maintaining that virtually all individual orcas could be known. He suffered ridicule in parts of the scientific community for claiming that all individual orcas could be known.


Members of his research team took close-up photographs of the whales’ dorsal fins and saddle patches. Dr. Bigg contended that these two features of orcas were as distinctive as human fingerprints. He acquired a young male in 1973 from a capture in Pedder Bay, British Columbia, to prove his technique. This orca, K1, was radio-tagged, and two nicks were carved from the rear edge of his dorsal fin. Dr. Bigg wanted to prove that injuries involving tissue loss are permanent. K1 was seen and photographed regularly, nicks unchanged, until 1997, when he died.


Dr. Bigg began assigning identities to the killer whales using a two-part system. Each pod was given a letter designation starting with the letter A, then B, etc. Within these pods, individual whales were allocated a number.  Canadian researchers Graeme Ellis and John Ford, and CWR’s Ken Balcomb, continued Bigg’s work monitoring killer whales in the Salish Sea after Dr. Bigg passed away in 1990.

Alpha-numeric Designation
Dorsal fin and saddle patch change during an orca’s life

It is vital to photograph the orcas annually during their first few years of life

COMPARE J2/Granny’s dorsal fin in 1976 and 2011. The Southern Resident’s most revered female died in 2016.

1 J2R 20110622AVG_SJ1-073.jpg


An orcas dorsal fin can change dramatically over time. The shape and size alter as the whale grows, particularly in males, where dorsal fin height can be as much as ten times its measurement at birth. During its lifetime, a whales dorsal fin also sustains tears, nicks, scratches, and rake marks. Saddle patches acquire scars from teeth rakes and other natural causes.


It is crucial to photograph the orcas annually during their first few years of life because dorsal fin and saddle patches change quickly (from relatively non­descript to distinctively marked). These changes need to be cataloged regularly.

1 L72_19870713KBBHP04-09_P.jpg


Southern Resident orcas, L72, in 1987 and 2021.

1 L72R_20210915DKE_SJ1-0656_edited.jpg
Changing Fins & Saddles
Camera Equipment

ABOVE: Ken Balcomb takes orca ID photographs using a DSLR and 200 mm lens from a CWR research vessel. 

BELOW: Balcomb talks about changes in photographic technology. The still image of six Southern Resident orcas was taken during CWR's FIRST Encounter in April 1976

Camera equipment also changes with time

“Right now, we can take 3,000 digital pictures of very high resolution on one little bitty [memory] card. In fact, it’s about as big as your pinkie fingernail.”

In the accompanying 4 1/2 minute video, CWR Founder and Senior Scientist Ken Balcomb talks about the considerable changes in camera equipment during his lifetime of taking pictures and 50+ years of photographing whales. Here is an excerpt from the video:


"We shot about 17,000 pictures in the first year [of ORCA SUVEY] in this fashion and processed film at night when we’d come back, hang it up in the basement to dry, and trim it in the morning. The whales would go, and we run out to shoot more film, then we’d come back and finish trimming. Then we put them on the light table and look at the negatives, and we could learn to identify the individuals from the negative. And then we'd print out the ones that were useful for a catalog or for showing other people: 'Hey, there’s a nice picture of a whale.'


. . . I think some of our Earthwatch years—mid-1987 to just before digital—sometimes upwards of 70,000-80,000 pictures a year. Now with digital, I hate to estimate; I’d have to look at how many terabytes it takes. My guess is that it’s 200,000-300,000 photographs. That’s a lot of pictures to look at."

Getting to Know Us

CWR's Dave Ellifrit, the "fin guy"

He can ID on sight almost every orca in the Pacific Northwest.

ORCA SURVEY Lead, Dave Ellifrit, has been with the Center for Whale Research since 1990. He is responsible for curating the orca (killer whale) photographic ID library and associated database. He can ID on sight almost every orca in the Pacific Northwest; hence, his nickname: “the fin guy.”


Some people think Dave has a photographic memory; he doesn’t. However, he has a remarkable ability to learn and has spent an inordinate amount of time mastering identifying orcas by their distinctive look. 

In Episode 2 of The Salish Sea School’s “Students and a Scientist” lecture series, WANT TO STUDY ORCAS IN THE WILD? Dave was asked, among other questions:

  • “What led you to the special work you are now doing?”

  • “What does a normal day in the field look like for you?”

  • “What is your favorite part of the job?”

  • “What is your least favorite part of the job?”

Dave at Computer.png

ABOVE: Dave Ellifrit busy working on the Orca Survey ID

database in the Centre for Whale Research office. 


Dave Ellifrit_Salish Sea School.png
  • YouTube
Can I learn to ID individual whales?

It takes lots of experience and requires shooting and studying lots of photographs to learn to identity orcas individually . . . but a few tricks of the trade will help speed up the process.


Since Pacific Northwest orcas (Resident and Bigg’s) generally travel in matrilineal family groups (i.e., pods/mothers with offspring), individuals are identified in the wild by first looking for the most distinctive whale in the group. This orca might be an adult male, mature female, or juvenile with a noticeable nick in its dorsal fin or a distinct shape to its saddle patch.


​Using one of CWR’s ID Guides (i.e., Orca Survey SRKW ID GUIDE or Bigg’s Transient ID GUIDE, FREE DOWNLOAD for CWR Members), look for the sub pod to which this orca belongs. You have now established a starting point for identifying the rest of the whales in the group.


Center for Whale Research field staff identify individuals using many features besides dorsal fin shape, nicks and saddle patch markings. They also look at relative body size, the pigmentation pattern of the saddle patch and eye patch, scars, deformities, detail of tail fluke edges, encrustations, blemishes, and rake marks. 


CWR researchers photograph orcas as they surface to breathe, exposing their head and back (including their dorsal fin and saddle patch). A close studying of the photographs on a large computer screen allows the researchers to see subtle differences in whales’ body appearance. Pictures of orca behaviors (e.g., breaching, tail lobbing, etc.) can reveal an animal’s unique physical traits.

It takes a lot of experience to learn to identity orcas individually, but there are some simple tricks of the trade.

Ellifrit & Weiss on CWR vessel.png

CWR’s ORCA SURVEY Lead Dave Ellifrit, “the fin guy” (LEFT), and Research Director, Dr. Michael Weiss, take orca ID shots of Bigg’s orca, T175, from CWR’s research vessel.

CWR’s updated 2023 Orca Survey SRKW ID GUIDE is available to CWR Members as a FREE PDF download.

Sample page below.

Orca Survey SRKW ID guide
Screenshot 2023-10-27 at 8.22_edited.png
Screenshot 2023-10-27 at 8.23_edited.png
Can I ID whales?
The "fin guy"
bottom of page